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Scientific Literacy

The United Nations agency UNESCO has defined literacy as an individual's ability to "read and write a short simple statement relevant to his everyday life." Scientific literacy does not imply that a person must be learned in matters of science, but it does not suffice that a person be able to read and write. It rather means functional literacy, the ability to comprehend what is read or written to an extent sufficient to perform adequately in society, whether to communicate with individuals, to further one's own economic or other interests, or to participate in the democratic way of life. Scientific literacy implies the ability to respond in a meaningful way to the technical issues that pervade our daily lives and the world of political action.

Scientific literacy does not require knowing the definition of angular momentum or that the expression of DNA is mediated by transfer–RNA molecules. But a scientifically literate person would know that astrology is not science and that children are not born with stronger muscles just because their parents exercise in the gym. Scientific literacy implies that whether or not a person endorses a program for water fluoridation or for building a nuclear power plant is based on some understanding of the issues at hand, rather than on prejudice (that all tampering with natural resources is harmful or unambiguously beneficial) or ignorance that decisions involve trade–offs, as might exist between a nuclear and a coal–fueled plant.

Two increasing demands of modern nations establish the universal need for scientific literacy. First is the need for a technically trained labor force. Second is the requirement that citizens at large pass judgment on the promises and actions of their governments and on the claims of advertisers of consumer goods.

The productive sector of the economy of any industrial nation demands a scientifically literate labor force. Scientific and engineering breakthroughs are the basis of industrial productivity. But economic and industrial development more immediately come from the adaptation of scientific ideas: new materials and manufacturing processes, quality control, advances in productivity and the performance of workers, and consumer appeal and marketing. The successful implementation of scientific and engineering innovations requires cadres of educated workers skilled in the management of machinery, computers, control centers, quantitative information and materials.

The need for scientific literacy extends beyond industry to other sectors such as agriculture. The recent greatly increased agricultural productivity in the United States and other countries is largely attributable to the introduction and application of modern farming practices and the use of machinery that requires skilled operators.

Scientific literacy is also required for informed public involvement in the political and public life of a nation. Whether or not a highway system will be developed, and if so, where and how; how to protect and improve the water supply and air quality; the exploitation of mineral or marine resources; the preservation and commercial use of forests, rivers and coasts—these are among the numerous political decisions that call for the participation of the body politic.

A participatory democracy will not be consummated if the import of the technical premises of political decisions with great economic consequence, and which affect the present and future welfare of a nation, can be understood only by a small fraction of the population. A public that has no inkling of the technical issues at stake exposes the democratic process to exploitation by special interests and demagogues, and even to fraud of the kind that masks pseudoscience, such as astrology or parapsychology, with the cloak of science.



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