Climate change activists

These climate change activists demonstrate the power of “community literacy."

Jason DeCrow/ASSOCIATED PRESS

Americans may know more than you think about science

Americans know a lot more about science and health issues than traditional surveys of individuals would suggest, according to a new report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. Those surveys ignore what the report calls “community literacy”—the phenomenon by which individuals learn about and take collective action on issues they care deeply about, from AIDS to environmental justice.

The report assesses the state of science and health literacy in the United States and those who study it. It also offers some unusually blunt advice to Congress, which ordered up the study, and to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), which funded it.

The good news, according to the report, is that Americans “perform comparably to adults in other economically developed countries on most current measures of science knowledge.” That finding is meant to contradict the stereotype of Americans learning little science in school and being oblivious to or willfully ignorant of the scientific consensus on everything from climate change to evolution. In addition, the report finds that large groups of people can help advance the frontiers of knowledge through “community action, often in collaboration with scientists.”

But the bad news is that researchers may have misled policymakers and educators about the connection between literacy and support for science. “Available research does not support the claim that increasing science literacy will lead to appreciably greater support for science in general,” the report concludes. Scientists are partly to blame for that misconception, it adds, because the metrics they typically use to assess literacy “are only weakly correlated” with how people behave.

“We need to have a sense of science literacy that is much broader at the individual level and much deeper at the societal level than traditional measures reflect,” says Catherine Snow, a professor at the graduate school of education at Harvard University and chair of the academy panel that wrote Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences. “A public survey is a very limited measure, and you have to be very cautious about how much you can extrapolate from the answers.”

The idea of community literacy has been around for decades, says panelist Noah Feinstein, a sociologist and science educator at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, citing the role of HIV activists in the 1980s and 1990s in transforming clinical trials to combat AIDS. But literacy researchers have only recently begun to focus on the power of that collective action, he notes.

“These communities are capable of accomplishing extraordinary things by engaging with scientists,” Feinstein says. “Not everybody has the same level of scientific knowledge and connections. But when they pool that expertise, the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts.”

The new report was prompted by a congressional directive to NIH to study scientific literacy that was written into a spending bill setting out its 2015 budget. Drawing on that language, NIH asked the National Academies to make “recommendations on the need to improve the understanding of science and scientific research in the United States.” The report’s call for a broader definition of scientific literacy and for new research on society’s role in shaping what individuals know about science and health issues is standard fare for academy panels.

But Snow’s panel departs from the norm when it chides lawmakers and NIH officials for their superficial understanding of the subject. Those unfounded assumptions, it notes, posed significant problems for the panel.

“Throughout this report, the committee aims to challenge traditional understandings of science literacy,” the authors note. “To fully understand whether or not there is a need to improve the understanding of science in the United States, it would first be necessary to solidify an evidence base that investigates science literacy in all its complexity.”

NIH also asked the committee to seek evidence for how “enhanced scientific literacy” could lead to such positive outcomes such as greater support for research and more healthy living practices. That’s another no-no, the panel concluded. The agency’s charge “presuppose[es] a relationship between science literacy and those outcomes,” the report points out disapprovingly.

The new report won’t be the academies’s last work on scientific literacy. Another academies panel is currently tackling the science of science communications, with a report proposing a research agenda expected later this year. In rushing to meet a tight deadline set by NIH, Snow said her panel also avoided examining how literacy is acquired, both at school and in informal settings, and focused just on adult literacy.

Despite those limitations, Snow says she hopes the report will prod scientists to interact with a broader swath of the public. “Science isn’t just what they do, and their job isn’t simply to transmit that information,” she says. “Our message is that science is also what groups of people do who are not trained as scientists but who can also contribute to the search for truth.”

*Correction, 11 August, 10:38 a.m.: An earlier version of the story incorrectly described Catherine Snow’s position at Harvard.