An Interview with China's Science and Technology Daily

Scientific literacy is not about "knowing" science.

Posted Sep 13, 2018

Eyal Winter's interview with Science and Technology Daily in China (translated to English)

Mr. Eyal Winter holds the Andrew and Elizabeth Brunner Chair in Economics at Lancaster University in the UK and the Silverzweig Chair at the Center for the study of Rationality at the Hebrew University. He was awarded the Humboldt Award by the German government in 2011 for his research achievements, and he is the author of “Feeling Smart: Why our Emotions are More Rational Than We think” that appeared in seven languages around the world.

Mao: Professor Winter, what is scientific literacy in your opinion?

Winter: The formal definition of scientific literacy as proposed by the OECD is “the ability to engage with science-related issues” but this definition is somewhat deceptive, as the main benefit of scientific literacy has little to do with science and much more to do with our daily processing of information in contexts such as economics, politics and social interactions.

Pexel/Pexel
Sicentific Literacy
Source: Pexel/Pexel

Many believe scientific literacy  to be about knowing scientific facts, such as the speed of light and the meaning of each letter in Einstein’s famous equation E = mc2 . This is wrong.  Scientific literacy is about skills not about knowledge. It is about the ability to distinguish between evidence and myth, between a logical argument and a baseless claim, between a sincere source of information and a manipulative one.

Our psychology tends to drive us away from scientific thinking because it is more intellectually demanding and it requires more effort. If we, for example, hear on the news that a bridge has collapsed in Italy, we immediately tend to believe that Italy is a dangerous country to visit. Some would actually cancel their vacation in Italy in response to such news, ignoring the fact that it is a one-case incident, that says nothing about the true risk. People who lack scientific literacy interpret information wrongly. They typically tend to over-generalize, and hence are bound to make wrong decisions.  

A startling example for such individuals are those who follow the recommendations of various anti-vaccination groups who created a myth against vaccination with no hard evidence whatsoever.

But scientific literacy can help us also in other territories of life and prominently also in managing our financial affairs and even our love life.

Mao: Really? How can scientific literacy help us manage our love life?

Winter: Our psychology tends to make us store information in a selective manner even in areas such as our romantic life.  For example, we tend to ignore information that contradicts our prior beliefs. If we start a relationship with a huge optimism, we are bound to ignore alarming signals that might suggest that it is unlikely to work. Likewise, if we have low expectations from a new relationship we are likely to ignore information that suggests that our date might be our perfect match. This might lead us to put an end to a relationship too early or remain within a relationship that has little prospect to thrive.

People with high scientific literacy are likely to be more protected against these biases, than those who are scientific illiterate. Hence they are likely to reach better decisions in managing their relationships.

Mao: How should governments, and organizations promote scientific literacy?

Winter: I think that the most important thing is to move away from teaching sciences to teaching scientific thinking, i.e., moving away from programs that emphasize scientific facts to programs that allow kids to acquire scientific skills. 

I think teaching formal logic would help a lot in developing such skills. Normally, it is taught only to university students in philosophy or math but we in Israel studied formal logic in the first year in high-school, and we loved it! I believe people who take such courses would have better skills in distinguishing between arguments that are reasonable, and those that make little sense.

Statistical skills are also very important to teach at a relatively young age, as they give us the basic skill for aggregating information and deriving conclusions. 

But in order to really promote scientific literacy, universities need to reach out to the general public. The University of Lancaster in the UK (named University of the Year by The Times University Guide 2018.) where I teach does a lot in this direction. It runs an annual event called “the Gown in Town” (referring to the British traditional academic dress). This event exposes the general-public to the scientific work produced at the university through public lectures and through demonstrations of laboratory experiments. For 12 years now the university also dedicate one “open day” every year for school children to visit the university and interact with researchers.  We academics around the world are not only responsible for promoting scientific research but also for promoting scientific literacy. The latter cannot be achieved by locking ourselves within our own Ivory tower. We need to reach out to the general public.

Mao: Is there a place for a global cooperation in the area of scientific literacy?

Winter: Absolutely. Promoting scientific literacy requires innovation, which in turn requires a large-scale investment and effort by many countries. The benefits of scientific literacy are global because eventually they turn into scientific and technological discoveries that serve the entire humankind, whether they come in a form of a treatment to a disease, that was previously incurable, or in the form of a technology that makes our life easier.  

Scientific progress defies borders and so should also scientific literacy. I am not very eager about the various scientific Olympiads that take place every 4 years at various places around the world, as they only serve a small elite of blessed children. I would much prefer a worldwide competition where young individuals regardless of background present their innovative ideas on how to promote scientific literacy for all. 

The link to the Chinese article.