Scientific Literacy

Scientific literacy, and more so the public understanding of science, have recently become areas of study in their own right within the sociology of science and science and technology studies (STS). This emergence is partly due to the increased focus on science as an inherently social activity, but more specifically it is due to the mounting challenges that the scientific community has faced in dealing with this fact. Science is not only a social activity in that it is governed by a set of norms and values (as Robert Merton’s classic work in the 1950s posited, with the identification of the CUDOS norms of communism, universality, disinterestedness, and organized skepticism), but it is also a social activity in the respect that it plays an instrumental role in the construction of everyday life.

Science is perhaps one of the most demarcated and professionalized human activities because it argues to have a different evidential basis for its knowledge claims. This evidential basis is largely the product of the scientific method that collects bits of information from the observation of a phenomenon in the form of induction, then operates in the deductive fashion by the creation of hypotheses to explain the phenomenon, the conducting of experiments in attempts to confirm and/or falsify the said hypotheses, and the building of a theory based on the results of experiments. Without elementary training and education in the fundamental aspects of science, the operations and products of the scientific community can become almost unintelligible to the outsider. This convolution is partly due to the increasing complexity of new specializations emergent within disciplines, coupled with the transformation of theories and the evolving nature of understanding. As a result, there is often a break, or chasm, between what the scientific community claims it is doing and what ”the public” – those who find themselves outside of the scientific community -understand of the processes and products of science. Attempts at comprehending and explaining this break have become the work of sociologists, and other related fields of social science, who are interested in the public understanding of science (PUS).

Early quantitative surveys in the PUS found that there is ”a tendency for better informed respondents to have a more positive general attitude towards science and scientists” (Durant et al. 1989). It was consequently argued that any public opposition to science and technology policies, decisions, and/or advancements was largely due to the fact that the public did not understand the arguments and reasoning behind the science in question. This view of the public understanding of science came to be known (largely by its critics) as the ”deficit model” (Wynne 1991; Ziman 1991). Proponents of this deficit model of PUS feel that if the public were simply better informed about science, then they would generally be more supportive of it. Glossing the work of Alan Gross, Sturgis and Allum (2004) put it like this: ”in this formulation, it is the public that are assumed to be ‘deficient’ while science is ‘sufficient’ … lacking a proper understanding of the relevant facts, people fall back on mystical belief and irrational fears of the unknown.”

Much focus in PUS has therefore been paid to one of the central problematics within the communication of information from scientists to the public: the role of the media. Based on the assumption that all information is mediated by the source from which it emanates, many of the investigators have taken up the media as a sight of examination and queried the effects that it may have on the public understanding of science. Some have argued that the media are responsible for misconstruing the message of the science and perpetuating misconceptions, while others have sought to explain the use of expert scientific testimony within the media.

Other central concerns in the PUS are the notion of ”the public” as well as the notion of ”science.” Different people experience different aspects of science in very different ways, and thus studies that have made reference to ”the public” as a homogeneous group, or ones which have tried to comprehend levels of understanding in ”science” in general, have largely worked to cloud the picture of PUS. Consequently, much of the work carried out in the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries has focused on national contexts and case studies.

After considerable work done on the PUS in the West, more recent investigations have sought to open up the area of study to other countries and cultures that have traditionally been located outside of the dominant discourse. Such work includes a focus on PUS in ex Soviet countries, the contextualization of differences in PUS within European peripheral states, and international comparisons between PUS in oriental and western countries.

Not only have the more recent works been increasingly contextualized to specific national perspectives, but also much of the work done in PUS is case specific. Such investigations do not concentrate on the public understanding of science in general, but rather the public’s understanding of a particular scientific advancement.

Examples include cases from around the world (e.g., East Asia, Oceania, Europe, and ex Soviet countries) and cut across technoscientific specializations (e.g., medical gene technology, genetically modified foods, nuclear sciences, and xenotransplantation). Traditional sociological categories such as gender, political affiliation, and socioeconomic status have also been areas of concentration within the PUS in an attempt to further contextualize ”the public” within the PUS.

While the work carried out in the PUS is vast and diverse, some take for granted the assumption of the deficit model and continue to operate on the belief that a more informed public will necessarily lead to an increasing amount of support for scientific endeavors. Debate and controversy remain around this assumption of the deficit model, and contestation is not new to PUS, as it is an area of investigation that has altered and changed throughout the years.

In the early post war years in the US and the UK, the scientific community took very little interest in engaging the public with its processes, content, and (social) structure. Conversely, the popularization of science was high on the agenda for various social groups and institutions who worked in and around scientific areas, but as Lewenstein (1992) argues, this did not mean critical engagement with science as, ”the term ‘public understanding of science’ became equated with ‘public appreciation of the benefits that science provides to society.”’ This era of science policy in 1940s and 1950s America is what Sarewitz (1996) has called the ”myth of infinite benefit.” Sarewitz’s historical treatment shows how this myth posited that increasing state funding for scientific research would lead directly to increased public good and thus public support. Heavy state involvement in the promotion of science for the public good was championed by the likes of Vannevar Bush – the chief research adviser to President Roosevelt and one of the central figures in mobilizing science for use to the state and military, particularly during and after World War II. During this period new universities and research institutions were established, and existing ones witnessed an eruption in state funding for scientific activities. Dreams of flying cars and homes operated on nuclear energy filled the imaginations of the uncritical public until the 1960s.

In the US some attempts to gauge the concepts of scientific literacy (SL) and to distinguish them from PUS began around 1979 when social scientists working in these areas were commissioned to overhaul the Science Indicators. The goal of these social scientists was to significantly expanded the scope of the surveys and begin to focus more attention on attitudes, knowledge measures, and expected participation measures for specific issues and controversies, such as nuclear power. Measures of policy preferences were expanded beyond spending preferences to specific regulatory areas. New measures concerning the individual’s sources of scientific and technical information were added, allowing the formation of scales reflecting adult participation in informal science education activities.  (Miller 1992)

In constructing this self professed ”first measure of scientific literacy,” Miller also created a construct to divide ”the public” into subgroups:

individuals who report a high level of interest in science and technology policy issues and a sense of being very well informed about those issues (called the attentive public …), those individuals who report a high level of interest in science and technology policy issues but who do not classify themselves as being very well informed about those issues (called the interested public), and those individuals who report that they are not very interested in science and technology policy issues (called the residual public). (Miller 1992)

In Britain, initiatives were taken up around the same time in an attempt to gauge the public’s relationship with science. In 1985 the Bodmer report was published by the Royal Society, which called into question the degree of public support for science. As a response to the Bodmer report a body was established called the Committee for Public Understanding of Science (or COPUS) that was jointly founded by the Royal Society, the British Association, and the Royal Institution.

In both the US and the UK these reports, surveys, and indicators produced results that suggested that while there might be interest in science, knowledge about process and content was seriously lacking. In other words, findings suggested that the public was largely scientifically illiterate, which acted as the basis for the deficit model.

Predictably, the deficit model led to a major backlash from some of those within the constructivist school of STS and the social sciences more broadly who were interested in the PUS. The constructivists argued that it was short sighted to assume that the public simply lacked an understanding of science, and it was rather that the public experienced science within their own specific social contexts and consequently sometimes chose to question the authority or validity of scientific claims (Wynne 1991). The debate boiled with such fervor and the research and interest in the area grew with such intensity that the journal Public Understanding of Science was created in 1992, dedicated solely to its namesake.

Constructivists and those supporters of the deficit model converge and diverge at interesting points within the PUS. For instance, both sides seem to agree that PUS entails an understanding of some of the formal content of science, the methods and processes of science, alongside a crucial third factor that differs for each party. For those of the deficit school this third factor is the ”awareness of the impact of science and technology on individuals and society” (Miller 1992), whereas for constructivists like Wynne this third factor is the understanding of the ”forms of institutional embedding, patronage and organizational control” of science (Wynne 1992). This third differing factor is paramount because in the constructivists’ understanding the authority of science can legitimately be called into question.

According to constructivists like Wynne and Steven Yearley, scientific knowledge and expert claims are ”always mediated by knowledge of the institutional arrangements under which expertise is authorized. Claims of expert knowledge are always contestable, depending on what one knows of the relevant institution” (Sturgis & Allum 2004, discussing Yearley). Consequently, the ”scientific” advice of daily intake of ”the four basic food groups” provided by the scientists from the American Food and Drug Association can be mediated by the knowledge that this institution has had a close working relationship with the National Dairy Council, and that years before the four basic food groups existed there were indeed twelve basic food groups in which dairy played a much smaller role (Haughton et al. 1987).

Constructivists assert that if a problem exists in the communication of science’s content, processes, and structure, then the responsibility for the problem of PUS must swing both ways. This argument represents a flat rejection of the claim of the deficit model that the blame for the problem of PUS rests solely on the shoulders of the public (or even the media for that matter), and instead asserts that responsibility for the PUS must also be located within the scientific community.

Comprehending how the public integrates its knowledge about the ”existing political culture of science and its social relations” (Wynne 1992) should not be taken for granted when analysts are attempting to gauge the public’s understanding of science. Constructivists argue that it is not ignorance that leads the public to contest scientific claims and to be hesitant with support for the scientific community; rather, in some situations, scientific claims appear inconsistent, irrational, and/or contradictory to preexisting knowledge. Some of the constructivists’ reasons as to why a member of the public might choose to contest scientific knowledge are ”when the reasoning behind the information is not made plain (often because of concerns about ‘alarming’ the public)”; ”when it contradicts local experience (reassurance about safety when incidents have previously occurred)”; ”when it is conveyed in unreasonable categorical terms (e.g., concerning the precise course of the envisaged emergency)”; and ”when it seems to deny accepted social norms” (Wynne 1991).

For better or for worse, scientific literacy (SL) only enjoys a marginally more conceptual clarity than the PUS, which is perhaps counter intuitively due to its relatively lesser degree of treatment in the literature. Like most conceptual categories, including PUS, SL is a fluid and dynamic area of study, which ”has changed somewhat over the years, moving from the ability to read and comprehend science related articles to its present emphasis on understanding and applying scientific principles to everyday life” (Burns et al. 2003). Evidently, not only has the topic of SL changed over time, but it also has had to be broadened through time. As a consequence, nailing down a single contemporary definition for SL is also problematic. In accord with this position, academics such as B. S. P. Shen and later J. D. Miller (who has been immersed in this area in one way or another for nearly three decades) have been forced to contextualize the concept of SL. For Shen (1975), SL was more clearly understood once broken into three subcategories: practical scientific literacy, civic scientific literacy, and cultural scientific literacy. Practical scientific literacy, he conceptualized, is the application of scientific concepts, skills, and ideas for the resolution of everyday and concrete problems. In this case practical scientific literacy might mean understanding the chemistry of how to balance the acidity/PH level in your garden, or pregnant parents being able to understand statistical significance and the concept of inheritance when the doctor explains an inheritable disease. Cultural scientific literacy, on the other hand, is the recognition of science as a major human achievement, and thus might entail a respectful understanding of the complexity of physical laws of gravity and engineering that landed humans on the moon.

Miller has taken pains to elaborate on the third of Shen’s subcategories of scientific literacy: civic scientific literacy. Those who would be considered to exhibit civic scientific literacy would, for instance, be able to engage critically with the science content of a daily newspaper. This critical engagement would be done for constructive purposes so that the individual could more readily be involved in the processes by which science emerges within a democratic society. A good example of civic scientific literacy might be those people who constructively and open-mindedly participated in the public debate over the integration of genetically modified foods in the UK in 2003. For Miller, civic scientific literacy involved not only the content dimension (i.e., being able to read and understand the science section of the newspaper or magazine), but also having an understanding of the process of scientific inquiry (i.e., construction of theory, hypothesis testing, and the experimental method), as well as some degree of understanding of the impact of science and technology on individuals and society (e.g., carbon emissions from automobiles get trapped within our atmosphere and lead to a green house effect that warms our planet).

At the turn of the millennium the British House of Lords, a body firmly rooted outside of academic discourses, rather vaguely defined the public understanding of science as ”the shorthand term for all forms of outreach (in the UK) by the scientific community, or others on their behalf (e.g., science writers, museums, event organizers), to the public at large aimed at improving understanding” (Burns et al. 2003: 187). In the vast expanses of literature on the topic of PUS within academic discourses there exists no single clear cut definition. As one of the central commentators on the topic stated: ”PUS is an ill defined area involving several different disciplinary perspectives” (Wynne 1995), including sociology, political science, science and technology studies, communication studies, and psychology, to name a few. SL does not present any clearer picture, as similar qualities have been used in its and PUS’s definitions, which include understanding science content, understanding methods of inquiry (or process), and understanding science as a social enterprise. Clearly, there is still much conceptual confusion around and between these terms. With that in mind, contestations over formless terms such as ”the public” and ”science,” and constructivist debate about the authority of science, have opened up the discourse within the PUS and moved it away from the rather vague definition offered by the British House of Lords. As science and technology continue to grow in terms of their pervasiveness in all aspects of society, PUS will surely continue to be a site of important academic discussion.


  1. Burns, T. W. et al. (2003) Science Communication: A Contemporary Definition. Public Understanding of Science 12(2): 183-202.
  2. Durant, J. et al. (1989) The Public Understanding of Science. Nature 340 (July 6): 11-14.
  3. Haughton, B. et al. (1987) A Historical Study on the Underlying Assumptions for United States Food Guides from 1917 through the Basic Four Food Group Guide. Journal of Nutritional Education and Behaviour 19(4): 169-76.
  4. Lewenstein, B. (1992) The Meaning of ”Public Understanding of Science” in the United States after World War II. Public Understanding of Science 1(1): 45-68.
  5. Miller, J. D. (1992) Toward a Scientific Understanding of the Public Understanding of Science and Technology. Public Understanding of Science 1(1): 23-6.
  6. Miller, J. D. (1998) The Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy. Public Understanding of Science 7(3): 203-23.
  7. Sarewitz, D. (1996) Frontiers of Illusion: Science, Technology, and the Politics of Progress. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
  8. Shen, B. S. P. (1975) Scientific Literacy and the Public Understanding of Science. In: Day, S. (Ed.), Communication of Scientific Information. Karager, Basel, pp. 44-52.
  9. Sturgis, P. & Allum, N. (2004) Science in Society: Re-Evaluating the   Deficit   Model   of Public Attitudes. Public Understanding of Science 13(1): 55-74.
  10. Wynne, B. (1991) Knowledge in Context. Science, Technology and Human Values 16(1): 111-21.
  11. Wynne, B. (1992) Public Understanding of Science Research: New Horizons or Hall of Mirrors? Public Understanding of Science 1(1): 37-43.
  12. Wynne, B. (1995) Public Understanding of Science. In: Jasanoff, S. et al. (Eds.), Handbook of Science and Technology Studies. Sage, Newbury Park, CA, pp. 361-88.
  13. Ziman, J. (1991) Public Understanding of Science. Science, Technology and Human Values 1(1): 99-105.

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