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The Need to Know Science Better

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When it comes to science literacy, our grades are pretty bad.

nerd1Okay, which of these statements are true?

  • There is a generic “cell,” and that all cells are the same size and shape
  • There is no such thing as a single-cell organism
  • Simple sugars (like glucose) and fatty acids need to be broken down before they are used by cells in the body
  • Air and blood are mixed in the heart

Answer: None. These are just a few examples of science fallacies, from a project by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which evaluated hundreds of student misconceptions of science. At least a third of grade- and high-school students said these facts were true.

The study underscores a chronic problem in American (and European) society; a lack of scientific literacy. A recent study from the universities of Bristol and Cardiff found that science was one of the most difficult-to-understand topics by the average reader (environmental issues, politics, economics and religion topped out the rest of that list).

Unfortunately, these are issues somewhat vital to functioning in complex society. So, what’s the problem? Why is science in particular, so hard to understand?

Some issues may lay in the way science is written. While Greg Benford’s “model” scientific paper was satirical, he underscores an important problem with science knowledge: most papers are poorly written, or at least not written for the lay public to understand.

Another problem is that science issues are largely based on math. Not necessarily integral calculus, but at least an inherent understanding of proportion, ratios, and basic properties of division and multiplication.

A third problem is an integral part of science; there’s a great deal to know, and it’s always changing. While sports, art and fashion aren’t necessarily complex (except for the rules of cricket and American football) and don’t require a body of knowledge, science does. The misconceptions above (and others like them) demonstrate that just a grasp of facts are eluding many of us.

What can we do?

Could journalism be better? Print outlets, which always competed with television and radio, now have digital outlets to contend with. While science stories exist, they’re written for a generic audience. Some experts have suggested that digital news sites could determine what stories interest certain readers, and tailor their offerings accordingly. To borrow a term from internet geeks, a digital site could switching from “pushing” stories on readers, to having the reader “pull” his or her favorites from the site.

Some of the emotion of science that’s lost in publishing or presentation could be restored. Discoveries are exciting, even though they required a lot of attention to detail, long-term focus on analysis, and most likely a frustrating trail of failures. These experiences get lost in the rigid structures of how science is presented; meanwhile, sports, art and entertainment are all about emotions!

In our age of complexity, it’s time we did a better job of “getting it.”

Sources: AAAS,


Flaounas, I., Ali, O., Lansdall-Welfare, T., De Bie, T., Mosdell, N., Lewis, J., & Cristianini, N. (2013). RESEARCH METHODS IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL JOURNALISM Digital Journalism, 1 (1), 102-116 DOI: 10.1080/21670811.2012.714928

is environmental science hard, is computer science hard, is earth science hard

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(2 votes, average: 5.00 out of 5)

  • Excellent post! Everybody needs to have a working understanding of science. One of my pet peeves is the oversimplification of science into “bite-size” pieces. When we do that, we patronize and disrespect the general public. Many excellent scientists have stated that if you cannot explain your science in clear terms, you do not understand your science at all…

    • Thanks OR! I, of course agree! Though, I do understand how many specialists (not just scientists) have been doing something for so long they just take things for granted. Then, they think everybody else understands the fundamentals of what they’re doing as much as they do. But when those fundamentals get called into question….