Seed Science Essay contest winners: What does 'scientific literacy' mean?

Steven sez, "In 2007, SEED magazine held its annual Science Writing contest. This year, the topic was 'What does it mean to be scientifically literate in the 21st century?'

They've posted the first and second prize winner for all to read. I am, of course, submitting this for the betterment of mankind, and not simply because I'm still jazzed by the fact that my essay won second place." [Ed: Congrats, Steven!]

The winning essays are very good -- short, sweet and moving. Both converge on a single main point: scientific reasoning, characterized by a willing to rely on evidence instead of investment in some old institution, is sorely lacking from the public sphere, especially politics. From Thomas W. Martin's first-prize-winning Scientific Literacy and the Habit of Discourse

Several current presidential candidates have insisted that they oppose the scientific account of earth's natural history as a matter of principle. In the present cultural climate, altering one's beliefs in response to anything (facts included) is considered a sign of weakness. Students must be convinced that changing one's mind in light of the evidence is not weakness: Changing one's mind is the essence of intellectual growth. By forcing students into evidence-based debates with one another, this mode of interaction, like any other, can become habitual. After being consistently challenged by their peers, most students eventually see that attempts to free themselves from facts are a hollow, and fundamentally precarious, form of "freedom."

In an era in which we tremble at offending the sensibilities of our neighbors, students must comprehend that it is not only possible but absolutely vital that we criticize each other's ideas firmly yet civilly. They must do this despite clear cases of prominent scientists falling into petty, acerbic (and therefore counterproductive) exchanges. The responsibility for fostering scientific literacy of this sort--that is, literacy construed as an ongoing commitment to evidence over preconception--falls upon all of us in our discussions both formal and informal, both public and private. When scientific celebrities fail to set a good example for students, it is especially incumbent upon the rest of us to set them back on the proverbial right track, rather than to reflexively hasten their derailment.


(Thanks, Steven!)