Scientific literacy in a post-pandemic world

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What would you have said, back in January, if someone had asked you about the benefits of injecting disinfectant?

Stifle a giggle, perhaps?

How would you have responded if someone suggested buying – for USD$15,000 no less – a “hybrid subtle energy revitalisation platform”? What if that someone was a Celebrity Chef and reality TV star?

Trying to maintain control during a time when things seem to be spiralling out of control is a perfectly normal human response. Control gives us back a sense of certainty; certainty gives us a sense of comfort. A desire to do something to exert control and protect our health is not only a natural response, it is a response leveraged by public health officials to change behaviour and control disease spread (think of the continual reminders to wash hands and cough into our elbows).

However, if we are not careful and attentive, our quest for control and certainty can have unintended consequences. Amid a global health crisis, scientific literacy has never been more valuable at preventing us from doing, or buying, stupid things. As Shane Parrish wrote in a wonderful article about stupidity, “the best intentions are no match for the havoc caused by stress, tiredness, and unusual circumstances”. COVID-19 and social isolation has done little to dampen the things that negatively impact our decision-making abilities.

Scientific literacy is an ability to use scientific knowledge and understanding to, among other things, draw evidence-based conclusions in making sense of the world. Our scientific education shapes not only how we perceive and understand the world but also how we make decisions and interpret information. It is naïve, however, to think that a scientific education is only developed from well-meaning ‘experts’ in traditional places of learning.

Even before the current crisis, an erosion of trust in public institutions was well entrenched. During a commencement address to graduates of the California Institute of Technology, Atul Gawande noted that scientific thinking “isn’t a normal way of thinking … it is unnatural and counter-intuitive”. Because of this challenge, it is understandable that individuals often shy away from scientific explanations that stand in contrast to the wisdom of divinity and experience and common sense. It is also understandable that in a world of mass-media and ‘viral’ information people grasp at ideas that are simple, snappy and suggested by virtual ‘friends’ or influencers.

Now, more than ever, we all need to be scientists. That doesn’t mean we all need to have a degree conferred or initiate a career change, but we do need commit to a systematic way of thinking – one that holds a healthy dose of scepticism, that suspends judgement, that observes the world with an open mind. Facts need to be gathered and predictions tested against them. This takes time, effort and a willingness to accept that no knowledge is settled knowledge, it is just probable knowledge, only one piece of contradictory evidence away from being discarded.

Reducing the influence of misinformation is a difficult and complex challenge. Simply refuting misinformation with more information is a doomed approach. A model that suggests misperception is due to a lack of knowledge and therefore the solution is more information goes against our understanding of how the brain works. The complex cognitive processes that are involved with learning make it very challenging to ‘un-learn’ information that is incorrect – even the act of debunking a myth has been shown to reinforce the myth! Familiarity increases the chances of accepting information as true.

Developing our own scientific literacy and supporting the development of scientific literacy among our young people is a critical task, particularly in these unprecedented times. If citizens can become more attuned to the cacophony of misinformation that floods our senses in these times, perhaps we can better attend to the less-ridiculous and more subtle misinformation that holds society back in more ‘normal’ times.

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