Should literacy include science?

Today I have an article inThe Irish Times, the Irish newspaper of record. It is the first of a series of commissioned articles on science and society. Basically, I make the point that if Newton and Boyle were to come back today, they would be astonished at the progress science has made but dismayed at the fact that this knowledge is restricted to so few. This is a great pity for two reasons

(i) the great discoveries of science are an important part of the human experience

(ii) a great many of the challenges facing modern society involve an understanding of basic science, and more importantly, how science is done.

I’m constantly amazed at the way expert scientific opinion is drowned out in media debates by those who know nothing of the subject, from discussions of nuclear power to climate change. But is this any real surprise if neither journalists nor the public have any knowlege of the painstaking, self-correcting methods of science? Ons solution might be that science form a basic part of every child’s education.

You can read the article on the Irish Times website or here if that link is closed


There was a program on climate on TV3 last night that illustrates the point exactly: a 50/50 tv debate between 2 scientists and 2 members of a pressure group who knew nothing of the subject and repeated every well-known canard imaginable…utterly depressing


Filed under Science and society

6 responses to “Should literacy include science?

  1. John

    {quote}So what is the solution? I suspect the answer lies in education.{un-quote}

    Education is the solution. Think about the following;

    At 5 years of age, primary school first infants class, we teach our children a very complex 26 letter alphabet with which they learn to build words and sentences. We also teach 0 to 9 and +-x/, these are the basis for maths. In total thats over 40 complex symbols and kids have no problem learning this. They learn to build words and sentences and they learn the basis for maths.

    What about atoms? The building blocks of nature? Could a 5 year old child learn something as complex as the periodic table of the elements? And just get a basic grasp of the true building blocks of nature, matter and energy? Is this possible Cormac? The answer to the question is an astounding YES!!!!

    My child is 5 years of age, just finished first infants in primary school. Over the last year, i have thought him the period table of the elements, how it works, the basis for nuclear physics and how all the elements are created from hydrogen atoms through the process of nucleosynthesis. We have also covered the basics of electricity, magnetism, pressure, temperature and a variety of other related physics and astronomy stuff. Lets face it, kids love space stuff, so this is exciting for them. The child picked up the periodic table of elements with ease, it was comparable to him learning the alphabet or the decimal numbers system. Now he is turning 6, we will be slowly moving forward reinforcing the learned information and slowly adding more to this basic science information.

    Can all 5 year old children do this? I really don’t know, but my kid picked it up as easy as A-B-C. The human mind is a sponge for information at this young age. I see no reason why science should not be a decent fraction of our children’s first learning.


  2. cormac

    That’s very interesting John, and it makes sense.
    Of course, I’m not saying that kids need to be taught all of science – the main thing is that they understand the methods of science.
    It’s very easy to reject a theory if you have no idea of the solid foundation on which it is based.

  3. Interesting… I must confess that I was and still am a science geek… I drove everybody crazy with questions. I ended up initially as a science teacher, but eventually gravitated toward the arts (principally music, theatre, writing). I can still navigate through the realm of nuclear physics, chemistry and biology, but spend my time writing and illustrating children’s books. I can say however, that there is a great comfort in understanding your world.

    Science dweeb grows up…
    Johnnie Lunchpail

  4. cormac

    Beautiful site Johnnie, makes me broody just looking at it!

  5. John

    Those children’s books are cool Johnnie, they should sell well.

    Cormac, agreed! understanding the method is critical to advancing the science further, its important.

    I have to observe my child’s reaction to the information that i teach him so that i know exactly what parts he understands and what parts he does not. Using this method, at 5 years of age, i have observed that he cannot YET comprehend being sceptical or critical of the information presented to him. Its like Santa Clause, kids at 5 believe Santa is real because we tell this….. LOL….. Well, Because Santa IS REAL. By 9 or 10 years of age kids develop the skill of ” critical analysis” and start to truly question the information we tell them, including Santa, the tooth fairy and stuff like that. So i think maybe by 7 or 8 years of age i might be able to introduce the concept of scepticism and critical analysis of science information so the child can understand the method of science and the effort it took to reach our current levels in science.


  6. cormac

    Yes, I ‘d worry a bit about ‘indoctrination’ if one starts too early. My favourite 5 year-old is worried about ‘melting polar bears’!