Scientific Literacy: A Global Necessity Rather Than a Luxury

Science LiteracyImagine a society in which the vast majority of members are illiterate or, at best, poorly educated. Statistical analysis from after the turn of the century shows that a little over half of the world’s nations, containing approximately 80% of the global population, have literacy rates above 90%. All other countries range from high 80’s all the way down to the 20’s [1]. In other words, while many populations are generally literate, there are still those in which as many as four out of five members are illiterate. Another source states that almost 25% of the world’s adults and children are illiterate and that an estimated 113 million children have no access to primary education [2]. Most members of societies in the Western hemisphere take the ability to read and write as a self-evident fact of receiving a standard education.

But given the fact that even today, well into the 21st century, these fundamental skills appear to be inaccessible to many people, it seems reasonable and appropriate to take pause and consider the opportunities and capabilities one would be deprived of as one such person. In today’s technologically reliant world, almost all information is compiled and passed along in writing. Therefore, it seems fair to assert that an illiterate individual is essentially “deaf-mute,” capable of neither comprehending nor articulating, to the knowledge and progress of humanity as a whole, and is consequently unable to engage in almost any activity or endeavor that requires some level of educational training and sophistication. It is apparent that literacy is a cornerstone in the foundation of modern education and development, and with the exponentially increasing technological progress and innovation of the modern age, the educational gap between literate and illiterate people becomes perpetually and inevitably wider.

Now imagine a society in which the vast majority of members are scientifically illiterate or, at best, have a very basic education. Broadly speaking, scientific literacy is the ability to comprehend scientific ideas, think critically and analytically, and solve problems – but more on the exact definition and its implications later. For now, let us focus on the global trends, distribution, and levels of scientific literacy. Statistical data on this is not as readily obtainable as data for reading literacy. However, a look at the science scale of the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test ranking sheds some light on how students, who constitute a relatively small subset of the total human population, around the world perform in scientific matters. On a scale of 600 possible points, average scores range from 575 to the low 300’s [3, 4]. This ranking does not include even half of the world’s nations.

But from its results and numerical trends, one can make fairly confident predictions about the performance rates of many of the third-world countries that are not represented in the ranking. Moreover, the samples of individuals whose performances factored into these results are mainly composed of young students and adults who are already getting an education. Making a statistical extrapolation from these results to the global human population, raising them to the numerical standards of the reading literacy percentages mentioned earlier, would certainly decrease the scores dramatically. Perhaps the following figure helps to put these somewhat incomplete results into perspective: ScienceDaily reported in 2007 that “approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate” [5]. Even though the American education system is oftentimes lamented, it surely is one of the leading ones on a global scale. Even if other industrialized countries in Europe, along with nations like Russia, China, India, and Australia, rank higher than 28%, that still leaves the majority of the human population with an average scientific literacy that is very likely to be well under that percentage – and in several cases probably even close to zero.

But what exactly is scientific literacy? Let us come back to the generic definition given and extend it. In the book titled National Science Education Standards, the National Academy of Science (NAS) defines it as “the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity”. Furthermore, “scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences” [6]. Evidently, to be scientifically literate asks for far more than the mere memorization of scientific facts, equations, and concepts. It seems to be a way of thinking about and approaching everyday situations that is driven by a sense of curiosity, critical thinking, analysis, and inquiry.

From this definition, one can derive the consequences of what it means to be scientifically illiterate in current times – which, as it seems, is the case for the vast majority of the world’s population. Professor John Miller from Michigan State University points out several benefits of having a scientifically literate population: “a more sophisticated workforce; […] more scientifically literate consumers, especially when it comes to purchasing electronics; and […] a scientifically literate electorate who can help shape public policy.” He also confirms the notion that “no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults” [5]. However, a nation’s possession of an informed citizenry appears to be of paramount importance in order to successfully grapple with many of the social, economic, political, and technological challenges that lie ahead of us in the 21st century. It is furthermore truly unfortunate that the educational and developmental disparities between first-world and third-world countries are very likely to continue to increase in the future, just as they have since the industrial revolution.

Nevertheless, it is possible to conceive that with an increase of scientific literacy in already modernized parts of the world, more foreign aid organizations will spring up across the US and Europe that specialize in the promotion of education and, in particular, scientific literacy in impoverished regions of the world. This might be a crucial step in the establishment of a scientifically literate global human population in the far future. What, then, are some of the ways to increase scientific literacy in relatively sophisticated nations? In many interviews and public appearances, astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about two key components when discussing scientific literacy: 1) allowing one’s children to explore the world freely in order for the “seeds of curiosity” that humans are innately born with to be sustained and to be able to flourish, and 2) emphasizing the stimulation of that curiosity within the education system, rather than focusing solely on memorizing and reproducing facts. According to Dr. Tyson, being scientifically literate makes the fundamental difference between being ”fact memorizers” and being independently thinking problem-solvers [7].

Evidently, mankind still has a very long way ahead in terms of elevating the educational sophistication to a level at which it can consider itself scientifically literate on a global level. Making sure that this development, however slow and unsteady it may be, actually takes place is undoubtedly of crucial importance to our future, our continued understanding of how our environment and the universe operates in interaction with us, and, perhaps most importantly, our global decisions about how to confront modern-day challenges. The facts, figures, and reasons that are specified in the limited context of this short article are but a few. To put the relevance of scientific literacy in Dr. Tyson’s words: “What are the engines of tomorrow’s economies? What we’ve known since the dawn of the industrial revolution is that innovations in science and technology – and investments in those innovations – enable nations to rise to economic power of which they have never seen before” [8].


1. “Education Statistics > Literacy > total population (most recent) by country.” CIA World Factbooks, 28 Mar 2011. Web. 27 Feb 2012. <>.
2. Credaro, Amanda. “ATAXIA IN THE REPUBLIC OF LETTERS?.” Editorial Eye. 27.4 (2004 ): 1-4.
Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.
3. OECD (2010), PISA 2009 Results: Executive Summary.
4. “Education Statistics > Scientific literacy (most recent) by country .” Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), n.d. Web. 27 Feb 2012. <>.
5. Michigan State University. “Scientific Literacy: How Do Americans Stack Up?.” ScienceDaily, 18 Feb. 2007. Web. 28 Feb. 2012. <>.
6. “Scientific Literacy .” National Science Education Standards. National Academy of Sciences, 1996. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.
7. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Stephen Colbert Interviews Neil deGrasse Tyson at Montclair Kimberley Academy – 2010-Jan-29. 2011. Photograph. /, Montclair Kimberly Academy, NJ. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.
8. Neil deGrasse Tyson. Neil DeGrasse Tyson on science literacy – World Science Festival . 2010. Photograph. 2010 World Science Festival, New York. Web. 28 Feb 2012. <>.
9. Emmett Duffy. The pride of Finland, the shame of America. 2007. Photograph. The Natural PatriotWeb. 28 Feb 2012. <>.

Nima Ahmady-Moghaddam is a Senior at The George Washington University majoring in Psychology and Pre-Med. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.