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Your beliefs vs. the facts

Bias and self-deception are fierce foes of science. That's why evidence-based debate is so vital.

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Twenty years ago, as a college freshman, I knew precisely what it meant to be scientifically literate. In fact, I held an objective measure in the palm of my hand, courtesy of E.D. Hirsch. His book, "Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know," was a bestselling paperback, and conveniently listed thousands of names, terms, and phrases with which every educated person – he informed us – should be familiar.

After plodding through the entire list during the course of an afternoon, I smugly discovered I could easily define each item of scientific vocabulary. Fuzziness about literary examples such as "Aeschylus" caused me no discomfort, but inability to rigorously describe "aerobic respiration" in the biochemical sense (not the superficial, then-popular Jane Fonda sense) would have induced severe nerdish embarrassment.

The wrong kind of scientific literacy

Today I teach science and its history at an honors college and am naturally far less confident about how to measure scientific literacy. The students who enter our program possess not only the expected high SAT scores, but also perfect or near-perfect scores on a battery of Advanced Placement exams, particularly in the basic sciences.

A noticeable portion of those students also believe in the literal truth of certain ancient accounts of Earth's history that, to put it bluntly, directly contradict mountains of well-established data from geology, climatology, and biology. Without rehashing the ongoing culture wars surrounding this topic (and certainly without berating my own students), this serves as a useful place to begin tackling the notion of "scientific literacy."


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