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Thursday September 21 2017

The Importance of Science Literacy in Democracy

What distinguishes democracy from other forms of government like monarchy, autocracies and dictatorships, is that in a democracy, every citizen’s voice counts equally and the direction of the country is steered by the will of its people. The government was never meant to control the citizens; the government is meant to serve as a conduit for the people’s wishes. That said, a healthy democracy is based on the premise that the people are well-informed, able to think critically for themselves, and thus capable of making wise and rational decisions.

In our society today, science is ever more prescient. Every decision – from reproductive rights to investment in renewable and non-renewable forms of energy, to our schools’ education curriculum, to the growing role of automation in the job market to almost anything you can think of – relies on science and technology. Almost every decision – to be passed, ratified and implemented – also rests on the will of the people through the power of the ballot. Therefore, it is alarming how much the public lacks scientific literacy. Despite Canada’s 2014 ranking as 1st among 35 other developed countries in terms of their citizens’ scientific literacy, only 42% can fully understand media reports on science and can correctly answer questions on foundational scientific concepts.1,2 A more recent survey conducted by the Ontario Science Centre reported that 40% of Canadians believe that the science backing climate change is unclear, 1 in 5 trust their gut feeling over empirical findings for subjects such as GMOs, and 19% still assume a causation link between vaccines and autism.3

Although concerns regarding public science literacy is more glaring south of the border, where even top-level decision-makers ignore or suppress evidence drawn from empirical data and scientifically proven theories – with actions such as actively hastening to hinder public education on science by the pulling of climate change data from government sites

and the planned implementation of “science” curricula lacking scientific basis – Canadians would do well to be wary of going down the same path as their American neighbours.4,5,6

How do we avoid making the same mistake and starting the snowballing journey downhill to scientific ignorance? The first step is to realize the significance of scientific literacy in everyday life and to our role as active, civically engaged citizens. Everything we come into contact now has its basis in science: our energy bills, our data plans, the water we drink, the public health standards that allow us to live without fear of invisible toxins in our food, our access to medical treatments, and more. In order to make the myriad of decisions that will collectively shape our lives, we must embrace the necessity of scientific knowledge and seek information from sources outside of just political campaigns, which are often rife with oversimplifications and biased fact-selection.

Informing oneself cannot be flippantly dismissed as “easy.” Many students drop science courses upon entering post-secondary institutions, and even for those who don’t, higher education in the sciences currently favours depth-based specialization over “Renaissance”-styled breadth education. For example, a nuclear physicist may be just as uninformed on subjects pertaining to biology as one with a non-scientific background.7 Nonetheless, avoiding science or engaging with it only from a narrow perspective turns a blind eye to our civic duty to be informed, potentially driving us to immaturely and irresponsibly give up agency over our own decisions and lives. One should keep an open mind and not fear science, instead of unduly exaggerating the complexity of a subject before even attempting to understand it. At the very least, even if one does not have the time or energy to read up on the many fields science encompasses, the average citizen should be able to think like a scientist – to use the scientific method to frame, analyse, research, investigate, experiment, observe and critique a question and its findings, to be critical thinkers in all aspects of life, to question relentlessly in search of the underlying truth, to collect information before drawing conclusions, and to prevent oneself from being blinded by one’s beliefs when confronted with concrete evidence or sound newly-presented findings.

Only through the active process of becoming civically engaged, well-informed, critically thinking citizens can a democracy be effective. In this age of scientific growth and backlash against said growth, citizens well-versed in science and the scientific method are more in demand than ever before.

By Angela Dong

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References

  1. Chung E. Canadians’ science literacy, engagement may be highest in world [Internet]. CBC News. 2014 [cited 11 March 2017]. Available from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/canadians-science-literacy-ranks-1st-among-35-countries-1.2749413
  2. Council of Canadian Academies. Report In Focus [Internet]. Ottawa: Council of Canadian Academies; 2014. Available from: http://www.scienceadvice.ca/uploads/eng/assessments%20and%20publications%20and
    %20news%20releases/science-culture/scienceculture_rif_en.pdf
  3. Survey reveals ‘significant gaps’ in Canadians’ understanding of science [Internet]. CBC News. 2016 [cited 10 March 2017]. Available from: http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/survey-reveals-significant-gaps-in-canadians-understanding-of-science-1.3772707
  4. Lavelle M. In Trump, U.S. puts a climate denier in its highest office, and all climate action in limbo [Internet]. Insideclimatenews.org. 2017 [cited 10 March 2017]. Available from: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/09112016/trump-us-president-climate-change-denier
  5. Stewart K. Betsy DeVos and God’s Plan for Schools [Internet]. Nytimes.com. 2017 [cited 10 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/13/opinion/betsy-devos-and-gods-plan-for-schools.html
  6. Kahn B. Trump EPA removes climate change information from website [Internet]. Insideclimatenews.org. 2017 [cited 10 March 2017]. Available from: https://insideclimatenews.org/news/03022017/epa-donald-trump-climate-change-science-scott-pruitt
  7. Modern science: What’s changing? [Internet]. Undsci.berkeley.edu. 2016 [cited 10 March 2017]. Available from: http://undsci.berkeley.edu/article/modern_science

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The Meducator is McMaster University’s undergraduate Health Sciences Journal. It publishes pieces that critically address current issues with a high degree of scientific rigor, but in a way that is accessible to a broad audience.

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