Delusions of Scientific Literacy

Science is reasoned analysis of — and theorizing about — empirical data. A scientific conclusion cannot be recognized as such unless one understands the science.

It might be imagined that one can recognize a conclusion as scientific without understanding the science, by recognizing the scientists as such. But the popular formula that science is what scientists do is vacuous when taken literally, and wrong in its usual interpretation. Someone can can have an institutional certification as having been trained to be a scientist, and have a paid position ostensibly as a scientist, and yet not be a scientist; for those who actually understand some scientific area, it is fairly easy to find historical examples or perhaps present cases.[1] To recognize a scientist as such one must recognize what he or she does as science, not the other way around.

Even if it is in some contexts reasonable to accept conclusions from such persons on the basis of their social standing, it is not scientific literacy to accept conclusions on that basis; it is simply trust in the social order.

The full understanding of a scientific expert isn't always necessary to have a scientific understanding of the reasoning behind some of the broad conclusions of a scientific discipline. But in some cases of present controversy with significant policy implications, the dispute over the relevant conclusions turns upon issues of applied mathematics, and perhaps other things such as thermodynamics. No one can be scientifically literate in the areas of controversy without understanding that mathematics and so forth.

In many of the disputations amongst lay-persons over these issues, I observe people in at least one group who assert themselves to be scientifically literate, when they are no such thing, and to accept science, when they are not positioned to know whether what they are accepting is science. These are actually people who simply trust some part of the social order — typically, those state-funded institutions that declare themselves to engage in scientific research.


[1] It is certainly easy to find what lay-persons will acknowledge as examples. However, some of these ostensible examples are actually spurious.

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