The Misunderstood Meanings of Science Literacy

As part of their conversation series with scientists, the NY Times this week runs an interview with Harvard's Eric Mazur featuring the headline "Using the 'Beauties of Physics' to Conquer Science Illiteracy."

Mazur discusses his teaching approach in his physics course, stating that his goal is to end "science illiteracy" among college students. "It's important to mentally engage students in what you're teaching," he explains. "We're way too focused on facts and rote memorization and not on learning the process of doing science."

But what does science literacy exactly mean? When science lovers, bloggers, and others raise alarm about "science illiteracy" as a major social problem in society, what does past research suggest are the valid meanings of this commonly ill defined term? Moreover, what is meant by the "public understanding of science"? As I explain in the Framing Science article at Science and in the Speaking Science 2.0 road show, these definitions matter when it comes to effective public communication.

The NY Times interview brought to mind a short overview column on this subject I wrote in 2005 for Skeptical Inquirer Online. I have pasted the full feature below the fold and you can find the original here.

The Multiple Meanings of Public Understanding:
Why Definitions Matter to the Communication of Science

Matthew Nisbet
April 28, 2005

Scientists, advocates, and policymakers frequently cite the "public understanding of science," but rarely ever carefully define the term, leaving me to wonder what is exactly meant when the phrase is used to diagnose social problems, characterize institutional initiatives, or describe entire organizations.

Sometimes the term is used to issue a call to arms in a political conflict. If the public only better understood the science involved, the controversy would likely go away. A scientist quoted in a recent PBS NewsHour report on Intelligent Design, characterizes the challenge to science in typical fashion: "Part of it is a failure to really understand the scientific process. Unfortunately, the United States falls far behind in terms of our scientific appreciation and scientific understanding."

Institutions frequently use the term to describe their public outreach activities. A recent Irish Times article chronicled the efforts of scientists at University College Dublin to stage a "main foray into public understanding of science" by sponsoring a contest among university researchers to successfully explain their work to an audience of the lay public. "We are trying to reach the public and get science out to a wider audience," Annette Forde, a biochemist told the Irish Times. "You have to communicate with the public and business community and let them know how their tax money is being spent on research."

Highly visible and media savvy scientists are labeled by other scientists and by journalists as champions of public understanding. Richard Dawkins, for example, holds the grand (and rather long) title of Charles Simonyi Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University. Physicist Lawrence Krauss and the late astronomer Carl Sagan are noted for their contributions to the "public understanding of science," and have received awards for their efforts. You might hear a scientist or science enthusiast lament that we need more "science popularizers like Sagan," or that we need "more scientists dedicated to furthering public understanding," or that "more scientists need to learn how to communicate with the public."

Despite its common and ubiquitous usage in science circles, what does everyone actually mean when they use the phrase "public understanding of science?" Clearly institutions and scientists believe it is important, yet the term's exact definition remains elusive. As I will discuss in this column, public understanding of science can have varying conceptualizations, and how we define the term holds important strategic implications.

Many of the thoughts I outline in this column are not original. Scholars have produced a vast academic literature on the topic, including books, government reports, and at least two peer-reviewed journals devoted to the area (Go here and here). As references, I highlight several leading resources so that interested readers can follow up with more reading on the subject.

Defining Understanding

A British House of Lords study provides some first principles, defining the concept as "understanding of scientific matters by non-experts." According to the report, the global term "public understanding of science" has become a catch all phrase for "forms of outreach by the scientific community, or by others on their behalf (e.g. science writers, museums, event organizers), to the public at large, aimed at improving knowledge."

The same report also finds fault with the label since it conveys a "false assumption that any difficulties in the relationship between science and society are due entirely to ignorance and misunderstanding on the part of the public; and that, with enough public-understanding activity, the public can be brought to greater knowledge, whereupon all will be well."

A preferred substitute term introduced by the House of Lords is "public engagement with science and technology," which implies instead a conversation about science between scientists and the public, where both sides learn about the other's perspective. The House of Lords' preference for dialogue recognizes that the public in tandem with any technical comprehension of a scientific topic, also relies on both trust and social values in forming an opinion. Subsequent to the House of Lords report, many scientists and policymakers in Great Britain now favor this new emphasis on "public engagement."

Okay this is a start, but what kind of knowledge are we talking about and where does trust and dialogue come in? In conceptualizing knowledge, I can identify five important dimensions.

"Practical scientific literacy" refers to knowledge that can be applied to solving common everyday personal problems such as consumer and financial decisions, repairing a household appliance or automobile, or interpreting the packaging on food or other products. Although many scientists and institutions deem this dimension of knowledge important (consider how many Americans don't know how to set their VCRs, or even how a thermostat works), it is not the typical focus when they engage in public understanding activities.

"Civic science literacy" means a level of understanding of scientific terms and constructs sufficient to make sense of a news report, and/or to interpret competing arguments on a complex policy matter. The political scientist Jon Miller has measured civic science literacy in surveys by asking respondents a series of questions that tap their understanding of basic scientific facts, such as the definition of DNA or a molecule, or whether the respondent can correctly identify as either true or false that the "center of the earthy is very hot," or that "antibiotics can kill viruses as well as bacteria."

A second part of civic science literacy involves understanding how scientific investigation works, recognizing science as theory building, and science as a systematic testing of propositions. Miller measures these constructs in survey questions by asking respondents to describe in their own words "what it means to study something scientifically," and by asking respondents about their understanding of the logic of experimental design, control groups, and placebos (See Miller, 1998; Also the National Science Board 2004 for trends).

Many scientists, advocates, and policy makers conceive of civic science literacy in relation to the cultural authority of science, defined as the domain of decisions in society that should be decided by scientific input. Should policy on climate change be decided by scientific calculations of risk to the environment and human health, or by the economic considerations of industry? Should embryonic stem cell research be decided as a scientific funding matter, or as a religious and moral debate?

The popular assumption is that increasing civic science literacy boosts the cultural authority of science. In other words, if the public knew more about science, then scientists would have greater influence over important policy decisions. "To know science is to love science" is the common view. Because of its assumed political importance, most public understanding of science activities are aimed at improving civic science literacy.

"Institutional science literacy" is a third conceptualization that focuses on the politics of science. For example, who funds and regulates scientific research in the United States? How is controversial science such as cloning regulated? How does peer-review work? Does science inform policymaking? Can a citizen identify the leaders of major scientific institutions?

British researchers Patrick Sturgis and Nick Allum argue in a recent study that it is likely that when something goes wrong with science, such as a highly visible case of fraud, unethical conduct, or corruption, citizens with a better understanding of science as an institution are more likely to attribute the episode to a complex set of political and social factors, rather than to the bad character of the institution or of scientists as a group (See Sturgis & Allum, 2004). In my own current research, I am examining institutional science literacy as an important form of mobilizing information. If citizens want to participate in science-related policy decisions, they need to know who to contact, who to lobby, and where to focus their political efforts.

In an alternative conceptualization, sociologists who study science argue that citizens, apart from the idealized textbook image of how scientific research is conducted, should also understand that scientists are party to many social influences, including competition, biases, errors, and career advancement. The lay public should understand what anyone who has ever worked in science already knows: that much of science is subject to the same human influences that occur in any profession (See Collins & Pinch, 1993).

"Low information rationality" is a term I have borrowed from work in political science that questions both the ability and the motivation of the public to be knowledgeable about science. As I have discussed in past columns (see here and here), in the case of newly emerging science controversies such as those over embryonic stem cell research or Intelligent Design, it is unlikely given the many competing events in the world, that the public will hold a great deal of issue-specific knowledge.

Instead, the public makes up for a lack of information by relying heavily on relevant value predispositions such as religion and ideology. Citizens use these values as perceptual screens in sorting through the images most readily available in the media about the topic, mostly sound bites that might emphasize stem cell research "as a source for miracle cures," or Intelligent Design as an equally valid alternative to "a theory of evolution riddled with holes." On these issues, political campaign-style tactics are likely to be more effective in shaping public opinion than traditional public understanding of science activities (See Nisbet, 2005).

"A social context emphasis" is a final view of public understanding that highlights the contingent influence of social identity and trust on how information about science is used by the public. The sociologist Brian Wynne argues that the way a particular social group is likely to use scientific knowledge varies by how that group interprets the motivations of scientists and their institutions.

For example, in the case of genetically-modified food, a Green party member in Europe is likely to interpret the information provided by a Monsanto scientist very differently than if the same information were provided by a government scientist. Or in the United States, in the case of evolution, a devout Evangelical is likely to accept the claims of a religious advocate about the scientific basis of Intelligent Design while rejecting the arguments of a university biologist.


The public is far from monolithic in how it is likely to acquire and apply knowledge about science. It is important to segment the "general public" by relevant social identities and values such as religion, partisanship, education, identity, ethnicity, occupation, region, locality, and prior knowledge. This is where dialogue and interaction with the public plays a key role, as scientists and their institutions learn about the perspectives and concerns of these particular social groups, and then tailor their public understanding of science activities accordingly.

The type of science knowledge that matters depends on the issue, the situation, and the goals of the scientific institution. If the goal is to ensure long term benefits to science, including continued government funding and public support for new technologies, then it is important to invest in formal school-based programs that boost civic science literacy, but that also teach about the institutional context of science.

Outside of a few specialized science outlets, the commercial mass media are likely to contribute very little to improving civic science literacy. Market imperatives and professional norms of journalists work against quality coverage of science as a body of knowledge or as an investigative process (See Nisbet et al, 2002). Instead, the media may be much better at informing the public about the institutional and political side of science, assuming such coverage is not heavy with scandal-mongering or comprised of a fragmented focus on isolated incidents and controversial personalities.

If scientific institutions are involved in short-term political battles to win funding, pass a referendum, or oppose a school board ruling, then public understanding initiatives that play on the "low information rationality" nature of the public are probably most effective. In this instance, science can look to political campaigns as an effective model for public outreach.

In sum, there is no easy answer to "improving the public understanding of science." It is a complex matter that deserves careful consideration, and the many possible dimensions of public understanding should inform the communication efforts of scientists.


Burns, T.W., O'Connor, D.J., & Stocklmayer (2003). Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition. Public Understanding of Science, 12, 183-202.

Collins, H. & Pinch, T. (1993). The Golem: What everyone should know about science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Gregory, J. & Miller, S. (1998). Science in Public: Communication, Culture, and Credibility. New York: Plenum.

Hilgartner, S. (1990). The Dominant view of popularization: Conceptual problems, political Uses. Social Studies of Science, 20 (3), 519-539.

Irwin, A. (2001). Constructing the scientific citizen: science and democracy in the biosciences. Public Understanding of Science, 10, 1-18.

Miller, J.D. (1998). The measurement of civic scientific literacy. Public Understanding of Science, 7, 203-223.

Nisbet, M.C. (2005). The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 17, 1, 90-112.

Nisbet, M.C., Scheufele, D.A., Shanahan, J.E., Moy, P. Brossard, D., & Lewenstein, B.V. (2002). Knowledge, reservations, or promise? A media effects model for public perceptions of science and technology. Communication Research, 29 (5), 584-608.

Sturgis, P. & Allum, N. (2004). Science in Society: Re-Evaluating the Deficit Model of Public Attitudes. Public Understanding of Science, 13, 1, 55-74.

Wynne, B. (1992). Misunderstood misunderstanding: Social identities and public uptake of science. Public Understanding of Science, 1, 281-304.

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Hold your breath at Marble Arch!

Air pollution up to five times over the EU limit in Central London hotspots

  • Dirty air is an invisible killer, but an effective one.
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  • This map visualises the worst places to breathe in Central London.

The Great Smog of 1952

London used to be famous for its 'pea-soupers': combinations of smoke and fog caused by burning coal for power and heating.

All that changed after the Great Smog of 1952, when weather conditions created a particularly dense and persistent layer of pollution. For a number of days, visibility was reduced to as little as one foot, making traffic impossible. The fog even crept indoors, leading to cancellations of theatre and film showings. The episode wasn't just disruptive and disturbing, but also deadly: according to one estimate, it directly and indirectly killed up to 12,000 Londoners.

Invisible, but still deadly

Image: MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images

London Mayor Sadiq Khan

After the shock of the Great Smog, the UK cleaned up its act, legislating to replace open coal fires with less polluting alternatives. London Mayor Sadiq Khan is hoping for a repeat of the movement that eradicated London's smog epidemic, but now for its invisible variety.

The air in London is "filthy, toxic", says Khan. In fact, poor air quality in the British capital is a "public health crisis". The city's poor air quality is linked not just to thousands of premature deaths each year, but also to a range of illnesses including asthma, heart disease and dementia. Children growing up in areas with high levels of air pollution may develop stunted lungs, with up to 10% less capacity than normal.

Image: Transport for London

ULEZ phases 1 and 2, and LEZ

Khan has led a very active campaign for better air quality since his election as London Mayor in 2016. Some of the measures recently decided:

  • Transport for London has introduced 2,600 diesel-electric hybrid buses, which is said to reduce emissions by up to 40%.
  • Mr Khan has pledged to spend £800 million on air quality over a five-year period.
  • Uber fares will rise by 15p (20¢) to help drivers buy electric cars.
  • Since the start of 2018, all new single-decker buses are zero-emission and all new taxis must be hybrid or electric.
  • Mr Khan has added a T-charge on the most toxic vehicles entering the city. On 8 April, the T-charge will be replaced by an Ultra-Low Emission Zone (ULEZ), contiguous with the Congestion Charge Zone.
  • The ULEZ is designed to reduce emissions of nitrogen oxide and particulate matter by charging vehicles who don't meet stringent exhaust emission standards.
  • By October 2020, a Low-Emission Zone (LEZ), applicable to heavy commercial vehicles, will cover most of Greater London.
  • By October 2021, the ULEZ will expand to cover a greater part of Central London.

Central London's worst places for breathing

Image: Steven Bernard / Financial Times

Heathrow (bottom left on the overview map) is another pollution hotspot

What worries experts is that despite considerable efforts already made, levels of air pollution stubbornly refuse to recede – and remain alarmingly high in locations where traffic flows converge.

It's not something you'd think of, given our atmosphere's fluctuating nature, but air pollution hotspots can be extremely local – as this map demonstrates.

One important lesson for all Londoners: don't inhale at Marble Arch! Levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) are five times the EU norm – the highest in the city. Traffic permitting, quickly cross Cumberland Gate to Speakers' Corner and further into Hyde Park, where levels sink back to a 'permissible' 40 milligrams per cubic meter. Now you can inhale!

Almost as bad: Tower Hill (4.6 times the EU norm) and Marylebone Road (4 times; go to nearby Regent's Park for relief).

Also quite bad: the Strand (3.9), Piccadilly Circus (3.8), and Hyde Park Corner (also 3.8), Victoria (3.7) and Knightsbridge (3.5), the dirty trio just south of Hyde Park.

Elephant & Castle is the only pollution hotspot below the Thames and, perhaps because it's relatively isolated from other black spots, also the one with the lowest multiplication factor (2.8 times the maximum level).

On the larger map, the whole of Central London, including its relatively NO2-free parks, still shows up as more polluted than the outlying areas. Two exceptions flare up red: busy traffic arteries; and Heathrow Airport (in the bottom left corner).

Image: Mike Malone, CC BY SA 4.0

Traffic congestion on London's Great Portland Street

So why is Central London's air pollution problem so persistent? In part, this is because the need for individual transport in cars seems to be inelastic. For example, the Congestion Charge has slashed the number of vehicles entering Central London by 30%, but the number of (CC-exempt) private-hire vehicles entering that zone has quadrupled over the same period.

Cycling has really taken off in London. But despite all pro-cycling measures, a wide range of other transport options and car-dissuading measures, central London is still a very congested place. Average traffic speeds on weekdays has declined to 8 miles (13 km) per hour – fittingly medieval speeds, as the road network was largely designed in medieval times.

Narrow streets between high buildings, filled to capacity with slow-moving traffic are a textbook recipe for semi-permanent high levels air pollution.

The large share of diesel vehicles on London's streets only increases the problem. Diesel vehicles emit lower levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) than petrol cars, which is why their introduction was promoted by European governments.

However, diesels emit higher levels of the highly toxic nitrogen dioxide (NO2) than initial lab tests indicated. Which is why they're being phased out now.

As bad as Delhi, worse than New York

Image: Sanchit Khanna/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

By some measures, London's air quality is almost as bad as New Delhi's.

By some measures, especially NO2, London's air pollution is nearly as bad as big Asian cities such as Beijing or New Delhi, and much worse than other developed cities such as New York and Madrid.

The UK is bound to meet pollution limits as set down in the National Air Quality objectives and by EU directives, for example for particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide.

  • Particulate matter (PM2.5) consists of tiny particles less than 2.5 micrometres in diameter emitted by combustion engines. Exposure to PM2.5 raises the mortality risk of cardiovascular diseases. The target for PM2.5 by 2020 is 25 µg/m3. All of London currently scores higher, with most areas at double that level.
  • Mainly emitted by diesel engines, NO2 irritates the respiratory system and aggravates asthma and other pre-existing conditions. NO2 also reacts with other gases to form acid rain. The limit for NO2 is 40 µg/m3, and NO2 levels must not exceed 200 µg/m3 more than 18 times a year. Last year, London hit that figure before January was over.

Google joins fight against air pollution

Image: laszlo-photo, CC BY SA 2.0

Elephant & Castle, London.

Studies predict London's air pollution will remain above legal limits until 2025. Sadiq Khan – himself an asthma sufferer – is working to make London's air cleaner by measures great and small. Earlier this week, he announced that two of Google's Street View cars will be carrying air quality sensors when mapping the streets of London

Over the course of a year, the two cars will take air quality readings every 30 metres in order to identify areas of London with dangerous levels of air pollution that might be missed by the network of fixed sensors. An additional 100 of those fixed sensors will be installed near sensitive locations and known pollution hotspots, doubling the network's density.

It's all part of Breathe London, a scheme to map the British capital's air pollution in real time. Breathe London will be the world's largest air quality monitoring network, said Mr Khan, launching the scheme at Charlotte Sharman Primary School in the London borough of Southwark.

Up to 30% of the school's pupils are said to be asthma sufferers. Charlotte Sharman is close to Elephant & Castle, as the above map shows, one of Central London's air pollution hotspots.

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