Science literacy and the tension between theory and reality

forgot_algebraHow do you reconcile the fact that a significant majority of Australians think science education is very important or absolutely essential to the economy with the competing fact that over 40 per cent don’t know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun?

The Science Literacy in Australia report is not wildly surprising in the fact that it identifies some significant holes in basic scientific knowledge. Similar surveys conducted elsewhere have produced similar, or often worse, results. What is surprising is that so many people, quite rightly, think science is important yet we as a nation seem to do little more than wring our hands over the fact that scientific education and research is under-funded and under-reported.

A functional understanding of science is crucial to being a member of a democracy where you are called upon to make voting decisions based on complex issues. If you don’t have a broad understanding of how the Earth orbiting the Sun affects climate or what percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered in water, how can you sensibly assess politicians’ rhetoric on climate change?

You can’t change any of this with the current generation. What we desperately need is an integrated, long-term plan to change the way our education system works so that the next generation or the one after that has some idea of how fast we’re moving through the Universe. Otherweise we just keep observing the results without drawing any conclsuions – and that ain’t science.

Image: XKCD

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