Tuesday, August 5, 2008 - 4:00 PM

SYMP 9-8: Civic scientific literacy: A requirement for responsible citizenship in the 21st century?

Jon D. Miller, Michigan State University

Background/Question/Methods A fundamental assumption of citizenship is that citizens should have some understanding of the issues that they are asked to decide or some understanding of the issues that candidates present as reasons for their election. Historically, most citizens displayed a minimally acceptable level of understanding of the major political issues in any year -- war, the rights of labor, inflation, or unemployment. At the end of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st century, we see a new set of issues arising that demand some minimal understanding of a core set of basic scientific terms and concepts in order to make sense of the arguments. In the 2004 presidential election, for example, the issue of the use of embryonic stem cells for biomedical research was debated by both candidates and was discussed prominently in the media. Yet, numerous studies found that few Americans understand the idea of a stem cell or the differentiation between embryonic and adult stem cells. As global climate change and similar environmental issues reach the public policy agenda in increasing number and complexity, this challenge to our basic democratic assumptions will become more apparent and more serious. Using national survey data from the United States, this paper will outline a measure of Civic Scientific Literacy (CSL) and discuss its relationship to democratic participation. Results/Conclusions The results from a 2007 national survey indicate that about 25% of American adults qualify as Civic Scientifically Literate. In practical terms, this means that about one in four American adults can read and understand material presented at the level of the Tuesday New York Times science section. The analysis will look at the linkage between civic scientific literacy and attitudes toward global climate change and other environmental issues. A simple structural equation model will be presented to estimate the relative influence of formal schooling and informal adult science learning in the achievement of civic scientific literacy in adults. The results will show that formal school remains important but the use of new electronic media -- the Internet and related technologies -- are also useful in building and sustaining civic scientific literacy in adults.