Posted by: Dan | October 2, 2007

Science Literacy, Discourse, and Evidence-Based Approaches to the World

10 days ago, SEED magazine posted the winning essay from the second annual SEED writing contest, which answered the question “What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st Century?”

This question goes far beyond simply the practice of science, and impacts every aspect of our society. Science literacy is, at its core, an empirical or evidence-based way of looking at the world, where results matter more than ideology. Thomas Martin writes:

The goal of science is to find those ideas that can withstand the long and hard barrage of evidence-based argument. That lesson must be experienced anew by the members of each generation, irrespective of their careers. Mastery of scientific concepts and theories is a necessary starting point, but it serves only as a prerequisite to joining the never-ending dialogue. Students must learn first-hand how to both imaginatively create new hypotheses and to dispassionately critique them. Many commentators have rightly implored us to make certain that young people encounter the “thrill” of discovery. While this is undeniably desirable, it is arguably even more crucial that they experience the agony (if only on a modest scale) of having a pet hypothesis demolished by facts.

Several current presidential candidates have insisted that they oppose the scientific account of earth’s natural history as a matter of principle. In the present cultural climate, altering one’s beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness. Students must be convinced that changing one’s mind in light of the evidence is not weakness: Changing one’s mind is the essence of intellectual growth. By forcing students into evidence-based debates with one another, this mode of interaction, like any other, can become habitual. After being consistently challenged by their peers, most students eventually see that attempts to free themselves from facts are a hollow, and fundamentally precarious, form of “freedom.”

I’m sure it’s obvious why I tagged this post as ‘science’ and ‘education,’ but I think that this is an example of ‘humanism’ as well. Unlike Christianity or many other religions, it is a reality-based worldview; a worldview predicated much more on practical issues than any ideological outlook that I’ve heard of. Humanism also strikes me as a courageous intellectual stance, in which one tries to constantly resist the tendency to not question his or her own views by reviewing available evidence and uncovering new evidence.

And what strikes me as odd is that so very few people of the world understand what this empirical way of understanding the world really means. They cling to their religions and superstitions, thinking that empiricism is a “belief,” as though their theistic views were equivalent in any way. Santa Claus and science are not equivalent.

It is no coincidence that secular humanists appear to primarily come from the sciences.


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