Navigating (mis)information through science literacy

Tuesday, 28 Sep 2021

The news media does it; so do individuals who use social media as a platform for pushing their own agenda or views. They take a factoid and turn it into a headline and clickbait, often  translating ‘science’ into fear and misinformation. 

Last decade the key scientific issues were related to GM foods, gene splicing and artificial intelligence. Today, it’s COVID-19 vaccines, climate change, and 5G radiation. 

In a world where anyone’s viewpoint can get an audience, where opinions and views often appear as fact, we, as a modern intelligence democracy, need to be more discerning, rather than simply following or indulging in that snippet of (mis)information. And we can all do this through scientific literacy. 

So what is scientific literacy and how can it enable us to navigate the minefield of misinformation, and ultimately improve our capacity as citizens? 

I prefer the definition from the American astrophysicist and science communicator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, who stated that science “is a way of equipping yourself with the tools to understand what happens in front of you.”

People who are better able to think critically about the information they are receiving and weigh up for themselves the available evidence are more empowered to make important choices. We all benefit when people do this. Gaining our evidence from reliable sources is a good start.  Is the source published and reported upon from a reputable institution? 

Is the information second or third hand? Is the source from an unidentified ‘expert’ in the field?

The relative ease with which we collect and disseminate information is both incredible and dangerous, and the internet is the ultimate repository for both information and misinformation. It allows misinterpretation of data, distortion of scientific findings and a post-truth agenda to thrive. 

So what can we do? I encourage scientifically literate people to be open and caring in all discussions. Education is the answer. It counters conspiracy beliefs and misinformation because it develops analytical thinking, open dialogue and it empowers people. Education can also boost feelings of belonging and connection to the message. 

When discussing issues with friends and family, be open. Ask questions about how they came to believe in that idea or theory. Ask them to walk you through the evidence they have discovered. Encourage them to question their conclusions and sources and to evaluate the evidence. You and them can do this without judgement and we can learn together. This is best done one on one. I also encourage you not to engage in this argument online or via email. There is always another link or example. Just because you might disagree on one particular topic it does not mean that you still can’t be friends or civil with each other. 

Scientific literacy starts at home, and at school. Ask your child’s teacher about what they are learning about in science and what you can do to support this at home. Read about scientific ideas together. Children are naturally inquisitive. Feed this interest. 

Teachers need to continue to create opportunities for their students to ask questions, to collect and evaluate data and to discuss their ideas with their peers, their teachers and their parents. Teachers are also encouraged to invite scientifically literate people into their classrooms and to see the world as an interesting wondrous place. 

All children (and adults alike) deserve the chance to grow a love for science, feel they are capable of questioning and understanding the world around them and to develop into scientifically literate and informed citizens. 

Nick Johnstone 

Nick Johnstone has a Bachelor of Science,  a Masters Degree in Science and Information and Communication Technology Education, and is a state and national science education award recipient.

Further reading:

This article appeared in the October 2021 edition of Focus Magazine.