Science Literacy: Information Literacy in the Sciences

This chapter is devoted to the concept of science literacy. You have probably heard of specific types of literacy: computer literacy, visual literacy, media literacy, and many more. Science literacy is yet another, and, as you can probably guess, it is related to the natural sciences. To better explain science literacy let’s begin with a story that goes back to 1986. April 26, 1986 was the day of the worst accident in the history of nuclear energy. This is when there were several explosions at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in Ukraine, then part of the Soviet Union. The explosions caused a fire that released radioactive fallout into the surrounding atmosphere. When this event took place, the author of this chapter was studying electrical engineering at Lvov Polytechnic Institute in Ukraine, which is about 300 miles from Chernobyl. The news of the disaster was kept from the Soviet public for several days, so as not to cast a shadow over approaching May Day celebrations. However, we engineering students learned about the disaster almost immediately, as some of our fellow students returned from Chernobyl where they had been doing student internships. The stories they told were frightening, but at that time nobody knew exactly what to expect, as a disaster of this scale had never occurred.

When the accident was finally officially announced, chaos ensued. No one knew how to react or what to do. What exactly was radiation? How dangerous was it? How far could radioactive clouds travel, and where was this cloud headed? A lack of accurate information and an overabundance of rumors did not help people cope with the situation. People shut their windows against the hot May weather for fear of letting in radiation. Air conditioners were practically non-existent at that time (and still are nowadays in Ukraine, for that matter). Someone said that iodine helped fight radiation, so supplies of iodine quickly disappeared from pharmacies. We drank tea with iodine, we put it into water, and it wasn’t pleasant.

Let’s investigate which coping strategies were effective and which were not. Let’s begin with radiation. Does it travel through the air? Sure, it does. Does it help to close the windows to stay safe? Not really— radiation can get through glass and brick. Only heavy metals like lead can stop it. What about iodine? Does it really counteract the effects of radiation? This answer is not easily determined without some investigation. Of course, physicists, especially those specializing in nuclear physics, would know, but what about members of the general public?

Exercise: Iodine Case Study

  1. Go to Google (or any other search engine such as www.bing.com or www.exalead.com) and type in iodine and radiation. Usually search engines do not need the connector and (nor that it necessarily be typed in upper case) as it is assumed that you want both of the terms to be present. When you do your searches online you may use different connectors (so-called Boolean operators—check the explanation in Plan chapter). They are or, and, and not. However, Google makes an exception for or—you should type it in upper case for it to be recognized as a connector. This strategy is useful when you expect to find limited information in a search on an unusual topic. The operator or can be very helpful to connect synonyms thus assuring better results.
  2. Examine the results carefully. You most likely will find articles from popular media such as newspapers and online news websites. Watch for sources that have the .gov (stands for government) domain: do you see one from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)? Let’s take a look.
  3. The page you’re looking at has the following URL: http://emergency.cdc.gov/radiation/ki.asp. This is a page from the “Emergency and Preparedness Response” site. If for some reason you do not have it in your results, just type in the URL or click on the link in this text. From this site we can learn some quick facts:
    1. The chemical name for iodine is potassium iodide (KI). It’s actually a salt of stable (not radioactive) iodine.
    2. In the case of a radioactive event the radioactive iodine is released into the air and can be absorbed by the thyroid gland. To counteract the absorption, you can take potassium iodine (not radioactive). The non-radioactive iodine will be absorbed first, thus preventing thyroid from absorbing more (in this case radioactive) iodine in the next 24 hours.
    3. It is important to take iodine only on recommendation of the doctor or public health official who is dealing with the consequences of the radioactive spill.
  4. Among the results of our Google search you may see a short article from Los Angeles Times (June 25, 2013), which quotes the International Atomic Energy Agency about distributing “230,000 units of stable iodine to evacuation centers” near the Fukushima Daiichi and Fukushima Daini nuclear power plants in March 2011, when a tsunami struck the coast of Japan and damaged two nuclear plants.
  5. Now back to the question—was it useful for people in Ukraine to take iodine after several days passed from the disaster? The answer is no, because it would only have been beneficial within first 24 hours after the exposure to radioactive iodine.

Defining Science Literacy

Now we are ready to discuss general science literacy, which means knowing enough about science to make good decisions in situations like the one just described. This ability is referred to as science literacy or scientific literacy. Science literacy can be measured thanks to Jon Miller, a political scientist who conducted research on how to measure this ability. Miller has published his findings in several books and articles, which are listed in the recommended readings on science literacy list at the end of this chapter. Unfortunately, his results were not encouraging: the number of American adults who met his criteria for science literacy was quite low, 28%.[1] On the other hand, the United States rated higher than several of the other nations included in Miller’s study.

The number of adult Americans who are scientifically literate may be attributed to the undergraduate general education requirements at colleges and universities in the U.S.: higher education requirements that are unique to this country. Every college undergraduate has to take a certain number of science courses even if they are not majoring in the sciences. In fact, Miller found that the strongest predictor of science literacy in adults is completion of three to four science courses in college. The second strongest predictor of science literacy is having a college degree.[2] In other words, if you’re in college (and there is a good chance you are, since you are reading this textbook), your chances of becoming science literate are already much better than those of your high school classmates who chose not to go to college.

Now we’re ready for the definition of science literacy:

Science literacy is being well versed in all matters pertaining to basic science and scientific laws, to the extent that one is able to make sound decisions concerning their wellbeing and the wellbeing of their families, communities, and society as a whole.

This definition may look too broad; after all, it suggests that everything from our personal well-being to that of entire nations rests, at least in part, on science literacy. But proponents of science literacy make this very point by distinguishing five different types of science literacy: civic, cultural, practical, aesthetic, and consumer.

Civic Science Literacy

This is regarded as one of the most important science literacies, as it speaks to people knowing enough science to relate scientific laws and discoveries to matters of government and legislation. Someone with civic science literacy understands enough about science to comprehend the likely consequences of legislation involving scientific matters. For example, let’s return to our conversation about nuclear disasters. It’s no secret that the world needs sources of clean energy, taking into consideration how industrial pollution harms the environment and contributes to global warming. Nuclear energy is considered clean; there are no residual pollutants released into atmosphere through the production of energy using nuclear power. However, it is also common knowledge that nuclear energy can have disastrous effects on human health and the environment.

The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II made this abundantly clear. Growing up in the former Soviet Union, we were shown images of Japanese children with leukemia making origami and told that this was something that should never happen again. And yet it did happen again, and right in Ukraine. The Chernobyl disaster released four hundred times more radioactive material into the atmosphere than the nuclear bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima. More recently, in 2011, a tsunami caused a reactor meltdown at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan. The Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster was the worst since Chernobyl and received the same severity rating on the International Nuclear Event Scale.

You may be thinking, OK, I get it. Nuclear power is potentially dangerous. But what do I do? Well, if you are a model of civic science literacy, you investigate the pros and cons of nuclear power to form an opinion as to whether we need this type of power generation. Once you form your own opinion, you can communicate with your congressmen and senators, and tell them what you think. You can exercise your power as a citizen by participating in decision-making that requires some knowledge of science. This is what civic science literacy is all about: using science to be an active and informed citizen. Hydraulic fracturing (also called fracking) is another example of an issue that calls for civic science literacy.

Practical Science Literacy

Practical science literacy entails knowing enough about scientific and natural laws to make decisions about one’s day-to-day life and livelihood, as opposed to government and legislation. For example, a friend of mine who works as a landscape designer and permaculture gardener spent several months in the mountains of India studying the local residents’ agricultural practices. She learned that they had developed specific farming methods that make the best use of the local terrain and climate, such as irrigating the fields in spring with the melting snow that runs down from the adjacent mountains. These people are applying principles of permaculture— adopting the most effective and sustainable agricultural methods for their particular ecosystem— and, in so doing, demonstrating sound practical science literacy.

Consumer Science Literacy

Consumer science literacy is related to practical science literacy. It refers to a person’s ability to know enough science to make sound consumer choices whether he or she is shopping for food, medications, clothes, electronic devices, automobiles, or other items. For example, there are many recent publications in public media about genetically-modified organisms (so-called GMOs) and whether they are safe to consume. In order to make a decision about whether to buy genetically modified vegetables, one needs to understand basic processes that involve genetic engineering.

Cultural Science Literacy

This type of science literacy is the scientific knowledge that is generally assumed to be possessed by someone who is culturally literate, that is, someone familiar with the general knowledge and idioms that make up the dominant culture of his or her society. In other words, being culturally literate entails a mastery of certain scientific concepts and principles. For example, when you read an article about nutrition in a popular newspaper or magazine, you don’t expect the author to explain what vitamins, protein, and calories are; these are things the author assumes you already know. And, of course, you do. Or do you? What are calories? How would you find out?

Aesthetic Science Literacy

Aesthetic science literacy refers to the ability to appreciate the beauty of scientific ideas. An avid proponent of science literacy, James Trefil provides an excellent explanation of this type of science literacy in his book, Why Science?. Dr. Trefil, a physics professor, writes that he finds it helpful to bring the attention of friends to certain natural phenomena that, if unexplained, might go unnoticed or would not be appreciated in full, such as the very rare sight of a triple rainbow or sun dogs, two spots of light that sometimes are seen next to the sun. His friends, he says, are usually very grateful for the experience of uniting science and natural beauty in one great story.[3]

Citizen Science

So-called citizen science is a great way to improve general science literacy, especially for adults. Citizen scientists are science enthusiasts who help scientists in various disciplines conduct their research, primarily by collecting data. For example, there are citizen astronomers who watch the sky on a regular basis studying various celestial objects and phenomena, from stars and planets to galaxies. They take pictures of celestial objects and events, and post them online so that professional astronomers can download them and use them in their research. In other words, researchers mine the visual data collected by citizen scientists and then develop scientific theories and discoveries based on them. Another example is amateur bird watching. Birdwatchers provide valuable data—for example, about where certain species are migrating—to professional ornithologists who might otherwise lack this data, as it takes many people to conduct this type of research. And not only do citizen scientists provide data to the professional scientific researchers; in the course of their data collection, they also increase their own knowledge and improve the overall science literacy of their community. Another way science literacy is increased is through museums. Have you ever been to a science and technology museum, a nature preserve, or a conservancy on a school trip? If you have, you may remember how much you learned about science during those trips.

Creating and Disseminating Scientific Information

Scientific publications come in many different forms such as books, conference proceedings, technical reports, and peer-reviewed, or refereed, articles. Primary research articles are especially important in the world of scientific information. Such articles, often referred to as primary sources, are written by the scientists who actually conducted the research being described or reported in the article. Not every scholarly article published in the natural sciences is a primary research article, and it’s important to be able to tell these primary sources from articles that summarize or comment on scientific research conducted by others, so-called secondary sources. Good examples of secondary sources are the articles published in the science section of the New York Times or Scientific American; such popular articles report on recent scientific breakthroughs and discoveries, and generally cite primary research articles published in scholarly journals like Science and Nature.

Popular articles are written by science journalists, whose job is to make scientific research intelligible to people who are not scientists by profession. These journalists typically indicate where the research they are describing can be located, so that interested readers can track down the original study by searching the catalogs and databases at their local public or college libraries. All they need are the names of the authors who wrote the article and the journal in which it appeared. You can practice this in the following exercise.

Exercise: Tracing a Primary Research Article From Secondary Publications

  1. Browse through one of the popular scientific publications such as the science section of the New York Times (comes out on Tuesdays) or Scientific American. Find a short article that looks interesting and is easy to understand.
  2. Look for the following:
    1. an article that is reporting about a recent study that has been published in a scholarly journal;
    2. the title of the journal;
    3. the name of the author(s); and
    4. an indication of when the original study appeared: sometimes the secondary source will say that the research was published in a latest issue of Science or Nature.
  3. Once you find some of these facts (journal title and the authors should be sufficient), you can start to search for the primary source in the resources provided to you by your school—the library catalog or databases.
  4. Catalog search: in a catalog search, you can find out whether your school subscribes to a particular journal by searching for the journal by title.
  5. Best case scenario: your library has it! The next step will be to figure out the available article format(s). You might have several options:
    1. Electronic version—great! It means you can access it right away. Once you get to the online (or electronic) version of the journal, you are given a choice of searching within this publication. An author search should be sufficient to locate the article.
    2. Print version—good! You can search in databases or a discovery service tool such as eDiscover for your article by entering the journal title and the authors. Once you locate the record about the article, which will include volume and issue number, page numbers, the article title, you can also find the call number and take a walk to the shelves where you will find the issue of the journal that includes your article.
    3. Microform version—still good! Again, after searching databases and locating the exact information about the article, you should be able to locate the appropriate microfilm reel or microfiche on the shelf. Before the widespread and easy access to online versions of materials, microforms were used to save space by photocopying and preserving documents on film. Libraries are equipped with microform readers—if you need help using a reader, ask the library staff.

Open Access

Perhaps you have already heard of open access—after all, this book is an open resource! Many researchers in different disciplines, including the natural and social sciences and the humanities have agreed to make their research available online and free of charge. You can find a lot of good material in such publications. The Public Library of Science (PLoS) is one of the largest collections of open access publications.

Science.gov and More

Did you know that a good deal of scientific research is financed by the United States government? Check out the Statistical Abstract of the United States and you will see how much money is budgeted for research and development in the areas of life sciences, engineering, and many other scientific fields. This research has to be made available to the public because it is paid for with tax dollars. That is why it is possible to search through various databases using the government gateway to scientific information, Science.gov, and to access full text at this site on topics in the fields of health and medicine, physics and chemistry, applied science and technology, and natural resources and conservation.

Another good way to look for scientific information is to browse through the websites of individual government agencies such as the Department of Energy, or the National Library of Medicine (NLM) and PubMed (also listed under the registered trademark MEDLINE—you will see the two terms used interchangeably). The NLM database contains many of the latest publications in various medical fields. If you are searching for information for class projects or personal needs, you can find some surprising results in these databases.

Data Repositories

Researchers accumulate a lot of data in the course of their work, and not all of this data is used in their publications. Sometimes this data just sits in filing cabinets waiting to be discovered; in the worst case scenario, it may get lost for good. Now scientists can preserve their data and make it available to other scholars by using digital data repositories. Data repositories can be either institutional or private, depending on their creators and hosting entities. The SUNY Digital Repository—a fairly recent initiative—allows researchers from all SUNY campuses to deposit their data into one warehouse where it can be accessed by anybody. Some data repositories are discipline-specific, such as the NCBI (National Center for Biotechnology Information) from the National Institutes of Health. It is another example of information which is provided for free by the federal government.

Science Zines

Our discussion up until now has primarily focused on scientific information consumption; the different ways of learning what others already know about science. But it’s important to bear in mind that you are a creator as well as a consumer of information. When you produce your own writing and social media projects, you are creating unique information entities that other people can use, especially if you publish them for free on the web. The realization that information dissemination takes place at both large and small scales led to the development of science zines. Science zines are small pamphlets, usually created on 8.5″ x 11” sheets of paper, and folded into small booklets. They are distributed “guerilla style” in places like coffee shops and hair salons, where people are likely to be looking for something to read. In the following exercise, you will create a science zine of your own.

Exercise: Science Zine

Science zines are small pamphlets (made out of a single 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper) that provide basic information about a particular science topic. They can address a broad range of audiences, from kindergarteners to a college-educated, adult population. A science zine’s goal is to bring science information to the general public in an unconventional way, making it a “cool” and easy (and unlikely) way of spreading science literacy. Science zines are often left at bus stops, hair salons, and cafes in hopes that they will be picked up and read. You can start thinking of unlikely places to put your zine!

It is important to find software that can provide an appropriate and easy-to-use template, which will allow placing all of the zine pages on a single 8.5″ x 11” sheet. Microsoft Publisher is a good example of such software. Most schools provide appropriate tools to help students with their projects—check with information technology services on your campus or ask at the library to see what is available at your school.

Step 1

Think about your prospective audience: who would you like to read your zine? Your dorm neighbors? Your parents? Your little brother or sister? Perhaps you volunteer at a summer camp?

  • Select a topic and conduct preliminary research (identify, scope and plan):
  • Identify will help you figure out what you don’t know about your topic and how to proceed.
  • Scope will help you figure out how much you need to find out about your topic in order to have enough information for your zine.
  • Plan will equip you with some helpful tools that you might use in your research.

Your research should include basic definitions, any controversy there may be about the topic, and why it is important for the public to become familiar with this topic. It is also important to have your personal opinion about the topic or issue, because you will be collecting information and formatting it for publication. It has to look persuasive.

Step 2

Create a page-by-page outline of your zine, with visual and written scripts. You can make drawings by hand to illustrate your topic. You can also use computer software to produce images; insert clip art, drawings, and photographs—anything that will help communicate your key points. Depending on who your audience is, you can even make it look like a comic book. Here are some good examples.

Important! Make sure you provide appropriate credits for all images that you’re using. You will find plenty of useful advice in Manage chapter of this textbook.

Step 3

Time to put it all together and print it out. Then get the scissors and a stapler and…Congratulations! You created your own zine!

Lifelong Learning

Our knowledge base changes constantly. We learn new things that others have gone to a lot of trouble to discover. We also forget things, some of these things are probably not that important anyway (and some are). Sometimes we learn that previous discoveries were wrong and that there is new, updated knowledge for us to learn and use. Seventy years ago, most educated adults did not know about DNA, but this doesn’t mean that they weren’t science literate; science literacy is maintaining familiarity with the knowledge base of one’s era. But this base is always evolving. We must always be prepared to learn about new scientific discoveries. It may be challenging, as Jon Miller, who conducted the science literacy study, points out, but it is possible and necessary. It will involve a critically important skill—lifelong learning. You can see it prominently featured in the information literacy pillars Identify (being information literate involves developing a learning habit so new information is being actively sought all the time) and Gather (the need to keep up to date with new information).

Having a basic understanding of science and the ability to influence our lawmakers in all matters related to science is crucial to participating in our democracy. Ten years ago, legislators and policy makers were addressing stem cell research; today, it is hydraulic fracturing. We don’t know what scientific issue will demand our attention ten years from now. But if we hope to be able to make informed decisions, we must cultivate and maintain our science literacy. You can do this by reading popular scientific publications like Scientific American, Discover, and the New York Times science section. Check the web—all of these publications extend their reach online with blogs and discussion boards where everybody is welcome to comment and ask questions. Keeping an eye on the latest scientific news will help you understand the latest trends in science and technology, and how they are likely to impact the future. You can make a difference by being proactive and making your voice heard.

Good luck and happy science literacy trails!


  1. Miller, Jon D. “The Conceptualization and Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy for the Twenty-First Century.” In Science and Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education, edited by Jerrold Meinwald and John G. Hildebrand, 241–254. Cambridge, MA: American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2010.
  2. Miller, Jon D. “Scientific Literacy.” Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, San Francisco, CA, 1989.
  3. Trefil, James. Why Science? New York: Teachers College Press, 2008, 70.

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Science Literacy: Information Literacy in the Sciences by Deborah Bernnard, Greg Bobish, Jenna Hecker, Irina Holden, Allison Hosier, Trudi Jacobson, Tor Loney, and Daryl Bullis is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.