It’s easy to spot concerning signs about the state of scientific literacy in Canada. Commentators point to a variety of survey findings as indicating diminished public confidence in science, such as low levels of trust in genetically modified foods (seen as unsafe by some 39% of Canadians in a September 2020 Pew Research study) or vaccine hesitancy (with Ipsos finding at the end of August that one-in-four Canadians would not take a COVID-19 vaccine if it were available). When you look at more abstract views on science, the results can be even more concerning: Pew also found that only 45% of Canadian respondents say they have “a lot of trust in scientists to do what’s right,” as compared to 37% with “some” trust and 15% saying “not too much” or “none at all.”
Given this backdrop, it’s hard to imagine being critical of the need for more scientific literacy. Like ‘education’ or ‘health,’ scientific literacy seems to be, by definition, an unequivocal good. Indeed, the challenges we face – from climate change to social inequality, and from pandemics to police reform – demand decision-making that’s informed by the best available evidence. In turn, we need a public that sees value in science and insists politicians employ evidence-informed decision-making.
If Canada wants to realize the benefits of scientific literacy, however, we must come to terms with what it can and cannot offer – and some of the other fluencies that must be developed to maximize the value of scientific literacy. We need to foster a rich form of scientific literacy that focuses on process over individual facts, and a scientific literacy that acknowledges the centrality of trust and the importance of distinguishing between the roles of science and other values in decision-making.
It’s important to acknowledge how far science literacy has already come. In the past, it’s been rightly criticized for being unduly focused on spreading scientific trivia and promulgating particular factoids. In contexts like COVID-19, forms of science literacy that focus on information alone become an impediment to personal and political decision-making. Evolving knowledge about airborne transmission, for instance, reminds us that the value of science comes not from fostering allegiance to a particular set of facts, but because of the commitment to following the guidance of synthesized evidence, reviewing and critiquing earlier findings, and adjusting our knowledge as needed.
In other words, science literacy in the context of COVID-19 must be much richer than disseminating facts. Instead, it requires developing widespread understanding of the internal processes and values that make science reliable; why changing knowledge is generally a good sign (not a bad one); and why frightening headlines (like vaccine trials being temporarily paused because of potential side effects) actually reveal the system working the way it ought to. This is the kind of scientific literacy we must develop widely.
At the same time, however, we must be cautious even with this richer version of scientific literacy. In the opening paragraph, I cited the incomplete public acceptance of GMOs and vaccines as often-lamented examples of insufficient scientific literacy and trust. All too often, broad public acceptance of the ‘right’ viewpoint on an issue is taken as a proxy measure for the achievement (or lack thereof) of scientific literacy. Within these admonishments is a common underlying assumption: that if trust and literacy in science was higher, members of the public would be more uniformly accepting of these safe, important technologies.
To be clear, I think GMOs and vaccines are safe and essential to environmental sustainability and public health. I worry, though, that it’s dangerous to tacitly assume that increased scientific literacy leads to linear gains in consensus with our policy preferences. When this kind of linear relation creeps into our causal narratives, it can make problems of polarization and distrust worse, not better.
When members of the public are faced with complex decisions, they need to assess which experts and authorities can be trusted. While a richer understanding of science can address some concerns, there are other reasons to trust or distrust. Important research by philosophers Heidi Grasswick and Naomi Scheman highlights the many reasonable, rational reasons that community members may distrust scientists. Past exploitive relationships with marginalized communities, for instance, are a legitimate factor in the process of assessing whether scientists ought to be trusted now. Understandable distrust can also arise when scientists are perceived to be selectively fitting science to justify certain political positions, or reactionary or partisan in their public stances. For Grasswick and Scheman, then, the process of “rationally grounding trust” means attending to legitimate sources of distrust that may be broader than we’ve previously accounted for.
Our work monitoring the social dimensions of COVID-19 across Canada also highlights the many ways publics are already scientifically literate. Our survey research in March and April, for instance, found that 82% of respondents thought “scientific evidence” should be driving decision-making in (despite a smaller fraction, 56%, believing that it actually was). In ongoing, in-depth interviews with Canadians about vaccines and other topics, we’re finding that many of those concerned aren’t simply ill-informed; instead, they have much more subtle worries about political pressure circumventing normal scientific safeguards, and hold fairly sophisticated views in terms of looking for consensus among physicians and experts they trust. There generally aren’t sweeping rejections of science, but rather – even if less jargon-heavy in articulation – nuanced concerns about inconsistencies between science and policies, about real barriers they see as unaddressed, or about policy-based evidence making.
In other words, while fostering rich scientific literacy is always important, we as scientists and decision-makers must also work to develop a variety of fluencies. We ought to be cautious about both historical and contemporary ways in which very legitimate distrust might be fostered, and view attending to these roots of distrust as at least equally important to promoting science. We must grapple with the other values that need to be included in deliberations alongside scientific evidence, and be cautious about overstating the normative advice science can provide on its own. Those of us who do scientific outreach must become masters not just at flashy presentations, but become even more skilled at listening to where hesitations and concerns come from and creating room to foster, embrace, and stay with value disagreements. We must, of course, draw firm lines around inclusivity, compassion, and justice – but we also need to be careful about tying science to what are ultimately values worth defending.
I’m less concerned, then, about levels of GMO acceptance or vaccine approval, as superficial measures can often obscure real concerns (such as the influence of industrial farming or observation of political pressures on drug approvals) that need careful attention. I’m more concerned about Pew Research’s recent finding that 74% of “politically left” Canadian respondents “trust scientists a lot to do what’s right,” while only 35% of “politically right” respondents say the same (the second largest gap globally, only three points behind the United States). If we fail to attend to legitimate reasons for distrusting science; if we aren’t careful to differentiate between the role of science and values in public decision-making; the risk is that this partisan divide could continue to grow with disastrous consequences.
What does this mean for promoting scientific literacy and bridging gaps between the public and science? We absolutely ought to support rich forms of education and public engagement that develop understandings of the process and values of science. But even more critically, we need to recognize that scientific literacy is also dependent on fostering rationally grounded trust and maintaining science’s role as an honest broker rather than issue advocate. Efforts towards science literacy will be hampered when they’re predicated on an assumption that increases in scientific literacy will directly result in increased support of one’s own preferred actions. While half the battle of scientific literacy is ensuring the public understands the values that make science reliable – the other half is building not just literacy, but fluency, in maintaining public trust and reminding ourselves of the important complementary roles of science and other kinds of values in decision-making, and the importance of remembering the distinctions between them.