Why Science Matters in Today’s Knowledge Economy

Earth rising over a lake from another planet

Co-Authored by Kelly Thrippleton-Hunter

What would you do if you suspected the water in your home was not safe to drink or use for cooking or bathing?  Would you reach out to local officials?  What if they did not respond to your concerns? This scenario happened in Flint, Michigan in April 2014, a few short days after Earth Day.

The City of Flint temporarily switched its water sources from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to the Flint River while awaiting the completion of a pipeline.  Residents began to complain about the water and, by August 2014, E.coli and total coliform bacteria were detected in the water supply. By January 2015, residents were complaining about health issues. When local officials didn’t respond to the growing number of complaints and health concerns, Flint residents decided to do something about their observations and engaged in the process of science. This initiated scientific research that determined the water quality issues to be associated with corrosive chemical processes occurring in the Flint water system. In 2017, based on findings from citizen-initiated research, water quality levels were ultimately restored to normal.

Scientific Literacy & the Knowledge Economy

Being scientifically literate and using a scientific lens to investigate the natural world can be an empowering set of skills, vital in today’s knowledge economy where information and data are doubling at an astounding, never-before-seen rate.

Scientific literacy refers to an individual’s ability to understand scientific concepts and processes that are necessary to make personal decisions, participate in civic and cultural affairs, and foster a productive economy. Robert Hazen, a scientist, prolific writer, and professional trumpeter considers scientific literacy as a way to help us understand the issues we come across in the news, such as those relating to science education, research, the management of natural resources, and protecting the environment.  If we as a society are not informed or scientifically literate, it could impact and impede some of the most fundamental objectives of our nation. Tania Lombrozo, an Associate Professor at UC Berkeley exploring topics within cognitive psychology and Jane Maienschein, a University Professor specializing in biology and the role it plays in society, go even further, stating that scientific literacy doesn’t solely rely on the possession of scientific knowledge – it also relies on an individual’s ability to weed through the world of misinformation or to discern fact from fiction.  Scientifically literate individuals possess the ability to ask questions and find answers to curiosities they may have about everyday experiences.  They possess the ability to think critically and creatively about the natural world around us.

Science is in everything that happens around us and even to us.  Consider how many of us:

  • Have been protected from disease by vaccinations?
  • Understand how climate change may be impacting our planet?
  • Have had questions about what we eat and where it comes from?
  • Have wondered about sources of energy to power our cars and homes?

In the digital age of the twenty-first century, we are bombarded by an abundance of information. How are we to process it all? How do we know what is reliable?  In order to answer these questions, we should first understand the method scientists use to explore the natural world.  I believe we’ll see that science is an “entire exercise in finding what is true.”

A series of arrows arranged in a circle depicting the scientific process from observation to conclusion.

The Scientific Method

The scientific method is a dynamic process that scientists use to investigate and explore our natural world. Beginning with observation and a period of inquiry and hypothesis, the process employs thoughtful experimentation and analysis of results.  Although its use in the real world may not seem scientific (no sterile laboratories, high-tech microscopes, or gooey specimens), the method does provide an overall framework for everyday exploration.

Leading science ambassador, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, believes we are all born scientists who use the scientific method on a daily basis.  He believes we are curious about the world around us. We ask questions and make observations.  We hypothesize and predict.  We may not necessarily test things in a structured experimental fashion, but we question things (e.g. Why isn’t the car starting?  Why is the light blinking?).  In these instances, we are scientists.  We ask questions, we test our hypothesis, and we draw tentative conclusions.

It gets a little more complicated when the what’s, how’s, and why’s are associated with scientific concepts.  We’re pummeled with questions and information regarding things like: Is climate change man-made or driven by natural events? Are vaccinations good or bad for you? Are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) harmful to you and the environment? Is gene editing a gateway to creating designer babies? In these instances, you don’t necessarily have to be a scientist to discern the facts, the misleading statements, and the lies, but you do have to be scientifically literate to weed through the information, misinformation, science, and pseudoscience to come to an informed conclusion.

Sometimes this can be difficult to do as we all have some sort of preconceived notion or personal belief that can influence our thinking. Therefore, to be scientifically literate, we need to try and put those biases and perceptions aside and be open and objective.  If you aim to be as open and objective as possible, it can help you come to the most accurate and evidence-based conclusion.

So how do we weed through misinformation?  There are many things to take note of when analyzing whether or not the information you’re reading is from a valid and reliable source.  At Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), the Shapiro Library Guide on Evaluating Sources recommends:

  • Look at when the article or information was published.  It may be brand new or outdated.
  • Consider the author’s credentials.  Are they an expert?
  • Look at the source.  Journal articles, website materials, and other outlets may or may not be valid sources.
  • Ask if the information is verifiable through other resources.
  • If the information is written objectively and with no bias.

Adopting this mindset can help you become more scientifically literate and a productive member of society.  We know this is critical for students too.  At our organization, we work to cultivate scientific literacy and curiosity in all of our science courses.  At the culmination of our general education science course sequence, students have the requisite skills to separate science from pseudoscience, and they embrace the inquiry of information.  Similar to the public television series The Crowd and The Cloud, we encourage all citizens to move from “viewers” of science, to “do-ers” of science.

Science Matters

Science matters to all of us.  When we have a populace that is scientifically literate, we can begin to understand the issues that are reported in the news and how they affect us, our communities, and the health of our world. We can begin to understand how or why various policies might affect us.  We can begin to see how something happening across the globe (e.g. an earthquake, a chemical spill, and a volcanic explosion) can have a direct effect on our communities. The more we get involved, the more connected we become to our natural world.  A healthy and vibrant knowledge economy can lead us towards a better future for all.

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