Thursday, August 5, 2010

Science Literacy

Literacy is a term with rich and diverse meaning. Without a qualifying adjective, it simply means the ability to read and write. Reading and writing ability suggest comprehension of what is read and the ability to express one’s thoughts in written form. The term scientific literacy is used in a broader and more specific sense. A partial list includes overcoming fear, understanding concepts, discovering answers, making decisions, and ability to evaluate scientific issues. Science literacy is a more elusive goal than commonly thought. Science appreciation may be a more realistic goal, both for school students and for our fellow Christians.

The Christian’s attitude toward science and the Christian’s worldview are integrally related. Consider this functional definition: Worldview relates to how we make sense of God, reality, the world, knowledge, ethics, history, human nature, human destiny, the problem of evil, logic, consciousness, music, mathematics, and science. Therefore, our personal attitude toward science has an important connection with the vision of our place in the world. Sadly, I must report that the attitude toward science of many people within our churches does not strengthen their Christian worldview.

If we establish that a healthy perception of science helps create a healthy Christian worldview, where do we go from there? Do we work hard to try to improve the scientific literacy of our church members? I submit that such a goal is unrealistic and unreachable for the most part. In 1995 an interesting book was published by physicist/science educator Morris Shamos (1917-2002). He claimed, in The Myth of Scientific Literacy, that the vast majority of students emerge from science classes with neither an intellectual grasp nor a pragmatic appreciation of science. Shamos’s curriculum goals would emphasize science appreciation rather than science literacy. This may be analogous to encouraging students in the joy of playing basketball rather than teaching them the physics of trajectory, laws of motion, and the history of the game.

Many college transcripts contain records of a few courses such as “Art History and Appreciation” or “Understanding Musical Styles.” Immersing a beginning student in full scope study of art techniques or a thorough scrutiny of music theory would be a “turn off.” For decades I have heard calls from alarmed and well-meaning government officials intent on increasing the science literacy of our students. These campaigns never achieved the hoped-for results. Science literacy is a complex and difficult objective. On the other hand, fostering appreciation of science is far more productive and enjoyable for students. Science literacy may follow as a more natural outcome.

Science is an effective apologetic instrument to demonstrate the reality of the work of the Creator in lovingly establishing nature’s laws, the design of the cosmos, and the functioning of living things. We may draw another analogy to the instruction our pastors provide. They do not visualize future seminarians sitting in every pew. But they are fulfilled as their parishioners acquire a clear vision of God and His resources operating effectively in their lives.