What is Scientific Literacy

Scientific Literacy Cover

Posted by: Justin Hyde | May 24, 2020

The National Science Education Standards describes scientific literacy as the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. 


Scientific literacy is much more than just applying the scientific method, using technical terms, or applying scientific concepts and processes. Individuals will display their scientific literacy in different ways, and individuals will have differences in literacy in different domains. Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. 

Why is it important?

The interest of lay people for the sciences has not grown in parallel with the advances that science has brought to society. Science literacy is important because it allows people context for addressing societal problems. A science-literate populous can better cope with many of its problems and make intelligent and informed decision that will affect the quality of their lives and those of their children.


People who are able to think critically about the information they receive are able to make important choices, about their own health, and as a citizen. They are able to understand issues that they come across daily in news stories and government debates. A literate citizen is able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it.


Fourteen specific objectives for the student (Davis 1935)

  1. Command of factual information
  2. Familiarity with laws, principles, and theories
  3. Ability to distinguish between fact and theory
  4. Concept of cause-and-effect relationship
  5. Ability to make observations
  6. Habit of basing judgment on fact
  7. Ability to formulate workable hypotheses
  8. Willingness to change opinion on the basis of new evidence
  9. Freedom from superstitions
  10. Appreciation of the contribution of science to our civilization
  11. Appreciation of natural beauty
  12. Appreciation of man’s place in the universe
  13. Appreciation of the possible future developments of science
  14. Possession of interest

Characteristics of a person with a “Scientific Attitude” (Davis 1935)

  1. Willingness to change opinion on the basis of evidence
  2. Search for the whole truth regardless of personal, religious, or social prejudices
  3. Concept of cause-and-effect relationships
  4. Habit of basing judgment on fact
  5. Power or ability to distinguish between fact and theory
  6. Freedom from superstitious beliefs

How can I become scientifically literate?

Learning to think critically is a dynamic process, not a static one. In other words, anyone can learn to think critically, no matter his or her starting point. Critical thinking is a skill that is no different than learning a new language, or learning to play a new instrument. Sure some people may be predisposed to be better than others, even with equal training, but anyone can become proficient at a skill if they want to put the effort in. Anyone can become more scientifically literate if they are willing to do the following:


  1. Follow our journal club and read our journal entries here on Why The Gap. Read the studies and the critical appraisal that is posted here on this site, in that order. See if you can begin to assess the validity, results, and relevance of the studies on your own before reading the critical appraisal. Through this process you will have no choice but to sharpen your critical thinking skills!
  2. Whenever confronted with media reporting on a scientific finding, read both the actual study and the media, in that order. See if you can notice any shortcomings in the reporting.



  1. E-an Zen (1990) Science Literacy and Why it is Important, Journal of Geological Education, 38:5, 463-464, DOI: 10.5408/0022-1368-38.5.463National Science Education Standards.
  2. National Science Education Standards. Copyright 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 
  3. National Science Education Standards. Copyright 1996 by the National Academy of Sciences. Courtesy of the National Academy Press, Washington, D.C. 
  4. https://www.discovermagazine.com/the-sciences/what-is-scientific-literacy-02
  5. Davis,I.C. 1935. The measurement of scientific attitudes. Science Education 19:117-122.


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