Science communication via testimony requires a certain level of trust. But in the context of ideologically-entangled scientific issues, trust is in short supply—particularly when the issues are politically ‘entangled’. In such cases, cultural values are better predictors than scientific literacy for whether agents trust the publicly-directed claims of the scientific community. In this paper, we argue that a common way of thinking about scientific literacy—as knowledge of particular scientific facts or concepts—ought to give way to a second-order understanding of science as a process as a more important notion for the public’s trust of science.
This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.
Buy single article
Instant access to the full article PDF.
Price includes VAT for USA
Subscribe to journal
Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.
This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.
Among whom we include historians, sociologists, and philosophers. We note that it is a little surprising, in particular, that philosophers of science and epistemologists have had little to say on this topic (as indeed they have had rather little to say to each other).
For this reason, Norris and Phillips call scientific literacy a “programmatic concept” (Norris and Phillips 2009, 271).
Shen’s few gestures towards greater specificity tend themselves to be functionally defined: e.g., “the scientifically literate layman knows how to separate the nontechnical from the technical, the subjective from the objective, and to make full use of scientific expertise without being overwhelmed by it” (Shen 1975, 266).
A further complication that becomes salient when taking up the normative interpretation of this question is that different communities, political contexts, social roles, and so on may carry different expectations for a certain depth and content of scientific literacy; we thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.
Shen’s initial gloss of it is also typical: it is “in the interest of everybody […] to gain a better understanding of science and its applications […]. Such an understanding might be called ‘science literacy’” (1975, 265; emphasis added).
Previous research has shown that epistemic success terms like “knowledge” and “understanding” are often left undistinguished from one another or even conflated in the scholarly literature on scientific literacy and the public understanding of science (Huxster et al. 2018).
This is not to deny that there won’t be some occasions on which an understanding of basic scientific facts and methods will not allow laypeople to reject some theories as ill-defended or pseudoscientific.
Kahan calls his measurement scale “Ordinary Science Intelligence” (OSI), which incorporates questions from the National Science Board’s 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators as well as some common numeracy and cognitive reflection items (see Kahan 2017, for discussion and validation).
This presumes, of course, a separation between the epistemic and affective dimensions of scientific literacy that may in real life be quite a bit more blurry. We take no position in this context on how we should respond to this blurriness.
In this effort, space constraints force us to focus on the content pillar of our conception; there is more to say about both the agent and relation pillars that must wait for another occasion.
A stable and authoritative URL for a transcript of this speech seems to be difficult to come by—one transcript is available at http://stephenschneider.stanford.edu/Publications/PDF_Papers/Crichton2003.pdf—but readers may search for “Aliens Cause Global Warming”.
Lombrozo et al.’s (2008) instrument for assessing understanding of the nature of science includes two items relevant to the scientific community: “The scientific community is essential to the process and progress of science,” and “Unlike many other professions, science is almost always a solitary endeavor” (Lombrozo et al., 292).
In this sense, we submit, our collective understanding of the social structure of science resembles our understanding of many scientific issues—anthropogenic climate change, for example—on which the general core of the theory is at this point almost beyond doubt while significant uncertainties remain about some of the finer details.
For example, might we reasonably limit this expectation to policy leaders and citizens attentive to science policy (cf. Miller and Inglehart 2012)?
Almassi, B. (2012). Climate change, epistemic trust, and expert trustworthiness. Ethics & the Environment, 17(2), 29–49.
Anderson, E. (2011). Democracy, public policy, and lay assessments of scientific testimony. Episteme, 8(2), 144–164.
Bernauer, T. (2013). Climate change politics. Annual Review of Political Science, 16(1), 421–448.
Bird, A. (2010). Social knowing: The social sense of ‘scientific knowledge’. Philosophical Perspectives, 24(1), 23–56.
Bodmer, W. (1985). The public understanding of science: Report of a Royal Society ad hoc group endorsed by the Council of the Royal Society. London: The Royal Society. http://royalsociety.org/uploadedFiles/Royal_Society_Content/policy/publications/1985/10700.pdf.
Boyd, K. (2017). Testifying understanding. Episteme, 14(1), 103–127.
Brossard, D., & Nisbet, M. C. (2006). Deference to scientific authority among a low information public: Understanding U.S. opinion on agricultural biotechnology. International Journal of Public Opinion Research, 19(1), 24–52.
Brulle, R. J. (2014). Institutionalizing delay: Foundation funding and the creation of U.S. climate change counter-movement organizations. Climatic Change, 122(4), 681–694.
Carmichael, J. T., Brulle, R. J., & Huxster, J. K. (2017). The great divide: Understanding the role of media and other drivers of the partisan divide in public concern over climate change in the USA, 2001–2014. Climatic Change, 141(4), 599–612. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-017-1908-1.
Coady, C. A. J. (1992). Testimony. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
DeBoer, G. E. (2000). Scientific literacy: Another look at its historical and contemporary meanings and its relationship to science education reform. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 37(6), 582–601.
Diethelm, P., & McKee, M. (2009). Denialism: What is it and how should scientists respond? European Journal of Public Health, 19(1), 2–4.
Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2010). Climate change denial: Sources, actors and strategies. In C. Lever-Tracy (Ed.), Routledge handbook of climate change and society. London: Routledge.
Dunlap, R. E., & McCright, A. M. (2011). Organized climate change denial. In J. S. Dryzek, R. B. Norgaard, & D. Schlosberg (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of climate change and society. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elgin, C. Z. (2006). From knowledge to understanding. In S. Hetherington (Ed.), Epistemology futures. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Elgin, C. Z. (2007). Understanding and the facts. Philosophical Studies, 132(1), 33–42.
Fiske, S. T. (2012). Managing ambivalent prejudices: Smart-but-cold and warm-but-dumb stereotypes. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 639(1), 33–48.
Fiske, S. T., & Dupree, C. (2014). Gaining trust as well as respect in communicating to motivated audiences about science topics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 111(4), 13593–13597.
Goldman, A. (2001). Experts: Which ones should you trust? Philosophy and Phenomenological Research, 63(1), 85–110.
Gould, S. J. (1999). Take another look. Science, 286(5441), 899.
Grimm, S. (2006). Is understanding a species of knowledge? British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 57(3), 515–535.
Grimm, S. (2012). The value of understanding. Philosophy Compass, 7(2), 103–117.
Hardwig, J. (1985). Epistemic dependence. The Journal of Philosophy, 82(7), 335–349.
Hills, A. (2009). Moral testimony and moral epistemology. Ethics, 120(1), 94–127.
Huxster, J. K., Landrum, A. R., & Slater, M. H. (unpublished manuscript). Understanding the scientific enterprise: Development and validation of a novel scientific literacy measure (SSSI).
Huxster, J. K., Slater, M. H., Leddington, J., et al. (2018). Understanding “understanding” in Public Understanding of Science. Public Understanding of Science, 27(7), 756–771. https://doi.org/10.1177/0963662517735429.
Jamieson, K. H. (2018). Crisis or self-correction: Rethinking media narratives about the well-being of science. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, 115(11), 2620–2627. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1708276114.
Jasanoff, S. (2014). A mirror for science. Public Understanding of Science, 23(1), 21–26.
Jasny, L., Waggle, J., & Fisher, D. R. (2015). An empirical examination of echo chambers in US climate policy networks. Nature Climate Change, 5, 782–786.
Kahan, D. M. (2015). What is the “science of science communication”? Journal of Science Communication, 14(3), 1–12.
Kahan, D. M. (2017). ‘Ordinary science intelligence’: A science-comprehension measure for study of risk and science communication, with notes on evolution and climate change. Journal of Risk Research, 20(8), 995–1016. https://doi.org/10.1080/13669877.2016.1148067.
Kahan, D. M., Maggie Wittlin, D., Braman, P. S., et al. (2012). The polarizing impact of science literacy and numeracy on perceived climate change risks. Nature Climate Change, 2, 732–735.
Keren, A. (2007). Epistemic authority, testimony and the transmission of knowledge. Episteme, 4(3), 368–381.
Keren, A. (2014). Trust and belief: A preemptive reasons account. Synthese, 191(12), 2593–2615.
Keren, A. (2018). The public understanding of what? Laypersons’ epistemic needs, the division of cognitive labor, and the demarcation of science. Philosophy of Science, 85(5), 781–792.
Kitcher, P. (1990). The division of cognitive labor. Journal of Philosophy, 87(1), 5–22.
Kitcher, P. (2001). Science, truth, and democracy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kitcher, P. (2011). Science in a democratic society. Amherst, NY: Prometheus Press.
Kuhn, T. (1962). The structure of scientific revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Kvanvig, J. (2003). The value of knowledge and the pursuit of understanding. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lackey, J. (2008). Learning from words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Laugksch, R. C. (2000). Scientific literacy: A conceptual overview. Science Education, 84(1), 71–94.
Leiserowitz, A., Edward, M., Connie, R.-R., et al. (2016). Climate change in the American mind: March, 2016. Yale University and George Mason University. New Haven, CT: Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.
Leiserowitz, A. A., Maibach, E. W., Roser-Renouf, C., et al. (2013). Climategate, public opinion, and the loss of trust. American Behavioral Scientist, 57(6), 818–837.
Lipton, P. (1998). The epistemology of testimony. Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 29(1), 1–31.
Lombrozo, T., Anastasia, T., & Michael, W. (2008). The importance of understanding the nature of science for accepting evolution. Evolution: Education and Outreach, 1(3), 290–298.
Ludwig, D. (2014). Extended cognition in science communication. Public Understanding of Science, 23(8), 982–995.
McCright, A. M., Charters, M., Dentzman, K., et al. (2016). Examining the effectiveness of climate change frames in the face of a climate change denial counter-frame. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(1), 76–97.
McCright, A. M., & Dunlap, R. E. (2011). The politicization of climate change and polarization in the American public’s views of global warming, 2001–2010. The Sociological Quarterly, 52(2), 155–194.
Miller, J. D. (1983). Scientific literacy: A conceptual and empirical review. Daedalus, 112(2), 29–48.
Miller, J. D. (2004). Public understanding of, and attitudes toward, scientific research: What we know and what we need to know. Public Understanding of Science, 13(3), 273–294.
Miller, J. D. (2010a). The conceptualization and measurement of civic scientific literacy for the twenty-first century. In J. Meinwald & J. G. Hildebrand (Eds.), Science and the educated american: A core component of liberal education (pp. 241–255). Washington, D.C.: American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Miller, J. D. (2010b). Adult science learning in the internet era. Curator, 53(2), 191–208.
Miller, B. (2013). When is consensus knowledge based? distinguishing shared knowledge from mere agreement. Synthese, 190(7), 1293–1316.
Miller, J. D., & Inglehart, R. (2012). Public attitudes toward science and technology. In S. B. William (Ed.), Leadership in science and technology: A reference handbook (pp. 298–306). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications Inc.
Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2003). How literacy in its fundamental sense is central to scientific literacy. Science Education, 87(2), 224–240.
Norris, S. P., & Phillips, L. M. (2009). Scientific Literacy. In D. R. Olson & N. Torrance (Eds.), Handbook of research on literacy (pp. 271–285). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
NRC, The National Research Council. (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting concepts, and core ideas. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
Odenbaugh, J. (2012). Climate, consensus, and contrarians. In W. P. Kabasenche, M. O’Rourke, & M. H. Slater (Eds.), The environment: Philosophy, science, and ethics (pp. 137–150). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
OECD. (2007). PISA 2006: Science competencies for tomorrow’s world. Vol. 1: Analysis. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Oreskes, N., & Conway, E. M. (2010). Merchants of doubt. New York: Bloomsbury Press.
Pettit, P. (2006). When to defer to majority testimony—and when not. Analysis, 66(3), 179–187.
PISA. (2012). Results from PISA 2012: United States. Paris: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Roberts, R. C., & Jay Wood, W. (2007). Intellectual virtues: An essay in regulative epistemology. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Shamos, M. H. (1995). The myth of scientific literacy. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.
Shen, B. S. P. (1975). Science literacy. American Scientist, 63(3), 265–268.
Slater, M. H., Huxster, J. K., Bresticker, J. E., et al. (2018). Denialism as applied skepticism. Erkenntnis. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10670-018-0054-0.
Smith, N., & Leiserowitz, A. (2012). The rise of global warming skepticism: Exploring affective image associations in the united states over time. Risk Analysis, 32(6), 1021–1032.
Snow, C. P. (1959). The two cultures and the scientific revolution. New York: Cambridge University Press.
Snow, C. E., & Dibner, K. A. (Eds.). (2016). Science literacy: Concepts, contexts, and consequences. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press.
Strevens, M. (2003). The role of the priority rule in science. The Journal of Philosophy, 100(2), 55–79.
Strevens, M. (2008). Depth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Takahashi, B., & Tandoc, E. C. (2016). Media sources, credibility, and perceptions of science: Learning about how people learn about science. Public Understanding of Science, 25(6), 674–690.
Thomas, G., & Durant, J. R. (1987). Why should we promote the public understanding of science? Scientific Literacy Papers, 1, 1–14.
Torcello, L. (2016). The ethics of belief, cognition, and climate change pseudoskepticism: implications for public discourse. Topics in Cognitive Science, 8(1), 19–48.
van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., et al. (2014). How to communicate the scientific consensus on climate change: Plain facts, pie charts or metaphors? Climatic Change, 126(1–2), 255–262.
van der Linden, S. L., Leiserowitz, A. A., Feinberg, G. D., et al. (2015). The scientific consensus on climate change as a gateway belief: Experimental evidence. PLoS ONE, 10(2), e0118489.
Wilkenfeld, D. A., Plunkett, D., & Lombrozo, T. (2016). Depth and deference: When and why we attribute understanding. Philosophical Studies, 173(2), 373–393.
Zagzebski, L. T. (2001). Recovering understanding. In M. Steup (Ed.), Knowledge, truth, and duty: Essays on epistemic justification, responsibility, and virtue (pp. 235–251). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Zagzebski, L. T. (2012). Epistemic authority: A theory of trust, authority, and autonomy in belief. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
About this article
Cite this article
Slater, M.H., Huxster, J.K. & Bresticker, J.E. Understanding and Trusting Science. J Gen Philos Sci 50, 247–261 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10838-019-09447-9
- Science communication
- The social structure of science