This weekend, in cities around the world, people are marching in support of science and evidence-based policy making. As I write this, thousands of Australians have already taken part in the global March for Science. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are expected to demonstrate in the same way, largely in response to President Trump’s proposed budget cuts to science and his scepticism about the causes and consequences of climate change.
The well-being of Australians is being jeopardised by much the same governmental devaluing of science and climate change “denialism”. Emperor Economics and his sidekicks, Prince Political Power Protection and Duke Dogmatic Ideology, are reigning supreme.
Protests against these threats to informed rationality are to be welcomed but it is staggering to think that such activity is necessary after 250 years of the so-called Age of Enlightenment.
How are Trump and countless others of influence and power able to get away with making policies and decisions based on assumptions, opinions, gut-feelings and ideological prejudices rather than scientific (or factual) evidence?
Is it because too few of their constituents have the scientific literacy to question and challenge them? If the growing concern about school students’ declining performance and participation in science is anything to go by, this could be the case.
But let’s be realistic in our expectations. The formal study of science, especially at more advanced levels, is not for everyone. Nor is such study necessary in order to be scientifically literate in a very useful and powerful way. We can all “do” science.
This little girl (Zoe) is “doing” science.
If she continues to do this through the formative years of childhood and adolescence, she will assemble the basic components of scientific literacy, namely:
- a keen desire to investigate and learn about the physical and social world she occupies
- an authentic but growing and malleable picture of that world
- an understanding and appreciation of the kind of evidence (anchored to observation and objectively tested) that is needed to build that picture
Of these components, the last is the most important for navigating the sea of fake news, propaganda, dogma, spin, half-truths and lies that washes our way daily. I believe that a universal commitment to the principle of living under the guidance of sound evidence would make the world a much better place. And fostering that commitment in our children has to be a priority in their upbringing.
How far little ones like Zoe will travel on the road to scientific literacy depends on many factors, how they are nurtured in science at school being a key one. But parents (and grandparents) can also contribute significantly by –
- sharing, supporting and encouraging their children’s “science” play
- encouraging such play by locating their children in stimulating settings especially in the natural world
- talking to their children about what they are seeing doing and discovering
- encouraging observation, discussion and reflection when things of interest are encountered in daily life.
- using questions to bring out the scientist in their children, such as
It is worth noting that research from the USA suggests that most children form an opinion about science by the time they are seven years old. This is surely reason enough to expose children from a very early age to the scientific playgrounds to be found everywhere in the out-of-doors.