What, and Why, Is Science Literacy?

Working at NCSE inevitably leads to lots of discussion about the nature of science literacy. All of us, and just about all of our supporters and allies, are pretty passionate about promoting science literacy. And yet, when you start digging around, the whole question of what science literacy even is gets fuzzy.

A still from the lost 1914 version of A Study in Scarlet.For example, here’s a passage from Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic A Study in Scarlet, the first tale about Sherlock Holmes. Holmes has set his new roommate, Dr. Watson, the challenge of guessing, without asking anything point blank, what it is that Holmes does for a living.

Watson (channeled by Doyle) writes:

His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge. Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing. Upon my quoting Thomas Carlyle, he inquired in the naivest way who he might be and what he had done. My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System. That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.

“You appear to be astonished,” he said, smiling at my expression of surprise. “Now that I do know it I shall do my best to forget it.”

“To forget it!”

“You see,” he explained, “I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it. Now the skilful workman is very careful indeed as to what he takes into his brain-attic. He will have nothing but the tools which may help him in doing his work, but of these he has a large assortment, and all in the most perfect order. It is a mistake to think that that little room has elastic walls and can distend to any extent. Depend upon it there comes a time when for every addition of knowledge you forget something that you knew before. It is of the highest importance, therefore, not to have useless facts elbowing out the useful ones.”

“But the Solar System!” I protested.

“What the deuce is it to me?” he interrupted impatiently; “you say that we go round the sun. If we went round the moon it would not make a pennyworth of difference to me or to my work.”

I was on the point of asking him what that work might be, but something in his manner showed me that the question would be an unwelcome one. I pondered over our short conversation, however, and endeavoured to draw my deductions from it. He said that he would acquire no knowledge which did not bear upon his object. Therefore all the knowledge which he possessed was such as would be useful to him. I enumerated in my own mind all the various points upon which he had shown me that he was exceptionally well-informed. I even took a pencil and jotted them down. I could not help smiling at the document when I had completed it. It ran in this way—

SHERLOCK HOLMES—his limits.

1. Knowledge of Literature.—Nil.

2. Philosophy.—Nil.

3. Astronomy.—Nil.

4. Politics.—Feeble.

5. Botany.—Variable. Well up in belladonna, opium, and poisons generally. Knows nothing of practical gardening.

6. Geology.—Practical, but limited. Tells at a glance different soils from each other. After walks has shown me splashes upon his trousers, and told me by their colour and consistence in what part of London he had received them.

7. Chemistry.—Profound.

8. Anatomy.—Accurate, but unsystematic.

9. Sensational Literature.—Immense. He appears to know every detail of every horror perpetrated in the century.

10. Plays the violin well.

11. Is an expert singlestick player, boxer, and swordsman.

12. Has a good practical knowledge of British law.

When I had got so far in my list I threw it into the fire in despair. “If I can only find what the fellow is driving at by reconciling all these accomplishments, and discovering a calling which needs them all,” I said to myself, “I may as well give up the attempt at once.”

Setting aside Dr. Watson’s quest, I think it’s important to look at this accompt of Mr. Holmes’s knowledge and ask if he should be deemed scientifically literate. (For the moment, let’s ignore the possibility that Holmes was just having some fun at the expense of his new roomie. By Chapter 5, a mere three chapters later, he is asking Watson, “Do you remember what Darwin says about music? He claims that the power of producing and appreciating it existed among the human race long before the power of speech was arrived at,” showing that he’s been reading The Descent of Man, presumably not as a matter of pure deductive necessity.)

On one hand, he clearly has a depth of technical information about the natural world and its operation. Holmes’s vaunted depth of observation would be nothing without his ability to connect that observation to his vast banks of knowledge. To say that such a person isn’t science literate would seem somehow silly.

And yet, he doesn’t know that the earth orbits the sun, and indeed disdains that knowledge and insists he wants to forget it once it’s been given to him. True, he isn’t avidly negating the claim in the face of evidence, and if he discovered a use for astronomy in his investigations, one suspects he would pick up what he needed in moments. But still, he lacks basic building blocks of How The World Works. Similarly, his narrow focus in chemistry, geology, botany (and presumably zoology, had Watson pressed the matter) gives him certain practical knowledge, but not any sort of overarching understanding of science qua science. In that sense, he is not only science illiterate, but enthusiastically so!

Even so, one might interject, his thorough and consistent approach to evidence has many hallmarks of science as a process, and his monographic works like The Use of Disguise In Crime Detection, The Utilities of Dogs in Detective Work, Analysis of Tobacco Ashes, and of course About Enigmatic Writing sound like important scientific contributions (one imagines that Alan Turing would have appreciated a copy of the last). Indeed, teachers could do worse (PDF link) than using a good Holmes story to help their students understand some key aspects of scientific methods. Surely that has to count for something.

Those three approaches all have adherents among those who study Public Understanding of Science (a term with an unfortunate acronym, only marginally worse than the alternative that’s become increasingly common: Public Engagement with Science and Technology). There are those who feel that science literacy consists primarily of knowing what one needs to know do get through one’s daily day. Others prefer for science literacy to encompass the more aspects of science that society as a whole deals with routinely, regardless of the topics’ necessity to an individual (sometimes this is shorthanded as a person’s ability to read a daily newspaper’s coverage of new discoveries). Another camp urges the focus towards scientific principles and practices and away from the retention of specific facts. There are, of course, yet other camps, but we can come back to that later.

So what do you say? Is Holmes scientifically literate? How so, or why not?