Scientific and Technological Literacy for Citizenship: What can we learn from the research and other evidence ?
Scientific and Technological Literacy for Citizenship: What can we learn from the research and other evidence ?
Professor of Science Education Policy,
School of Education, University of Leeds, Leeds, LS2 9JT, UK
The need to promote a world community of scientifically and technologically literate citizens was regarded as urgent by the World Conference on Education for All held in Jomtien in 1990. The UNESCO Project 2000+, committed to developing appropriate structures and activities to foster scientific and technological literacy for all, in all the countries of the world, was a direct response to this need identified at the earlier World Conference. The various programmes, proposals and initiatives concerned with scientific and technological literacy in many different countries are, therefore, part of a global movement, although they are not, of course, necessarily associated directly with the UNESCO initiative. Some programmes, such as Project 2061 in the USA, involve large-scale and long-term curriculum development. Others, as in the science and technology components of the national curriculum in England and Wales or in New Zealand, attempt to promote the foundations of scientific and technological literacy at school level by statutory means.
Several features stand out from any scrutiny of developments thus far. Since they frame much of the rest of this paper, it is convenient to identify them at this point. The first is that scientific and technological literacy are slogans and not prescriptions for action. The word slogan is said to derive from two Gaelic words sluagh and gairm, meaning army and cry respectively. Not surprisingly, therefore, slogans are still invoked as something of a rallying cry for key ideas, serving as a convenient means of generating political, educational, social or financial support without the inconvenience of explaining the meaning of the terms involved. It is this imprecision and ambiguity of slogans which allow them to play a significant role in bringing about change. To dismiss scientific literacy as a myth, therefore, seems to me to rather miss the central point (Shamos 1995).
Secondly, as slogans, scientific and technological literacy, sustain multiple meanings and interpretations which change over time and undergo some shift in their relative importance. Such meanings and interpretations reflect different rationales and they show a marked dependence on context.
Thirdly, the coupling of scientific and technological literacy has now become commonplace, despite a substantial volume of scholarly writing which would make important distinctions between the scientific and the technological as fields of human endeavour.
Fourthly, the promotion of scientific and technological literacy cannot be seen as the exclusive responsibility of schools or other agencies concerned with formal education. Indeed, as museums, hands-on and interactive science centres, science clubs, science study groups, radio, television, the print media and a variety of interactive technologies, some linked on a global scale, come to play an increasing part in this promotion, the role of formal education and its relationship with informal and non-formal provision, becomes more problematic and in need of clarification.
Finally, in this introduction, it is appropriate to acknowledge that the term public understanding of science points towards a separation of science from general culture. In some contexts, this separation can be dated with relative precision. In England, for example, it is related to the growing professionalisation of science which gathered pace during the second half of the nineteenth century and which was marked by, among much else, a devaluing of the popularisation of science in favour of research publication within, and for, the rapidly developing scientific community. It is also related to a tacit social contract established between academic science and society which, in return for financial and public support, promised significant, but unspecified, benefits at some, equally unspecified, point in the future. There were, of course, important differences in the ways in which science was accommodated within different societies and cultures. As an example, the institutionalized commitment of Napoleonic France to science and technology has left a legacy which, to this today, means that, at least at the rhetorical level, the term public understanding of science in France has significantly different implications from those associated with its use in Anglophone contexts.
There are, of course, other dimensions to the relationship between science and the wider community. Some of these predate the emergence of modern science and they relate to the relative importance to be attached to intellect, reason, and reductionism, rather than empathy, imagination and holism, in trying to make sense of everyday phenomena. Stereotypically, the scientist is presented as objective, dispassionate and the epitome of rationality, a portrait which led A.N.Whitehead to refer to a celibacy of the intellect which is divorced from the concrete contemplation of the complete facts (Whitehead 1929: 245). Arguably, it is issues associated with this celibacy of the intellect which lie at the heart of re-engaging contemporary science with the wider community.
The arguments for scientific and technological literacy can be categorized in ways that reflect the various advocates who seek to promote such literacy in curriculum, institutional or other terms. The advocates are likely to include governments and other organizations concerned with formal or other means of education, the media, the professional communities of scientists and technologists, industrialists, the business world, community groups, teachers, and other educators and individuals. Although the form and relative political influence of these different groups upon science and technology education vary from one country to another and show some dependence upon time, several broad categories are readily identifiable.
For many engaged professionally in science and technology, scientific and technological literacy offer the hope of disseminating to a wider public an improved understanding of their day-to-day work. The longer term objective, of course, is that of strengthening public, and in a broad sense, political, support for scientific and technological activities. The case is rarely presented simply in terms of the benefit to science and technology but rather by reference to national economic prosperity, wealth creation, raising the quality of decision making or enriching the life of individuals. Already, therefore, the rationales include economic instrumentalism, the defence of democracy and the promotion of a liberal education.
Isaac Asimov has added to these by claiming that Without an informed public, scientists will not only be no longer supported financially, they will be actively persecuted(Asimov 1984). While the reference to active persecution might seem extreme, Asimovs concern should not be dismissed, the moreso since, in the dozen years since it was first voiced, criticism of science and technology has become more vigorous and strident. Appleyard has referred to science as spiritually corrosive and presenting us with the trick of beginning by saying it can answer only this kind of question and ending by claiming that these are the only questions that can be asked (Appleyard 1992: 2 and 248)., The anti-science phenomenon has been analysed by, among others, Holton (1992) while Postman has explored the surrender of culture of technology (Postman1993). Not surprisingly, writing of this kind has prompted some equally forthright and polemical responses (see, for example, Gross and Levitt 1994), some of which related directly to school science education (e.g. Matthews 1995). An indication of the current sensitivity of the scientific community in the United Kingdom to its public estimation is the attack by Richard Dawkins, professor of the public understanding of science at Oxford, on television programmes concerned with the paranormal which he describes as elevating the need to entertain above a commitment to scientific rigour (Brown 1996: 31).
A less dramatic position than that indicated by Asimov and one perhaps more readily recognized by practicing scientists is that widespread scientific literacy underpins the political support required both for the successful prosecution of science in an industrialized or industrializing country and for the ability of the scientific community to counter opposition from those perceived as hostile to the endeavour in which they are engaged, e.g. creation scientists, animal rights groups. The achievements of science and technology and the dominance of scientific rationality as an approach to the solution of a wide range of problems also suggest another way in which science itself might benefit from a more scientifically literate population. This is that greater scientific literacy may act as a counter to the unreasonable and unrealistic expectations engendered by past triumphs, i.e. a greater understanding of science and, more particularly, of its limitations, might diminish the risk of widespread disenchantment with, or even hostility towards, science, the rudiments of which as noted above, are already in evidence.
In many countries, science has a place, sometimes a compulsory place, in formal schooling, although not necessarily for all students. The position of technology is usually different, with many education systems seeking to transform long-established vocational programmes into more general courses in technology. In seeking this broader and potentially more secure place for technology within education, some professional technologists have argued for technological activity as a distinct third culture, to be added to the arts and the sciences as a component of a liberal education. Although the argument is essentially educational, the technology community is also seeking to enhance its professional image and standing with a wider public and, thereby, the political support which it is able to command.
For the defenders of participatory democracy, scientific and technological literacy offers a means of challenging and, if necessary, countering scientific and technological expertise. Scientific and technological literacy conceived in these terms has to do with accountability and, in particular, the accountability of expert (lites to other and wider constituencies. While such a rationale is difficult to oppose in principle, it present formidable problems, not least in giving substance to the notion of participation and in establishing mechanisms for facilitating it. Earlier, if not always successful, attempts to engage the public in open discussion of aspects of science or technology policy include consensus conferences in Denmark, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, the science shops in the Netherlands and elsewhere, the Science for Citizens and the Ethics and Values in Science and Technology Programmes in the USA, the Living Science Space Initiative in Brazil, the study groups set up in Sweden to promote public understanding of civilian nuclear policy and the many informal and ad hoc self-help and protest groups set up in many countries of the world of which the Kerala Peoples Science Movement in India is a familiar example.
Somewhat independent of, but underpinning, the claim that scientific and technological literacy are essential concomitants of effective citizenship in a modern democracy is the idea that an understanding of science and technology needs no extrinsic justification since they are themselves important cultural activities. In other words, science and technology offer distinct and powerful ways of understanding, and operating upon, the natural world which justify their claim to a seat at the table of those who would claim to be liberally educated. In the case of science, this claim has historically been couched in terms of scientific method. As far as technology is concerned, the form of the argument is yet to be settled.
For some advocates of scientific and technological literacy, the case rests principally upon the contribution which science and technology can make not simply to wealth creation but also to sustainable development. Such development is not a concept confined to countries with a low per capita income since, in all cases, the emphasis is on the modification of the biosphere and the application of human, financial and other resources to satisfy human needs and improve the quality of life. Central to such improvement is an emphasis on meeting the needs of the present without jeopardising those of generations yet to be born. However the challenges of translating a commitment to sustainable development into effective practical policies are formidable, the moreso since reliable data about a range of environmental issues are hard to obtain and often subject to revision.
In closing this section of this paper, it is appropriate to note that for some scholars, especially those writing from a feminist perspective or seeking to promote the beliefs of minority cultures within communities, enhanced scientific and technological literacy offers, as a minimum, a means of redressing some social, economic or other injustices and imbalances related to science and technology, and, at the other extreme, an opportunity for a radical overhaul of scientific and technological education. Feminist perspectives upon scientific and technological literacy are often closely related, conceptually an din other ways, to other critiques of science and technology, notably those which address cultural and racial issues. Thus, for some commentators in developing countries, scientific and technological literacy offer a means of rejecting at least some of the science and technology that has come to be regarded as an undesirable colonial legacy. From this perspective scientific and technological literacy relates to indigenous categories, idioms and traditions and places the social responsibility of scientists and technologists and the political issues surrounding science and technology at the centre of scientific and technological education.
The rationales outlined above rest upon, or entail, rather different understandings of scientific and/or technological literacy and they are commonly broad and proselytising in form and tone. Not surprisingly, therefore, the associated literature is replete with attempts to translate them into more specific statements of aims, goals, outcomes, abilities and attitudes which could be used to structure learning, teaching and assessment.
As far as scientific literacy is concerned, there is no shortage of attempted definitions. Arons (1983) described twelve abilities which, in his view, characterize someone who is scientifically literate. Miller, in a seminal review in 1983, identified three constitutive dimensions of scientific literacy as
the norms and methods of science
cognitive science knowledge, and
attitudes towards organised science
In 1987, Thomas and Durant concluded from a survey of the then existing literature that no less than eight characteristics of scientific literacy could be identified. These were:
an appreciation of the nature, aims and general limitations of science, a grasp of the scientific approach - rational arguments, the ability to generalise, systematize and extrapolate, the roles of theory and observation
an appreciation of the nature, aims and limitations of technology, and of how these differ from science
a knowledge of the way in which science and technology actually work, including the funding of research, the conventions of scientific practice and the relationship between research and development
an appreciation of the inter-relationships between science, technology and society, including the role of the scientists and technicians as experts in society and the structure of relevant decision-making
a general grounding in the language and some of the key constructs of science
a basic grasp of how to interpret numerical data, especially related to probability and statistics
the ability to assimilate and use technical information and the products of technology, user-competence in relations to technologically advanced products
some idea of where and from whom to seek information and advice about matters relating to science and technology
This list of attributes of the scientifically literate person is noteworthy for a number of reasons. Collectively, it represents a profile to which few, if any, might reasonably aspire except in the most general terms. As Wildavsky has commented
It has been said that democracy requires a scientifically literate population. When we consider what this lofty view demands, our hearts might well sink (Wildavsky 1995: 395)
The association of technology with scientific literacy is also significant as is the reference to what might, for convenience, be called numeracy. The list is also suggestive of the difficulties associated with achieving a consensus about the meaning of scientific literacy in terms which can be operationalised. Some of these difficulties, which are not relieved by publications suggesting what everyone should know about science (Hazen and Trefil 1993) are discussed in Champagne et al. (1989).
Although other qualities might be added to this list, the emphasis in many studies of scientific literacy has been on scientific knowledge, on an understanding of scientific procedures and, in some contexts, on attitudes. The last of these includes both scientific attitudes and attitudes towards science (Miller and Pifer 1993; Schibeci 1984).
This approach to conceptualising scientific literacy defines the public as those non-experts who are ;outside science and, in consequence, to various degrees ignorant of it. Science itself is likewise to be understood as a well-bounded and coherent activity, concerned with the value-free pursuit of objective, consensual knowledge and unencumbered by social and institutional connections. In these circumstances, improving scientific literacy among the public becomes a matter of remedying ignorance in such a way that outsiders become -at least to some degree - insiders, able to see the world as a scientists sees it and subscribing to the presumed norms and assumptions of the scientific endeavour. The problems associated with this deficit approach , which implies that the uptake of science is determined principally by intellectual ability, have been well-documented. Prominent among them are the assumptions that scientific knowledge is somehow central to decisions about practical action in daily life, and that scientific ways of thinking constitute the proper yardstick with which to measure the validity of everyday of commonsense thinking. The notion of insiders and outsider is itself a further difficulty since the education and training of many research scientists leaves them sadly ignorant of scientific matters outside their own specialism.
The most fundamental objection to this approach, of course, is that scientific literacy is being defined by reference to what the scientific community believes should be widely known and appreciated, rather than to the scientific knowledge and understanding that citizens themselves believe to be significant in addressing their everyday concerns. The potential for mismatch here is considerable, scientists perhaps preferring to probe the public understanding of black holes, plate tectonics or nitrogen fixation rather than the issues surrounding food additives, genetic screening or the transmission of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) which concern many members of the lay public.
An alternative approach to exploring scientific literacy begins, therefore, by identifying the needs for, and uses made of, scientific knowledge by adults in response to their particular concerns in a variety of contexts. Implicit in this approach are two related notions. The first is that of a number of distinct, segmented publics, differentiated by interest and concern. The second is that of a multiplicity of understandings of science which are essentially functional and directed towards specific social purposes. It thus makes sense to identify a range of scientific literacies, relating to a variety of contexts (e.g. employment, the family, leisure, policy making), and to a variety of issues (e.g. diet, health, nuclear power, toxic waste disposal, the supply of clean water drinking water, genetic counselling, the conservation of fish stocks). Some of the implications of this alternative approach to scientific literacy are considered below.
As far as technological literacy is concerned, the field is marked by substantial conceptual confusion and a burgeoning literature. In part, this confusion arises because the institutionalised scholarly study of technology is of more recent origin than that of science so that the field is simply less mature. This, in turn, may reflect the fact that, until very recently, more attention was given in advanced societies to science than to the promotion of practical capability, although other factors are almost certainly in play. It has been suggested, for example, that because much technological knowledge is tacit, rather than explicit, it is inaccessible to scholarly scrutiny. Also, for those who have been content to see technology as merely the application of science, technology has simply lacked its own knowledge base. Without some clarification, and ideally some consensus, about the nature of technology itself, any attempt to define technological literacy is likely to encounter difficulties.
It is thus hardly surprising that technological literacy is open to many interpretations and that technology educators have found it a far from straightforward task to give curriculum and pedagogical substance to technology as a component of general education. The 40th Yearbook of the Council on Technology Teacher Education (Dyrenfurth and Kozack 1991) offers the following characterisation.
Technological literacy is a multi-dimensional term that necessarily includes the ability to use technology (practical dimension), the ability to understand the issues raised by the use of technology (civic dimension) and the appreciation of the significance of technology (cultural dimension)
Several authors have drawn distinctions between technological literacy and other attributes such as technological awareness or capability. Todd (1991) has elaborated distinctions of this kind into a hierarchy of technological awareness (understanding), competence (comprehension), capability (application), creativity (invention) and technological criticism (judgement). Layton (1993) has distinguished between receiver competence (awareness), user competence, maker competence, monitoring competence and critic competence.
There is a substantial literature concerned with students attitudes towards/understandings of technology. The Proceedings of the various PATT conferences provide a useful starting point (e.g. Raat et al. 1988) and a recent review, although directed principally towards New Zealand explores much that is essential in the international literature. There is a range of gender-related studies, many of which are associated with the Gender and Science and Technology (GASAT) initiative. Nonetheless, well-grounded and replicated empirical studies of technological literacy are in general notable for their absence, and there is a pressing need to establish mechanisms for the exchange of information and research into childrens and adults understanding of, and interaction with, technology, comparable to those already in place in science and mathematics.
Some research findings
There is now a substantial volume of data, from a variety of countries and, in some instances extending over time, which reports quantitative measures of some aspects of the public understanding of science. (The phrase public understanding of science is used here in preference to scientific literacy since it captures more accurately the attempt in many studies to establish the understanding by non-expert groups of established scientific ideas). In the USA, for example, the various science and engineering indicators published by the National Science Board present US, European and Japanese data relating to specific issues such as acid rain and the depletion of the ozone layer (National Science Board 1993). The data are augmented by the results of other studies that include surveys of public attentiveness to, and assessments of, various scientific and technological issues such as genetic engineering, nuclear power and space exploration. Respondents to studies of lay understanding of scientific vocabulary and constructs are typically asked to indicate the truth or falsehood of statements such as the following.
All radioactivity is man-made.
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
The oxygen we breathe comes from plants.
The responses are analysed by gender and in terms of the level of formal education of the respondents.
Surveys of the public understanding of science are now available for many other countries, including those within the European Union (Commission of the European Communities 1993), Canada (Einseidel 1990), China (Zhang and Zhang 1993), Nigeria (Ogunniyi 1991) and South Africa (Maarschalk 1988). In addition, the various surveys of achievement in science carried out by the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement offer some insight into the scientific literacy of those who subsequently entered the workforce upon leaving school.
The results of surveys of this kind are commonly regarded as disappointing, with only modest proportions of the general population seemingly able to respond correctly to statements such as those quoted above. In Greece, France and Spain, for example, 85%, 72% and 75% respectively of adults believed in 1992 that antibiotics destroy viruses as well as bacteria (National Science Board 1993), findings that would seem to have some implications for health education. The relationships between percentages of this kind and formal education in science is unclear and any improvement in this measure of public understanding of science is difficult to disentangle from the more general effects and consequences of extended schooling and time spent in higher education.
These quantitative surveys are complemented by a number of detailed qualitative studies of a variety of social groups involved with a variety of science- or technology-related issues (e.g. Layton, Jenkins, MacGill and Davey 1993; Irwin and Wynne 1996; Irwin 1995) The groups are identified in different ways, such as living within a particular community (e.g. near a nuclear facility), an encounter with some issue or hazard in the home or at work, or functioning as a member of a group concerned with a particular issue. The scientific and technological issues are correspondingly diverse and range from inherited disease (Downs Syndrome, familial hypocholesterolaemia), the Chernobyl explosion, ionising radiation, diet and medication, to toxic waste, environmental protection and the ultra-sound imaging of an unborn foetus.
The findings of these qualitative investigations reveal that the relationship of lay citizens and other non-experts to science is much more complex than that normally captured by quantitative surveys of the public understanding of science. In particular, the relationship is interactive, rather than one that can be conceptualised in terms of simple rejection or acceptance. In the everyday world of the citizen, science itself emerges not as coherent, objective and unproblematic knowledge but as uncertain, contentious and often unable to answer many questions with the required degree of confidence. In some instances, expert scientific knowledge is marginalised or ignored as irrelevant to the problems being addressed. In addition, such knowledge, assuming it exists, is not separated from its social or institutional source, and is weighed alongside other more personal or local knowledge in establishing a basis for action. Citizen thinking, i.e. everyday thinking, turns out to be much more complex and less well-understood than scientific thinking and, as might be expected, well-adapted to decision-making in an everyday world which, unlike science itself, is marked by uncertainty, contingency and adaptation to a range of uncontrolled factors.
What of empirical research in the field of technological literacy and the public understanding of technology? Although a number of studies ostensibly concerned with the public understanding of science relate to issues that might better described as technological rather than scientific (e.g. nuclear power, genetic engineering), far too little is known about how lay citizens interact with technology. For many, the distinction between science and technology seems likely to be elusive, the moreso with the rise of an industrial techno-science that, arguably, amounts to a new system of knowledge production. In the absence of evidence to the contrary, it seems reasonable to assume that many of the comments made about the reflexive nature of scientific literacy may also apply to the notion of technological literacy. However, the field is likely to be a complicated one to explore. Like the terms science and literacy, technology carries multiple meanings. Distinctions can be made between different technologies, so that we have information technology, food technology, materials technology, advanced manufacturing technology, space technology and so on in a list that can be extended without difficulty. These distinctions are essentially between different domains of technological activity but the term technology can also be used in other ways. It may, for example, refer to an artefact (e.g., a. sewing machine, a computer), to a process (power generation, waste disposal), to a social system (Japanese microelectronics, American technology), or to a field of study, as in references to the history, philosophy or sociology of technology. It is also worth noting that the term technology is unhelpfully fluid and not easily shared across different languages (Fores and Rey 1970), an issue that seems not to have received the attention it deserves as far as science is concerned (Sj(berg 1995).
In this concluding section, I want to draw upon a number of qualitative and quantitative studies of scientific literacy and the public understanding of science to identify some of the dimensions of what, for convenience, I shall refer to as citizen science. By this, I mean a science which relates in reflexive ways to the concerns, interests and activities of citizens as they go about their everyday business. If it is not obvious already, it will become clear that establishing such a relationship has profound implications for the ways in which science is represented, organised, understood and used. It also has implications for the form, content and institutional provision of science education.
The significant features of citizen science seem to me to be as follows.
The interest of citizens in science and technology is differentiated by science, social group and gender. At a general level, surveys suggest that in most industrialised countries adults are more interested in, and more attentive to, medical issues than in or to most other science or technology-related matters, save for problems relating to the environment. Given the dramatic nature of some medical advances, the age distribution of the population and the environmental problems faced by these countries, these findings perhaps merit no further comment.
The extent of interest in, knowledge of, and attentiveness to scientific and technological issues among adults shows some positive dependence upon the length of their formal education. University graduates, not necessarily in science, are thus on the whole better informed about a range of science- and technology-related issues than those who completed their formal education at school level.
Gender differences are also often likely to be significant, especially in the field of attitudes. In a study of eighteen nationwide social surveys in the USA from 1972 to 1990, Trankina revealed that, irrespective of their educational background, adult women consistently displayed less confidence in science than men. While confidence of both sexes increased with educational level, it also widened as the extent of formal education increased (Trankina 1993). In another American study, Hornig explored the responses of men and women to stories of hypothetical new developments in science and technology. In general, women saw less benefit and more risk than men, their concerns focusing upon the social implications of innovation. It is important here to note that men and women both agreed that increasing scientific knowledge was desirable and that careful control was necessary. However, the evidence was clear that the men were more optimistic than the women about the feasibility of technical solutions to social problems and did not share the womens concern about science as a means of control (Hornig 1992). Hornigs response to her findings was that they should be interpreted not as a rejection of male dominated science but as an affirmation of other aspects of life, notably personal and social relationships, family-life and the home.
These studies may, of course, be less valid, or even invalid, in other social contexts. In any event, the findings raise important questions about how to attract more girls into careers in the physical sciences and whether significantly more women than men see science and technology , as presently practiced, as inextricably bound up with a domination of nature which they find uncomfortable.
(ii) For most citizens, interest in science and technology is linked with decision-making or action. The underpinning notion here is that of science for specific social purposes. These purposes may relate to a variety of contexts and issues ranging from personal matters such as health, diet, medication or child care, and employment (e.g. safety at work, risk assessment), to leisure (choosing the best fishing rod, pair of skis, or sewing machine), and protest (e.g., at a proposal to extend an airport runway or flood a valley).
A citizen who wishes, individually or as part of a group, to engage seriously in a debate about an issue which has a scientific and/or technological dimension sooner or later has to learn some of the relevant science. As an example, opposition to extending an airport runway is likely to demand, as a minimum, familiarity with the logarithmic basis of the decibel scale, the procedures for measuring and recording noise levels and the effect of noise on human hearing and behaviour, together with an understanding of the degree of confidence that can properly be placed in the various relevant measurements. Likewise, parents of children born with Downs Syndrome or those suffering from familial hypocholesterolaemia need to learn something of the mechanisms of inheritance if they are to understand the origins of the problems with which they are faced.
However, matters are rarely as straightforward as simply seeking the relevant scientific knowledge. That knowledge may not in a form in which it can be used. Knowledge of the chromosomal origins of Downs Syndrome is of no help to parents struggling to work out how best to cope with their Downs child. This insiders science, generated, validated and standardised by a community whose prime motivation is curiosity about the world and generalized understandings simply does not articulate with the needs of these parents. They therefore ignore it, gaining their knowledge instead from self-help groups consisting of others with experience of coping with the same problem.
In some instances, the scientific knowledge required for action or decision-making may be unavailable. In Wynnes study of upland sheep farmers whose livelihoods were adversely affected by the radioactive fallout from the Chernobyl explosion, scientific knowledge about the retention, or otherwise, of radioactive caesium by acid peaty soil was simply unavailable and the well-intentioned extrapolation of data based upon alkaline clay soils proved a serious and costly mistake (Wynne 1996). The experience of the science shops in the Netherlands and elsewhere confirms that many questions of concern to citizens cannot be readily answered, e.g., are the electromagnetic fields generated by high-voltage power lines harmful ? Is the ultraviolet light used for drying in offset printing harmful to the workers ? In instances such as this, unavailability of scientific knowledge stems from the lack of an adequate research base. In other cases, of which the thalidomide tragedy is perhaps the most obvious example, the unavailability of scientific knowledge to the citizen derives from the exclusion of clinical and other data relating to the drug from the public domain. As science becomes even more commercialised and industrialised and driven by social and economic rather than other concerns, problems of this kind are likely to increase.
(iii) Citizens chose a level of explanation adequate for the purpose in hand. When it is available, the scientific knowledge may also be unnecessarily sophisticated and over-elaborate for the purposes in hand. Caillot and Nguyen-Xuan (1995) studied a group of assembly workers in a computer company who were chained to their benches by an earthed metal bracelet in order to prevent damage to sensitive electrical components by the build up of static electricity. Despite being surrounded by advanced solid state technology, these employees regarded electricity as a fluid which could flow, pile up (as static electricity) or be discharged to the earth, envisaged as a vast container within which electricity was dispersed or lost. This unscientific model of electricity enabled the operatives to function safely and to make sensible decisions when confronted with problems. Likewise, it is usually more convenient, and adequate, for heating engineers to think of heat as something which flows rather than in terms of the kinetic theory of matter. Such scientifically incorrect understandings should not be lightly dismissed as misconceptions or misunderstandings. They have been well-tested in the context of experience and action and, in those contexts, have served people well. Those, like science teachers, seeking to remedy these misconceptions, would do well to recognise that the tenacity with which they are held outside the classroom probably owes less to pupils cognitive ability than to the proven usefulness of these wrong ideas in the world of everyday experience. It is also important to acknowledge that the commitment of experts to promoting understanding and that of citizens, to acquiring knowledge upon which to ground action, are different.
(iv) Citizens consider scientific and technological knowledge alongside other knowledge and understanding available to them. During the course of their personal, working and social lives, all citizens construct a body of practical knowledge, tested and validated against their individual and collective experience. In deciding how or when to act in practical matters that have a scientific or technological dimension, scientific knowledge presented as relevant is considered alongside this other experiential knowledge base. In Wynnes study of sheepfarmers in the aftermath of Chernobyl, the expert scientific advice about how to respond to the levels of radioactivity in the pasture was offered without accommodating several factors essential to any valid examination of the problem of how long the soil would remain contaminated, e.g. the differences between individual farms even within the same valley and the farmers own expert knowledge of how and where sheep graze on fells and about how field experiments could be conducted reliably (Wynne 1996). A study of how elderly people, faced with detailed advice about how to manage their domestic energy budget, revealed that they do so in ways that are much more subtle and complex than might be understood - or even dictated - by a consideration of the nature of energy itself (Layton et al. 1993). For them, the purchase, consumption and use of energy cannot be reduced to a matter of conservation: it also has personal, social and financial dimensions
Sometimes, citizens choose positively to ignore scientific knowledge that seems, to an outsider, to be of direct relevance to them. Apprentice electricians working at a nuclear power plant, for example, judged it unnecessary to know anything of the nature of ionising radiation and its associated risks since this was properly regarded as the responsibility, not of electricians, but of the health physicists employed at the plant. Likewise, local councillors required to make decisions about the disposal of hazardous waste relied upon the expertise of their technical advisers. Both of these examples illustrate that selective ignorance can be functional and permits attention to be focused more effectively on a specific field of action.
It is, of course, important to acknowledge that everyday or common-sense knowledge, while it may be adequate in many contexts, can, in other circumstances, be misleading or even dangerous. There is here, therefore, no suggestion here that such knowledge should in any way be automatically privileged over the scientific. What is being stressed is that citizens construct, from the sources available to them, syncretic bodies of practical knowledge well-adapted to specific everyday situations.
(v) Citizens consider scientific knowledge alongside its social and institutional connections. Several research studies show that in responding to, and judging scientific knowledge relevant to an issue with which they are engaged, citizens ask questions such as From whom?, From where? and From what organisation or source? does that knowledge come. In other words, their judgement is coloured by what has been called the body language of scientific organisations. Where experts come from, the nature of their priorities and how they communicate their knowledge are as important to the acceptability of that knowledge by non-experts as the internal validity of the science. Wynne has summarised the position in the following terms.
The public uptake (or not) of science is not based upon intellectual ability as much as socio-institutional factors having to do with social access, trust, and negotiation as opposed to imposed authority (Wynne 1991: 116).
Many of the science-based issues with which citizens are concerned are controversial, contentious and at the heart of policy decisions by government, industry or other organisations. The BSE issue in the United Kingdom illustrates very clearly the relationship between the scientific tale and the teller. In a field in which many basic questions surrounding the nature and transmission of the disease remain unanswered and the subject of on-going scientific debate, government advice about the safety of beef and how to deal with the problems facing the livestock industry was viewed with considerable scepticism. In a survey conducted in Britain in March 1996, 80% of those surveyed replied that government ministers were more concerned with party politics than with the well-being of consumers (Marris and Langford 1996).
It is important to note that, in some controversial issues, lay citizens may be confronted by conflicting expert scientific advice. The conflict frequently depends upon arguments about data, the underlying methodology and/or the significance of the findings. All these arguments were well-illustrated in the controversy in the debate between the oil companies and the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA about the safety of lead in petrol. There are, however, many other examples, such as the controversies surrounding the safety of the herbicide 2,4,5-T , the level of fishstocks in the North Sea and many of the issues with which organisations such as Greenpeace and the Friends of the Earth are involved.
(vi) Citizens have complex attitudes to risks associated with scientific or technological issues. There are several ways of estimating risk. Many of these are both sophisticated and quantitative, and different measures of risk, calculated in different ways, are not always easy to reconcile. In addition, psychological and sociological studies of adults perceptions of risk do not point towards simple generalisations. In these circumstances, it is appropriate simply to illustrate, rather than try to summarize, the complexity of adults responses when confronted with the risks associated with scientific or technological issues.
Wynne has noted that the local population around the nuclear facility at Sellafield in the north west of England has a rather more favourable attitude towards nuclear power than the public at large. This allows the nuclear industry to claim that those who work within, or live near Sellafield, have a better understanding of the risks associated with nuclear power. However, it is likely, as Wynne has suggested, that these favourable attitudes owe rather more to a fatalistic acceptance of the dominance of the nuclear power plant in the local economy and pattern of employment
(b) Most citizens understand that guarantees of absolute safety cannot be given and they are not, therefore, usually sought. In offering reassurance about contentious issues such as the safety of the nuclear power industry or of childhood vaccination, the relevant authorities may, therefore, be undermining, rather than strengthening, the case they wish to promote.
What constitutes an acceptable risk depends on many factors. Studies suggest that the risks which people find most acceptable are those which they see as self-imposed or as having an immediate impact. The use of microwave ovens, driving a car or the consumption of alcohol would fall into this category. Conversely, the least acceptable risks were those associated with issues that were seen as the result of the actions of others and as having long-term, perhaps unknown but potentially catastrophic consequences. Ozone depletion and the storage of nuclear waste would fall into this second category. Attempts to ally these perceptions of risk with the broader cultural dispositions of individuals towards the natural world confirm that any statistical probability of harm provided by an expert is but one source used by people to evaluate potential dangers. Other sources ,in order of decreasing trust are the family, friends, environmental organization, the media, industrial companies and the government.
(vii) Scientifically informed citizens are more discriminating in their judgements about science- or technology-related issues.. A number of studies show that increased understanding can change judgements about a science- or technology-related issue. If a discussion is structured sufficiently carefully, it is sometimes possible for lay citizens to develop what most scientists would regard as a reasonable view of such an issue. However, much depends upon the issue and public opposition to an unpopular notion may remain unchanged, no matter how much technical data is provided. It would be a mistake, therefore to assume that greater understanding of an issue such as nuclear power necessarily means greater acceptance.
In conclusion, therefore, our non-expert citizen turns out to be rather complex in his or her dealings with science. Those dealings cannot be accounted for simply in terms of ignorance or knowledge, the message can not be separated from the messenger, the scientific information required to ground action in the everyday world is often not available or open to question, and everyday citizen thinking in response to science-based issues is much more complex and sophisticated than is usually acknowledged. The implications of this approach to scientific literacy for the various agencies involved in scientific education, including schools, science centres, science shops, museums and the media are considerable but they lie beyond the scope of this paper.
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