Science Literacy and the New Atheist Ideology: Rethinking Definitions and Relevance

Next week there will be big news on the science communication front. In anticipation, I was just going back over some things that I have written on the topic over the past decade. I ran across an essay I wrote for Skeptical Inquirer from 2003, which I posted below the fold. The essay puts into context an interesting debate that took place in the pages of The Guardian between eminent UK scientist Susan Greenfield and science communication professor Jon Turney.

Greenfield's side of the debate reflects a continued dominant line of thinking referred to as the "deficit model," the assumption that public controversies over science are a product of ignorance and that improving the public's knowledge of the technical facts of science--or filling in the deficit--will make the public view science-related issues as scientists do.

Six years on, we still see these deficit model assumptions at play. In fact, as I write in a forthcoming book chapter, the deficit model remains a cornerstone of the New Atheist ideology and movement.

Below the fold, I have posted this essay from 2003. Next week, there will be much more on science communication, the deficit model, New Atheism, science journalism, blogging, and other core themes of interest to readers.

Who's Getting It Right and Who's Getting It Wrong in the Debate About Science Literacy?
Opinions clash over the best way to bolster public support for science.

Matthew C. Nisbet

Scientists consistently worry that the public just doesn't know enough about science, and that this general lack of public understanding carries with it dreadful consequences, jeopardizing everything from government financing of research to social progress. Recent controversies in the U.S. and Europe over therapeutic cloning and agricultural biotechnology have brought fresh concerns from the scientific community. Many scientists assume, for example, that if the public knew more about human genetic engineering, then any moral or religious reservations about cloning-for-medical-research might be tempered. Or, if the public better understood the science behind the genetic modification of crops, then few would take seriously the hyperbolized risks associated with the technology.

Yet, how much of a role does "science literacy" really play in the public's resistance to new technologies? Research over the past decade has begun to question the central importance of knowledge in shaping public opinion about science. Instead of public education programs, argue some social scientists, we should be more concerned with public engagement strategies that get citizens directly involved in science policy-making, and that enhance public trust in science-as-an-institution.

A recent debate appearing in the British newspaper The Guardian reflects the continued tension between scientists that still regard science literacy as the key component of public support for science, and the new view put forth by many social scientists who insist that other factors are important. The debate leads to new questions, rather than easy answers.

The Science Literacy Perspective

The dominant view historically among policymakers and scientists has been that it is possible to achieve a society-wide level of science literacy that would ensure public support for science, and the emphasis has been on public communication efforts. In fact, the "popular science" movement--comprised of best-selling magazines, TV programs, and books--has long been cherished as a prime vehicle for public education, disseminating relatively uncritical information about the technical discoveries and wonders of science (For an historical overview, see Lewenstein, 1992). If the science community is to share some of the blame for the public's resistance to science, the blame only extends so far as the faulty communication skills of scientists and their institutions.

This emphasis on informal public education is termed the "science literacy" model. The common assumption is that greater science knowledge enables individuals to sort through the misinformation, "bad" science, and extraordinary claims that emerge during political disputes over science and technology. It is believed that greater science literacy would ensure that the public makes "proper" judgments about science, i.e., judgments in line with those of scientists or experts (For more, see Bodmer, 1985).

The science literacy banner has been carried in the past by well-known scientists such as Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins, and is argued most recently by Susan Greenfield, a professor of pharmacology at Oxford University, and director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain. In an April 10 column published in The Guardian, Greenfield writes:

The only way to evaluate the implications of science is, of course, to be scientifically literate, and one can only be scientifically literate if one is willing to have an open mind and stop expecting our scientists alone to be the conscience of the nation. Imagine a society where to talk about science was as natural as talking about football; where, although one wasn't a scientific David Beckham, one was an armchair amateur up to speed with the latest breakthroughs and even performing virtual experiments on the net.

Once we have a society where science is as exciting as football, and where attending a science lecture or debate is as relevant and fun as going to the cinema, only then will we be truly empowered as a society to harness science for what we want in life, rather than the other way round.

Certainly, it would be a good thing if the public knew more about science, and if the public were more appreciative of science. Survey evidence from the U.S. supports the notion that science knowledge is linked to more positive views of science. (For more, see Miller & Kimmel, 2001; Miller, Pardo, & Niwa, 1997). Despite this evidence, however, is scientific understanding really the key piece of the puzzle in promoting public support for science? Or does a primary focus on science literacy miss the mark?

The Public Engagement Perspective

Many social scientists, for example, question the heavy emphasis on science literacy. Instead, these researchers insist that the scientific community has been too quick to blame the public. By "problematizing" the public, scientists assume too often that the science they produce is "unproblematic," even though technologies such as genetic engineering raise a number of valid technical and moral concerns. As a result, when science knowledge and know-how is brought to bear in policy decisions or communicated to the public by scientists, the view from science is often privileged over differing public perspectives about the issue, thereby simply reinforcing any resistance. The "public engagement" perspective asserts that scientific institutions and scientists need to focus less on programs designed to inform the public about the facts of science, and should instead focus on programs that get citizens involved in science-related decision-making, with a goal of promoting public trust. (For various takes on this theme, see Dierkes & von Grote, 2000).

In a response to Susan Greenfield, published April 17 by The Guardian, Jon Turney argues that Greenfield has it all wrong when she emphasizes science literacy. Turney, a science historian and a former journalist, is a professor in the department of science and technology studies at University College, London. He writes:

What of scientific literacy, that supposed panacea? It is a misleading term, implying an analogy with an easily tested functional ability, literacy, which simply does not hold. Most attempts at definition end up with piles of elementary facts, some ideas about the nature of science and, perhaps, the relations between science and society. All worthy enough, though it tends to reduce to a list of stuff that scientists think everyone else ought to know and turns discussion of public understanding of science into a consideration of plans for abolishing ignorance. This is unlikely to happen any time soon.

Turney accurately explains that scores on survey questions measuring the public's knowledge of science have remained relatively stable over the past few decades, despite popular science efforts. He also correctly points out that many people are relatively indifferent to science, and lack the motivation to learn about science. Additionally, as Turney comments:

But if large numbers of people fail to achieve some ideal of scientific literacy this may be because they have got the message that they have no real purchase on scientific decision making, not because they are incapable of mastering technicalities.

Hence the success of efforts to reverse that message. When members of the public take part in discussions that make them feel they can influence real decisions, lack of scientific knowledge is no problem. A host of experiments with consensus conferences, citizens' juries, deliberative polls, even the Royal Society's new annual Science and Society Forum, all have in common that people are convinced they will be listened to, as well as told what's what scientifically. And they all show that people involved in such discussions quickly become adept at quizzing experts, mastering a brief, asking questions and unmasking political assumptions masquerading as scientific conclusions. They become scientifically literate, but under conditions in which they decide what they need to know.

In the end, the idea of scientific literacy is part of the problem. Although Greenfield's suggestion that we "imagine a society where to talk about science is as natural as talking about football" will have romantic appeal, it leads to thinking about the situation in exactly the wrong way.

(For Greenfield's reply to Turney, go here.)

Building Trust and Efficacy Through Knowledge

So who is right and who is wrong in this debate? Both sides have valid points. Greenfield and other scientists are right when they assert that science literacy does make a difference in public estimations of science and technology, but it is by no means the only solution in assuaging public fears about new technologies such as genetic engineering. Yet, Turney and others are also correct when they emphasis the impacts of public trust, "public efficacy," (the feeling of being listened to, and being able to make a difference in science-related decision-making), and institutionalized forms of public deliberation.

In fact, it's possible that the current debate relative to science can draw upon valuable research focused on why people participate in politics generally, and why people trust (or distrust) various government institutions. This research shows that knowledge, trust, efficacy, and deliberation are all closely related. Enhanced knowledge of politics leads to an increased belief among individuals that they can make a difference in politics, and also leads to increased trust in political institutions. Deliberating or discussing politics with others enhances knowledge, but also gets people involved. (For more, see McLeod, Scheufele, & Moy, 1999; Moy & Pfau, 2000).

There is little reason to believe that science is an exception when it comes to the generalizability of these findings, yet to date, this research from political science and political communication has been barely applied to science-related issues or settings. It's likely that increased science literacy makes a difference in public support for science, at least indirectly, through its connection to public trust and efficacy. To completely dismiss either knowledge or trust in shaping public opinion about science is where both sides can get it wrong.


Bodmer, W. (1985). The public understanding of science. London: Royal Society.

Dierkes, M. & von Grote, C. (eds) (2000). Between understanding and trust: The public, science, and technology. Amsterdam: Harwood Academic Publishers.

Lewenstein, B. (1992). The meaning of `public understanding of science' in the United States after World War II. Public Understanding of Science, 1, 45-68.

McLeod, J. M., Scheufele, D. A., and Moy, P. (1999). Community, communication, and participation: The role of mass media and interpersonal discussion in local political participation. Political Communication, 16, 315-336.

Miller, J.D. & Kimmel, L. (2001). Biomedical communications: Purposes, audiences, and strategies. New York: Academic Press.

Miller, J.D., Pardo, R., & Niwa, F. (1997). Public perceptions of science and technology: A comparative study of the European Union, the United States, Japan, and Canada. Chicago: Chicago Academy of Sciences.


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I'm not sure the "new atheists" think that the main problem is that the population doesn't know enough science facts, although there is that. Maybe they do. But I think we can apply an saying of which I know nothing of the origin...

"It's not what you don't know that'll get you in the most trouble, but what you know for sure that just isn't so", which sums up religion pretty well.

Is Tuney suggestion that we turn our society into an anarchist utopia? Otherwise, most people will not be involved in decision making over science -- any more that most biochemists will be calling the shots on airplane schedules.

You can't fake involvement. It's got to be full and real, and involve everyone, or it's just a band-aid to buy off a few leaders. It's cheaper just to give those guys a kickback. It would have to be reciprocal -- scientist being called in to make political, economic and social decisions in parity.

Either you have a society run by elites, or you don't. It's not one of those spaces were there's a lot of wiggle room. If Tuney's suggestion is just that the elites need to work together more so they can sell their constituents -- well then, this has nothing to do with mass science literacy, but with methods to coopt opponents. He should just say so then.

You can't fake involvement.

I bet you can.

If I understand the psychologists correctly, you don't need to give people real control to keep them happy, only the illusion of control. There is a problem of course, in that if they don't have real control, they might become aware that it's an illusion which would spoil the illusion, to which the quote above pertains.

Anyhow, I see no reason why an illusion of involvement without real involvement can't happen, (leaving aside the issue of whether such is desirable, of course).

By indifferent (not verified) on 04 Jun 2009 #permalink

Maybe scientists need to do what manufacturers do and hire public relations experts to manage the public perception of science and scientists. Imagine if every time tv portrayed a nerdy, socially inept smart kid getting shoved into his locker by a football player, the next day a "Science for Society" representative is on the phone with the network, distributing fact sheets on scientists who excelled at sports or ballroom dancing or whatever, and pointing out the benefits science has brought to those areas. At the same time, they're emailing the base, mobilizing them to protest societal prejudice against a group that contributes so much to the way we live.

It doesn't have to be about silly stuff like tv either. They can monitor talk radio and op-eds that spread inaccuracies and spin about topics like stem cell research, GMO crops, the space program, climate change, teaching evolution, etc. Scientists have got to be about the only industry group that goes without having public relations watchdogs monitoring the media and promoting their image. I'm thinking all it would take would be a small fee tacked on to memberships in professional organizations they already pay to join.

Disclaimer: I'm not in PR. I just think maybe, being scientists, y'all overthink this stuff. Maybe it doesn't take a decades-long sitting committee to examine in detail and come up with a plan to implement an already outdated solution. I also don't think either Greenfield or Turney has to be wrong. Let each one do what they think they must, and in the end either approach is probably going to reach some people and not others. What I see right now is people loving the debate so much they don't follow through with the doing.

To me it seems Greenfield and Tunney are talking about the same thing. Involving people means that they gain knowledge of the subject. And the other way round is equally true: it is impossible to educate people who do not want to be educated. They have to be involved.

Starting in high school, students deliberately make it a point to avoid science classes.

You can't involve people who have chosen to be uninvolved.

It all seems like 6 of one a half dozen of the other to me. Instead of being adversarial, Turney could just have well said that he agrees with the vision of a better informed public and then add "Oh yeah, I have a GREAT idea improving science literacy. Motivate people to get informed by involving them more." As it stands, it just seems like an unnecessary dichotomy.

For an article concerning framing issues, and relating specifically to Science, starting out by equating scientific understanding and knowledge with issues of personal belief considering Atheism is a particularly poor, and ironically curious chouce in framing, my opinion.

Starting out in that manner, rather contradicts, or at the least, seems to, any desire to reach out to individuals who may most be in need of scientific understanding and seems more a slap in the face and an insult rather than a sincere offer of information and assistance in helping those in need of achieving a better understanding of issues that they may not properly understand.

As a person with firm religious beliefs and a strong and rigorous scientific education and professional background, I find little or no inherent difficulties in reconcilling what some of different personal beliefs may consider apparent differences between my spiritual beliefs and my understandings of science. IMO, it is precisely when individuals attempt to equate their personal spiritual beliefs and understandings (be it Atheism or Theism) with the one and only universal Truth across all branches of knowledge and understanding that problems arise, especially among those with different beliefs and understandings. If you are going to teach science, by all means teach science, if you are going to evangelize personal beliefs, leave the issues of science to another time and place. Otherwise you end up risking the alienation and distraction from the issue at hand with the regards to Framing Science for the general population.

T. Shaitanaku

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.

I find your article actually circles on itself without seeming to realise it.

"Science literacy" is a very broad term. Your article reads, or can be read, as if emphasis is on "facts", but most scientists I know consider the more important elements to be understanding the process of scienceâit's methodologyâand the key concepts (which differ facts in that they can be applied to many situations).

Modern science is mostly defined by the methodology, the approach, not the "facts". It follows that scientific literacy will too.

Your article goes on to say that people quickly learn how to quiz, etc. "experts". That is, they pick up some of the elements that are part of the process of science, the part that most scientists I know consider most important in science literacy.

In the endâto my readingâyou seem to be supporting the thing you criticise, or criticising the thing you support if that suits you better. Greenwood and Tunney appear to be coming to a similar point from different angles. Those of the public that have learnt to critique hypotheses, etc., are doing a rough beginners version of element of scientific literacy, for a "user" of science. This isn't in conflict or opposing scientific literacy at all in the way your article makes out, as far as I can see.

dguy: the Rhodes scholars would be good examples.

By BioinfoTools (not verified) on 21 Jun 2009 #permalink