Can a person be scientifically literate without accepting the concepts of evolution and the big bang? To many scientists and educators, the answer to that question is an unqualified “no.” But the National Science Board–the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF)–isn’t sure that rejecting evolution for religious reasons automatically undermines a person’s scientific literacy.

yes it does

The paper in question is behind a firewall, but I may be discussing it later.

Comments

  1. #1 rob
    August 11, 2011

    i agree. people are entitled to their own opinions, but not to their own reality.

  2. #2 Jesse
    August 11, 2011

    Depends on the definition of scientific literacy, no?

    I mean, I can think of lots of scientists in several fields who have blind spots, wrong notions, and the like. Some are religious people, some not. But unless you are willing to define every single person on earth as a scientific illiterate (because there is always something you have irrational beliefs about, whatever it might be) then this kind of question starts to lose its utility.

    Narrowing the question to the Big Bang and Evolution, well, look a Hannes Alfven. I don’t think Alfven was a scientific illiterate and he didn’t accept the BB theory, though I suppose you might forgive him given when he was active. But by the time he retired it was pretty clear that plasma cosmology was likely wrong. I don’t think Alfven ever came around.

    I might say that a biologist has problems with scientific literacy if s/he doesn’t accept that evolution is real, but that’s because nothing else in the field makes any sense without it. A theoretical cosmologist or particle physicist on the other hand is in a different position. You can be perfectly competent and even contribute to the theory of quantum mechanics and what you believe or not about the age of the Earth really needn’t come up, or even be the slightest bit relevant to the work itself. But I won’t pretend that this distinction is all that well-developed on my part, I’m just sort of throwing it out there on the fly.

    I dunno, the last time I saw this come up it seemed to me that the only scientifically literate people left were the ones who defined the term. And then things get just plain silly.

    If the same person who says the big bang and Evolution are real doesn’t accept the germ theory of disease or that vaccines work, then what?

    I haven’t seen the paper yet, so all this is just me thinking out loud, as it were, and trying to think of this kind of question in a more general way.

  3. #3 hoary puccoon
    August 11, 2011

    I suppose, theoretically, someone could understand evolution thoroughly, but then say, “I’m not going to believe in it anyway.”

    In practice, though, I’ve never seen this happen. Every single person I’ve ever talked to, heard, or read who took the attitude, “I just don’t believe in evolution,” did not, in fact, reject evolution; they all rejected a distorted misunderstanding of it. The evidence for evolution is so overwhelming that nobody, no matter how out of touch with reality, seems to be able to reject it without lying to themselves about what it really is.

    I think the NSF copped out.

  4. #4 Greg Laden
    August 11, 2011

    Depends on the definition of scientific literacy, no?

    I don’t think so. There is no valid definition of scientific literacy that excludes major areas of science. What sort of scientific literacy would exclude physical sciences and life sciences?

    I don’t think experts in a field not accepting a major part of that field because they have an alternative idea is part of this issue at all. The term “scientific literacy” applies to people in general not specialists, and any bumps in the road one encounters when trying to apply it to specialists are distractions, don’t you think?

  5. #5 Ian T. Durham
    August 11, 2011

    I agree with Rob. You’re entitled to your own opinion but not your own reality.

  6. #6 Stephanie Z
    August 11, 2011

    I think science literacy involves understanding the concept of overwhelming consensus and understanding that this is your best guide when dealing with a field that you haven’t studied intensely. Given that, it’s hard to hard carve out any space for those who are both scientifically literate and rejecting those concepts.

    There may be those who accept that the consensus supports these concepts but reject them for reasons of pure faith, but as hoary puccoon points out, those people are vanishingly rare. Resisting the temptation to prop up one’s faith with “evidence” is an incredibly difficult thing. I know a couple of people who manage it, but not on either of these topics.

  7. #7 Nescio
    August 11, 2011

    The answer is easy. If you oppose the scientific consensus merely because you oppose the scientific consensus that identifies you as not understanding science. If, however, your opposition is based upon scientific arguments -i.e. Ignaz Semmelweis- that demonstrates you do understand science.

    In short, regardless of your expertise, if your opposition to a particular scientific consensus ignores, or even refutes, the scientific method you are definitely illiterate.

  8. #8 Raging Bee
    August 11, 2011

    Scientific literacy is determined, at least in part, by your ability to understand how science works and follow scientific discourse. IF you reject evolution because you’re ignorant, and/or are bound by religious thinking, then you’re scientifically illiterate. But if you’re fully capable of understanding how science works, and what makes it valid and useful, and consciously make an exception in order to ignore evolution or pretend it’s not real, then you MAY still be able to call yourself “scientifically literate,” depending on whether or not you’re able to function in a scientific project.

    Then again, “scientific literacy” is a diferent issue from credibility.

  9. #9 Marion Delgado
    August 11, 2011

    I would say yes. The most important things for scientific literacy IMO (in descending order of importance)

    1. Statistical inference
    2. Hypothesis testing
    3. Error Calculation
    4. Peer Review (Journals)
    5. Typology (observational, theoretical, experimental, etc.)
    6. Nature of consensus
    7. Survey of most important foundational theories including evolution, Big Bang
    8. Classification of which *disciplines* are on what level of scientific footing (similar to 7)
    9. Specifics of experimental boundaries for particular fields.

    To me, scientific literacy is usually giving people the fish-of-the-day instead of teaching them how to fish. The key ideas IMO are epistemological, not memorized factoids.

  10. #10 Major Tom
    August 11, 2011


    [The] NSF isn’t sure that rejecting evolution for religious reasons automatically undermines a person’s scientific literacy.

    Could someone explain to me why “religious reasons” is not a contradiction in terms?

  11. #11 MacTurk
    August 11, 2011

    I would submit that it is next to impossible to have any claim to scientific literacy, while rejecting, at the same time, the basic underlying ideas of cosmology and biology respectively.

    And yes, while “..the National Science Board–the governing body of the National Science Foundation (NSF)–isn’t sure that rejecting evolution for religious reasons automatically undermines a person’s scientific literacy”, I am. It is first, an idiocy, second, an oxymoron, and third, a confusion of muthos and logos.

  12. #12 Art
    August 11, 2011

    IMHO the key concept, pivotal in this case, is what is meant by the word “accepting”.

    I’ve long maintained that the key to ending sexual discrimination against gays is a shift from “tolerance” to “acceptance”. Tolerance means you still can still maintain hope of avoiding, if not actually eliminating the offending condition. Tolerance seems to imply that there is no hope of avoiding or eliminating the offending state and instead have to deal with it and manage ones reaction to it.

    Of course you’re asking what the hell does peoples reaction to gay have to do with other people’s reaction to evolution and the big bang? Quite a lot IMO. First, the scientifically literate are assuming some tolerance of these issues. You can’t get to acceptance without passing through tolerance and, given the numbers of schools and situations where evolution and other scientific facts are not tolerated it seems like talking about acceptance is premature.

    Second, while it seems to me that to be scientifically literate one has to have a working understanding of evolution and the big bang there doesn’t seem to be any great need for acceptance. A friend grew up in a family which maintained that German was a ‘dirty’ language. This was rooted in their experience in WW2 death camps. Nonetheless less when their daughter was told that she needed to move to Germany and learn German to hold a job she learned conversational German.

    Likewise, as long as one is willing to develop a working understanding of evolution and the big bang it doesn’t really matter if they accept the theories or not. Tolerance may be sufficient. This assumes that their animus toward them does not preclude their learning and that they can maintain the necessary levels of cognitive dissonance without their heads exploding.

    Re-frame the question, pay closer attention to the wording, and you get clearer, and more meaningful, results.

  13. #13 Ritchie Annand
    August 11, 2011

    People’s scientific literacy outside of their own specialties is pretty varied. Take any number of physicists and astronomers and get their take on things biological – chances are that you will get responses all over the map, some pretty kooky.

    I know you’re trying to discount specialists in the definition, but depending on what we mean, we could possibly say that Stephen Hawking was “scientifically illiterate”.

    So what does “scientific literacy” mean, then? It sounds like the sort of thing that people can agree on in a vague way but since it involves defining groups into existence in the first place, the NSB could be “right”, but just in that particular sense.

    Does it involve just knowing the subjects even if one does not believe in them? Some aware but bastardly scoundrel might actually know evolution fairly well but still promulgate falsehoods.

    Can it exclude the methological or epistemological side at all? Can someone be scientifically literate in the sense of being a fact collector but without any sense of why?

    It also depends what such a classification is going to be used for. It this for rhetorical purposes (“you’re scientifically illiterate!”) or something more? Teacher certification?

    Is there something more specific in the paper? :)

  14. #14 Mu
    August 11, 2011

    The question alone tells you how hard it is to pick the right answer, the big bang is on the way out, inflation is in. And Einstein spent the last 30 years trying to find away around quantum mechanics, does that make him scientific illiterate?
    Denying observable facts is clearly non-scientific, but subscribing to one theory or another is hardly as clear cut, especially in cosmology where it’s really only “my mathematical model describes it better than yours”.

  15. #15 Hibob
    August 11, 2011

    The analogy that comes to mind is asking if a spell/grammar checking program should be considered language-literate.

    #12 Ritchie: Tolerance is a minimum for civilization. It’s a worthy goal, but you’re right, still a way station.

  16. #16 Ritchie Annand
    August 11, 2011

    Mu, don’t forget the newer (but in a way, retro) Big Bounce Theory floating around; it still seems quite popular from its emergence in 2008.

  17. #17 Greg Laden
    August 11, 2011

    Nescio, although your argument is internally consistent, I don’t think that this is what scientific literacy means. There is in fact a definition. According to the NAS:

    Scientific literacy is the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities. In the National Science Education Standards, the content standards define scientific literacy.

    Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

    Individuals will display their scientific literacy in different ways, such as appropriately using technical terms, or applying scientific concepts and processes. And individuals often will have differences in literacy in different domains, such as more understanding of life-science concepts and words, and less understanding of physical-science concepts and words.

    Scientific literacy has different degrees and forms; it expands and deepens over a lifetime, not just during the years in school. But the attitudes and values established toward science in the early years will shape a person’s development of scientific literacy as an adult.

  18. #18 Greg Laden
    August 11, 2011

    Ritchie: “People’s scientific literacy outside of their own specialties is pretty varied. Take any number of physicists and astronomers and get their take on things biological – chances are that you will get responses all over the map, some pretty kooky.”

    No kidding! People talk about “physics envy” as a think non-physicists scientists have, but really, something rather opposite is going on. Some of my best friends are physicists, but there is a certain amount of hubris that occurs in that field which seems to cause otherwise perfectly intelligent (presumably) scientists to think that they can enter a non-cognate field and figure out everything about it without even considering what work has been done already.

    The strange thing is that physics has this problem all the time … people showing up with new and better theories to replace relativity or quantum mechanics … so they should know better!

  19. #19 Quinn O'Neill
    August 11, 2011

    A slightly different question worth asking might be this: Can a person understand the concepts of evolution and the big bang and still reject them? The answer is a definite yes. Kurt Wise, a young-earth creationist with a PhD in Geology from Harvard, serves as an extreme example.(1) To be considered scientifically literate, however, one needn’t have the level of understanding that comes with a doctoral degree. Rather, we’d require a more general working knowledge of key science concepts and methods. If a person with a PhD can reject evolution, then people with a lesser (but adequate to be considered scientifically literate) understanding certainly can too.

    Studies of undergraduate biology students and prospective biology teachers have shown that understanding and acceptance of evolution aren’t always correlated.(2,3) So we can’t assume that people who accept evolution understand it and we can’t assume that those who reject it don’t. If we consider scientific literacy to be largely dependent on understanding, then, at least where evolution is concerned, acceptance isn’t a reliable indicator of literacy.

    I think this realization is what underpins the NSF’s reasoning. According to the article, one of the panel members, Bruce Lewenstein, holds that we need to understand the distinction between knowledge and belief in order to get a clearer picture of the public’s knowledge of science. As he explains, “Knowledge and belief are not the same. It might be politically useful for the scientific community to pretend that they are the same, but it would not be intellectually honest.” The evidence is on his side.

    Scientific literacy requires that one understand key science concepts, but not that one ascribe to a scientific worldview. I think the NAS definition may go a bit too far when it states: “Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” Depending on how you interpret this, we may have to label everyone who believes in an interventionist God, astrology, reiki therapy or any other form of woo as scientifically illiterate. This would make sense in a way, but I think it’s more useful to define scientific literacy in a way that makes it reasonably attainable for the average person with average reasoning abilities.

    1) Richard Dawkins on Kurt Wise:
    http://richarddawkins.net/articles/115

    2) Sinatra GM, Southerland SA, McConaughy F, Demastes JW. Intentions and beliefs in students’ understanding and acceptance of biological evolution. Journal of Reserach in Science Teaching. 2003;40(5):510-528.

    3) Nehm RH, Schonfeld IS. Does increasing biology teacher knowledge of evolution and the nature of science lead to greater preference for the teaching of evolution in schools? J Sci Teacher Educ. 2007;8:699-723.

  20. #20 The Other Doug
    August 11, 2011

    IMHO the key concept, pivotal in this case, is what is meant by the word “accepting”.

    From the context of this thread, I’m guessing it’s synonymous with belief, and thus the answer to the title question is obviously in the affirmative since belief is not synonymous with literacy.

  21. #21 NewEnglandBob
    August 11, 2011

    If someone can deny evolution then they MUST give a scientific alternative, with evidence, as to why they deny it, otherwise they are scientifically illiterate. Same goes for the Big Bang, germ theory, vaccines, etc.

    Religious, political, social, ethnic, national reasons do not apply.

  22. I tend to agree with Rob but it all depends on what your definition of science literacy is. If it is defined strictly on the basis of knowledge then perhaps you can be scientifically literate while not accepting concepts such as evolution/age of the Earth etc.

    If science literacy is defined as the ability to reason scientifically then a belief in those concepts despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary shows a lack of literacy.
    Just my two euros worth.

  23. #23 Greg Laden
    August 11, 2011

    Well, in the context of this conversation which is about NSF policy (guided by NAS) the definition of scientific literacy is as stated in comment [17] above

  24. #24 Jesse
    August 11, 2011

    Greg– judging by the way you say scientific literacy is defined, (comment 17) then Hannes Alfvén, who rejected Big Bang cosmology, in the face of pretty overwhelming evidence (he died in the 1990s) would be scientifically literate. But the way you posed the question at the beginning says he isn’t.

    I mean, why does the Big Bang and evolution get a special mention here? You could accept both Big Bang and evolution — and by “accept” I mean “take them as reasonably accurate descriptions of the physical world” and be an anti-vaxxer. It happens. Somebody like that could fit the definition of scientific literacy you give above.

    This is why I like the idea of being scientifically literate and that it is something we should strive for in the world we live in. But what that means in real terms seems a mite slippery. Maybe we go with a pragmatic approach, which is part of the definition there. (?)

  25. #25 bks
    August 12, 2011

    Scientific Literacy? Evolution and the Big Bang? I’d settle for being people understanding compound interest and hygiene first. I’d probably put understanding how a flush toilet works ahead of evolution and BB. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. There’s a lot of ignorance out there!

    –bks

  26. #26 DuWayne
    August 12, 2011

    Greg @ 17 –

    I don’t think I care for that definition much. It is really vague and makes some bizarre statements.

    It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena.

    What the hell is that supposed to mean? As written, the implication is that to be scientifically literate, one must know essentially everything about everything. If not everything, then which natural phenomena must one understand?

    Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions.

    So essentially, scientific literacy means you should be able to explain that with very few exceptions, you should take anything the popular press has to say about science with a grain of salt? That it is exceedingly likely that the popular press is sensationalizing to some degree, or another? That, in point of fact, they may actually be saying the complete opposite of what they are reporting on?

    Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed.

    The problem with this, is that there are far too many such issues to possibly know enough about all, or even most of them to the degree required to express such a solid position on them. For example, I can’t even begin to understand the science involved in the issue of river cleanup and superfund sites. I know that Michigan has a fuckton of trashed rivers that need to be cleaned up and that the process of cleaning them is complicated – and that this cleanup is pretty important. And there are innumerable such issues. I don’t understand the science that would indicate that a proposed (years ago)temporary storage platform for nuclear waste from the Palisades nuclear power plant (extremely close to the shore of lake Michigan) was unsafe – but a convincing argument was made so I apposed it.

    A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.

    This right here seems to be a perfect definition for scientific literacy. It is universal, but doesn’t imply that people need to know about nearly everything to be science literate. I am fairly capable of reading papers about topics I only have a peripheral understanding of and noting bullshit. It is impossible to do so perfectly, sometimes understanding the methods and their ability to support the conclusion absolutely requires too much technical language I don’t have. But more often than not, it is possible to evaluate methods in the context of determining if they could actually prove or disprove the null hypothesis and thus support any contextual conclusion.

    I also know well enough, when regardless of the conclusions I have drawn, I just don’t understand it well enough to make a strong assertion about it. It is simply impossible to understand everything and being scientifically literate requires admitting you just don’t understand it. That doesn’t always mean you can’t make strong assertions about something. I can’t begin to understand the nuance of global warming, but based on the statistics, my understanding of the bigger picture and the visible evidence, I am more than comfortable with asserting it is a huge problem we need to be focusing a lot more resources on.

    All the rest of that definition is distraction and confusion. There are two things I would add to the para above. First, there should be something to indicate the varying degrees of certainty a scientifically literate person should put to ideas they don’t fully understand. Second, the definition should also recognize the importance a scientifically literate person should put to understanding their biases, how those biases interact with their preponderance of evidence and how they might work to compensate for their biases.

    And by that definition, someone who is willing to make the absolute assertion that their god created the heavens and the earth is unquestionably not scientifically literate. On the other hand, someone who makes the assertion that they recognize that the best evidence science has to offer would indicate that life as we see it today evolved, but that this contradicts what they were taught – generating uncertainty, I don’t think it could be argued that they are not science literate (at least based on that give factor).

    This is not an argument that can be resolved in simplistic terms. The very difference between science as a way of knowing and both faith and common sense as ways of knowing, is that science is inherently uncertain. When beginning any study or experiment, we first make sure we can potentially prove our hypothesis is wrong and after we have drawn a conclusion, we might get excited about it, but we will also recognize that we still might be, indeed are likely wrong – in some way, or another. At best, we will maintain an optimistic skepticism.

    Faith and common sense aren’t inherently uncertain, though they certainly can be. The problem I think, is that while science as a way of knowing isn’t inherent to people who understand things in terms of faith and common sense, faith and common sense as ways of knowing are inherent to being human. No matter how skeptical, how scientifically minded a person might be, we all take things on faith and common sense. That is just the way it is. What is important, is that we try to recognize where these other ways of knowing interfere with our science.

  27. #27 Greg Laden
    August 12, 2011

    DuWayne, I think most of your criticisms, while valid, don’t obviate the points that the literacy def asserts. Keep in mind that this definition is part of a process. Taken without consideration of the process the wording is indeed somewhat vague.

    The next step is turning this into standards. When doing that, specifics have to be introduced to some extent, for example, what are the general principles in each of the major fields that people should have some idea about (i.e, evolution, basic cellular processes, DNA replication and translation/transcription, etc. etc.). These standards are then turned into curriculum and coursework.

    The people writing these definitions have that very much in mind

    So your questions are all good questions, but they are the exact questions (and there are more) meant to be raised by the definition.

  28. #28 Jason Thibeault
    August 12, 2011

    I would argue that science relies on empiricism and evidence (direct and indirect) to bolster its claim to the mantle of “way of knowing”, while common sense and faith both rely on human emotions, sometimes in contradiction with evidence. By that factor alone, faith and common sense are both “inherently uncertain”, it’s just that they insulate the applicant against realizing it.

    The problem here is that people can’t replicate scientific results themselves, so they have to “have faith” in the scientists making the claims. The problem is, people’s “having faith” in scientists is often mistaken (even by those people) as actual faith. In most cases, it’s well-founded belief in science as a process, rather than faith in a vacuum. So in that respect, I disagree with DuWayne. I agree that there are people that simply accept what scientists say because they can’t apply the science themselves, but there are others who are willing to look at the reports and studies and judge them critically, based not on common sense or their understanding of the science but by a process that includes understanding that the preponderance of scientists accept the preponderance of evidence for any particular claim. It’s those people that I would classify as scientifically literate, regardless of whether they can apply the science themselves or not.

  29. #29 Scott
    August 13, 2011

    I suppose it would depend.
    A biologist would have to understand evolution in order to be a biologist.
    A cosmologist would need to understand the Big Bang.

    A geologist would need to understand plate tectonics.
    However plenty of Creationists pass through college in these fields by understanding, but not believing these founding principles in their respective fields.

  30. #30 DuWayne
    August 13, 2011

    Jason –

    By that factor alone, faith and common sense are both “inherently uncertain”, it’s just that they insulate the applicant against realizing it.

    When I said that common sense and faith aren’t inherently uncertain, I meant from the perspective of the individual. While sometimes both of them produce uncertainty, they often times don’t.

    The problem here is that people can’t replicate scientific results themselves, so they have to “have faith” in the scientists making the claims. The problem is, people’s “having faith” in scientists is often mistaken (even by those people) as actual faith. In most cases, it’s well-founded belief in science as a process, rather than faith in a vacuum.

    But in many cases it really is actual faith. That said faith has a strong grounding in an evidence based system, but due to the inability of a given individual to reasonably evaluate the evidence themselves, accepting the results of a given scientific endeavor relies on faith in the process used and in the scientists who developed that evidence. In the case of people who are scientifically literate, this would be an uncertain faith – but it is faith none the less.

    I agree that there are people that simply accept what scientists say because they can’t apply the science themselves, but there are others who are willing to look at the reports and studies and judge them critically, based not on common sense or their understanding of the science but by a process that includes understanding that the preponderance of scientists accept the preponderance of evidence for any particular claim.

    The problem with that is that there is a great deal of science that, unless you have the language (ie. have a solid educational background in a given subfield), you simply cannot evaluate it to any functional degree. So you have to take the voracity of the evidence on the word of people who actually do understand the language. They might even be able to explain much of it in laymen’s terms – that doesn’t mean the layperson can lay claim to any but a very superficial understanding of the issue.

    I think it would help, in this context, to understand “faith” as referring to “trust.” Ie. “I trust Orac to provide accurate and reasonably critical evaluations of studies he writes about, that I don’t have the language to understand.” When I do that, I am having the faith that Orac has the ability to critically evaluate that information and that he will do so honestly. Now there is a good reason that I trust Orac. In my experience with him, he has never been dishonest in any context where I actually was able to evaluate the evidence myself – and because he makes his biases very clear. But it is also founded on the fact that he is something of a friend/ally.

    And then there are the virtually innumerable issues in which I just don’t/can’t have enough interest to spend the time investigating the evidence. Indeed at this point, the only issues that I spend enough time on to actually evaluate best evidence, would be a certain set of psychology subs, gender, race (and other identity issues), rape and other interpersonal violence, inter & intrastate conflict, interstate cooperation, danger of/relevance of states and neurobiology. Further, I can only engage a small fraction of the research that is directly relevant to the fraction of those fields that is of particular interest to me.

    I guess I just don’t see how, according to your definition, anyone can be scientifically literate. Nobody can investigate everything for themselves. Everyone either has to accept some things on authority, or just assume there are a hell of a lot of things that aren’t true. Now the latter is plausible, but pointless.

    Should those who wish to be considered scientifically literate simply not make decisions based on things they haven’t investigated? There are many times and many decisions where what you are suggesting isn’t possible. Does that make those decisions irrational?

  31. #31 Ritchie Annand
    August 15, 2011

    I see a lot of attempts to shove the more mysterious parts of quantum physics into the more esoteric parts of biology. Do we really need entanglement to explain free will – or the appearance thereof?

    Like this: http://www.quantumconsciousness.org/presentations/microtubules.html

    Superficially interesting, 99.999% likely to be completely irrelevant at the level of depolarizations and millivolt fields.

    Some of my best friends are physicists, but there is a certain amount of hubris that occurs in that field which seems to cause otherwise perfectly intelligent (presumably) scientists to think that they can enter a non-cognate field and figure out everything about it without even considering what work has been done already.

    Blockquoted for truth; that’s absolutely spot on :)

    Doing even chemistry from “first principles” in physics would cause a headache, but that’s peanuts to biology, especially when trying to look for something that works akin to a ‘physical law’.

    The strange thing is that physics has this problem all the time … people showing up with new and better theories to replace relativity or quantum mechanics … so they should know better!

    There’s a constant stream of them that pop up on forums or even any time Einstein gets mentioned in an article in a newspaper – the comments sections go ballistic. There’s just so much garbage that it’s possible that we may suddenly encounter a better answer and never even know it.

    At least relativity and quantum mechanics are relatively stable. The astronomical forays into dodecahedral universe and Big Bounce just make me tired; it ought to be big news if standard Lambda-CDM were really on the ropes. I even saw a video recently with someone berating theists from glomming onto the Big Bang because the Big Bounce research of late says that may not have been the beginning, so ha ha, theists.

    Could you imagine the equivalents of these in biology? Every year or so, we would get things like spider monkeys being more related to real spiders than other monkeys due to some weird artifact of tree-of-life likelihood analysis.

    Well, maybe that’s not fair. It would be more like saying “RNA World in Warm Fissures Theory” was an accepted theory and all comers would be trying to knock it off the pedestal :)

    Back to the OP, I don’t know if we can really speak of a general scientific literacy; it would have to be field by field. We could talk of perhaps trust in either the people or the methodology, but it really is only that trust, not necessarily very much knowledge, that can be transferred or used between scientific fields.

    At best, I think we could come up with a topic:literacy mapping. For example: health requires scientific literacy in subsets of biology, environment requires a slightly different overlapping set and climate science.

    Maybe reverse the requirement a little bit to say “can you properly detect bullshit?” on topics on which science has something to say.

  32. #32 AK
    August 16, 2011

    Well, maybe that’s not fair. It would be more like saying “RNA World in Warm Fissures Theory” was an accepted theory and all comers would be trying to knock it off the pedestal :)

    You mean it isn’t? I’ve detested that theory since I first read of it, but AFAIK it pretty much is (accepted theory etc.). I may be biased of course, having read Kauffman’s Origins of Order years previously, but mostly when I read it, writers treat it like the “Received Wisdom of Blog”. Or perhaps that’s just the blogosphere, and the specific papers bloggers link to.