How Important Is Scientific Literacy?

Since you are asking me, a scientist, I can tell you that I believe science literacy is extremely important, but there are those who will disagree. The United States is indeed a meting pot, not just of cultures, but of ideas and values. Some people value belief and faith far more than reason and science, meaning that the subjective state of personal well-being is more important than accepting a scientific fact that risks decreasing that personal well-being. Of course, being scientifically illiterate can have a negative effect on one's well-being through making poor choices in life or being less in demand in the workforce. What people who hold that view don't consider is the big picture—how their beliefs (or lack of scientific literacy) affect their communities, society, and even humanity. For example, a lack of scientific literacy can result in preventable disease outbreaks in communities through not understanding vaccine safety. A lack of scientific literacy can result in a failure to embrace biotechnology that can keep local farmers in business. A lack of scientific literacy can result in listening to politicians who say that climate change is not a problem rather than listening to the scientists who actually study climate change, which the costs of such illiteracy can be catastrophic.

So what can we do about it?

I think there are perhaps hundreds of small ways that we can encourage scientific literacy such as making science more entertaining, making it a larger part of standard education, warning people of the dangers of scientific illiteracy, call out anti-intellectualism when we see it, and perhaps make Neil Degrasse Tyson President of the United States :) At an individual level, I think that everyone can do something that is unique to his or her talents to promote scientific literacy. For me, it is this show, my online courses, my work as a professor at a local college, the books I write, and the podcasts I host. So I like to change that last question up a bit and turn it around on you... what can you do about it? :)

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