Critical ThinkingPop QuizScience

Pop Quiz: Where do students get their science?

Science literacy is a tricky term. What do we mean by it? Do we expect the populace at large to know certain basic facts? Do we expect them to understand the process of science? How deeply into scientific knowledge must a layperson get before they are considered scientifically literate?

These are difficult questions to answer and ultimately depend on what the end goal is for educators. Personally, I’d like to be surrounded by a populace that appreciate science, even if they don’t understand it all. Though some very basic concepts should be understood (i.e. the Earth goes around the Sun) I don’t expect recitation of facts to be too terribly important for a layperson in the era of widely available, and searchable, knowledge. The question for science literacy in the 21st century, I suspect, is: do people know where to get reliable scientific knowledge?

I came across this interesting blog post asking, “How do student figure out who to trust in a scientific controversy?” This explores the results of small Norgweigan study from 2001. Though small in sample size, it seems to go quite deep in analysis, suggesting that students rely less on their own knowledge of science and more on how much they can trust the so-called experts in a controversy. That trust depends on many factors, few relating to the quality of the research. It is understandable, however, since even scientists cannot be an expert in every aspect in their own field, let alone on every subject that comes up for a vote.

A more recent study of college undergraduates in astronomy looks at where students get their scientific knowledge. It seems that participants in the study are more likely to trust their textbooks and professors that something they find on Google or Wikipedia. However, the chances of them actually opening a book or asking a professor are still grimly small, and many of the students reported that they still used internet searches to find out new facts about astronomy, being more likely to trust a piece of information that comes up on multiple websites. Getting into the top-5 Google hits is really the way to make your content known in this day and age.

Maybe none of this is surprising at first glance. People trust people who seem trustworthy and unbiased. People tend to believe that consensus is key to science. However, the number of voices on hears (or sees in a search) is not necessarily related to accuracy of the facts, as we’ve learned from anti-vaccine campaigns. As educators, we have a chance, and even a responsibility, to guide our students towards more skeptical and critical assessment of their knowledge sources. teaching people how to learn for themselves is a staple of 21st century educational practices.

Where do you get your science? Where do your students seems to be getting their science? What sources do you accept or not accept in assignments, or in your own self-education?

The Pop Quiz is a question posed to you, the Scholars of Doubt. Look for it to appear Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at 3pm ET.

Image: Remember encyclopedias?! Where I got my science as a kid. CC Stewart Butterfield.

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Nicole is a professor, astronomer, educator, geek, dog mom, occasional fitness nerd, and maker of tiny comets. She is also very loud under the right circumstances. Like what you read? Buy me a coffee:


  1. August 29, 2013 at 6:06 pm —

    Knowledge learned by rote, read in a text book, heard from a professor, looked up on Wikipedia, or whatever, is just so fragile.

    Does the Earth go round the Sun? The answer is not very important. What is important is understanding why the Earth goes round the Sun and being able to appreciate the limitations of that statement. In the case of more controversial matters, what is important is being not only able to understand the argument but being able to understand the evidence for each side and being able to distinguish good quality research.

    • September 2, 2013 at 4:33 am —

      Sorry I missed this in the moderation queue!

  2. September 4, 2013 at 2:37 pm —

    My bad as well. Been at DragonCon! Excellent point, Alan 🙂

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