More Than a Body of Knowledge

Earlier this month, researchers at Emory University issued a warning that the U.S. could be at risk of yet another measles outbreak. Although the disease is highly contagious and potentially fatal, measles is also highly preventable - if, an individual is vaccinated.

Unfortunately, not everyone understands this or the basic science behind immunizations. Why? Because there is a significant lack of scientific literacy throughout the country. For far too many people, the word "science" itself can be distancing. It conjures up stereotypical caricatures of turgid textbooks, disheveled and incoherent adults in lab coats writing on blackboards in musty labs, and other equally stodgy images. In reality though, science and its impact on us is inescapable. Science is everywhere: look around you - whether you are reading this on paper or on a screen, you are benefiting from rigorous scientific endeavors that have resulted in refined printing presses as well as digital devices. Similar scientific rigor led to vaccines and antibiotics capable of saving countless lives. And for those who choose to live off the grid today, they too are immersed in science - designing and adapting processes to enable them to live off the grid, including if they decide to abandon prevailing medical recommendations.

Despite this ubiquity of science in our lives, in the U.S. only two percent of us are actively and formally learning about it; the other 98 percent learn about science through general media. Given that just seven percent of articles in the media are related to science, it's not surprising then that less than 35 percent of readers actually understand science news. Consequently, few people appreciate how developments in science impact their lives: not only is the avoidance of childhood vaccinations an example of this, but also the general disregard for the proper use of antibiotics, which has led to "superbugs" and significant health problems.

Since traditional media is focused on generating revenue-deriving stories, citizen science learners must look elsewhere. Fortunately, there are a number of options that are slowly gaining traction. Science museums offer an array of programming for visitors including demonstrations and public talks. Another option is the science café platform. Although the origin is not entirely clear, in the 1990s, French and subsequently British scientists recognized a need to inform the public about science and the scientific method, particularly as mad cow disease and other matters were becoming major issues in those countries and there was significant public confusion about them.

Consequently, groups of non-scientists would meet in informal spaces to talk to experts in these and a variety of other scientific disciplines, to get a better sense of the prevailing scientific issues. This was the beginning of café scientifique discussions, subsequently referred to as "science cafés." The concept then moved across the pond, and over the years a few enthusiastic individuals have started science cafes in their communities. This model is easy to replicate as long as there is a commitment to the process, and dedicated individuals ready to take on the responsibility of organizing events on a regular basis.

As the founder of one such science café, I have seen the opportunity these venues provide for increasing scientific literacy in the public through informal gatherings. They provide an excellent forum where science is presented in a manner that encourages discussion, demystifying science and making it accessible. Here, non-scientists get an opportunity to interact with scientists in a non-pedagogical setting, becoming very quickly enthused by the simplicity of some of the questions scientists explore, and the clarity of the methods used to explore them.

Certainly, not everyone needs to have a graduate level understanding of science. It is perfectly acceptable to use products of scientific innovation without understanding how they function, just as it is not necessary to be able to solve physics problems to use a crowbar effectively. However, gaining scientific literacy is a process of equipping oneself with tools that augment decision-making in every aspect of life - from making health-care decisions, to evaluating government policies, to buying your next car, computer or mobile device.

In the words of Carl Sagan, "Science is a way of thinking much more than it is a body of knowledge," and encouraging a scientific way of thinking empowers individuals in making decisions that can have a far-reaching impact not only in their own lives, but on society and civilization at large.