Scientific literacy: Lessons from The Martian

As I was walking out of the theatre after seeing The Martian last Friday, I noticed a tweet by one of my favorite scientists, Neil deGrasse Tyson, which summed up the movie (and by relation, the novel) so well that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t though of it before: “The @MartianMovie — where you learn all the ways that being Scientifically Literate can save your life.” Besides the fact that I love almost everything Neil deGrasse Tyson says (it’s all relevant, I swear), this tweet hits on something that goes much deeper than a quirky blip about a popular new movie. Scientific literacy.
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What is scientific literacy?

The long definition: “Scientific literacy means that a person can ask, find, or determine answers to questions derived from curiosity about everyday experiences. It means that a person has the ability to describe, explain, and predict natural phenomena. Scientific literacy entails being able to read with understanding articles about science in the popular press and to engage in social conversation about the validity of the conclusions. Scientific literacy implies that a person can identify scientific issues underlying national and local decisions and express positions that are scientifically and technologically informed. A literate citizen should be able to evaluate the quality of scientific information on the basis of its source and the methods used to generate it. Scientific literacy also implies the capacity to pose and evaluate arguments based on evidence and to apply conclusions from such arguments appropriately.” (National Science Education Standards, page 22)

The short definition, scientific literacy is the “knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity.” (National Science Education Standards)

To summarize, scientific literacy implies that one has been thoroughly educated in the scientific process and can apply the things they have learned to real life situations.


Scientific literacy is the "knowledge and understanding of scientific 
concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation 
in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity." 
(National Science Education Standards)

Why is The Martian so important?

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie (but seriously read it too)—READ/WATCH IT! As a scientist, I can’t think of a better example of scientific triumph in the world of fiction. The author, Andy Weir, is a software engineer, who set out to write a novel grounded in scientific truth. He did amazingly well–I’m only aware of one scientific mishap/exaggeration regarding how Martian weather is depicted (and forces the Hermes crew to evacuate and thus leave Mark Watney behind). However, the rest of the novel is filled with the scientific success (and blunders) of Mark Watney as he tries to wrestle his survival from Mars.

After Mark Watney is mistakenly left on Mars by his team, he has no choice but to “science the shit out of this.” As the mission’s botanist and mechanical engineer, his abilities are admittedly perfectly suited to his stranded on Mars situation (i.e. he must figure out how to make his food last until he can be rescued and he must rig equipment for new uses); however, much of the work he does need to complete to survive is beyond his normal comfort zone, and he must rely on his ability to use science to solve problems. For those of you who have read the book or seen the movie, you know how this ends–I won’t give it away for those who have not, but the message is the same–Mark Watney’s life depends TOTALLY on his scientific knowledge and ability to adapt using the tools he has around him.

Now, not everyone on this planet is astronaut material. Mark Wartney and the rest of the Hermes crew were the best of the best (just like all those super-human real life astronauts) and they were likely picked for the mission because of their specific skills. However, this doesn’t mean that the rest of us stuck back down on Earth should be able to avoid our worldly responsibilities because “science isn’t our thing.”


Okay… but we’re never going to be stuck on Mars right?

Chances are no. But our planet is currently facing its own “struggle for survival’, which is only being hindered by the general public’s lack of scientific literacy.

Struggle for survival, you say? On Earth?

You might be tempted to think that scientific literacy has absolutely nothing to do with human survival on Earth, but I strongly disagree. Our planet is currently faced with with a rate of warming likely unmatched in its geologic history. Anthropogenic CO2 is being rapidly released into the atmosphere through burning of fossil fuels and disturbance of other carbon sinks, such as the world’s forests and permafrost in arctic and alpine regions. Glaciers are melting and sending a large amount of fresh water into the oceans causing changes in ocean circulation. Species are being lost at an incredible rate. The only way to lessen or reverse these effects, is for people to understand and accept these changes and to move into action to do something about it. Without action, humans (and everything else living on this planet) face an extremely uncertain future in a rapidly changing world–evolution takes millions of years, and humans may not be able to adapt to these changes quickly enough. Like Mark Watney, humans must “science the shit out of this” for survival.


So why aren’t more people jumping into action?

There is a terrifying lack of scientific literacy in the United States and other countries around the world. People misunderstand the scientific process, and therefore misunderstand the consensus among climate scientists in term of anthropogenic climate change (for the record, 97% of scientists AGREE that anthropogenic climate change is real—see Skeptical Science – Getting skeptical about global warming skepticism). These misunderstandings lead to a feeling that science is bad or inaccurate. They lead to the thoughts that scientists are radicals who just want attention. They even lead to complete ignorance about how important the scientific process is (i.e. what it means to have something published in a peer reviewed journal vs. just somewhere online). And when politicians and people of power use their lack of scientific literacy to spread false information about climate change, nothing gets done.

We all need to do better. Not all of us are scientists (and most of us will never set foot on Mars let alone get anywhere near space), and that’s fine. But America (and the rest of the world) needs to work harder to improve the scientific literacy of its citizens. Without a general understanding of science, people will continue to doubt everything about it. If people continue to doubt science, they will never trust it to save their lives. If people don’t trust science to save their lives… well, that doesn’t leave a very shiny, bright future for planet Earth.

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3 thoughts on “Scientific literacy: Lessons from The Martian

  1. Matthew Wright says:

    You make a cogent case for scientific literacy, with which I entirely agree. The problem with the world today – certainly the western world – is that scientific illiteracy is an easier option. It even seems to be cultivated. A lot of the internet click bait pivots off scientific illiteracy, exploiting the credibility of those who know no better to sell them the latest quackery. In a sense this is reflective of the wider human condition: societies have always had their helpings of stupid. But as you point out, we need to do better in the face of the environmental and other issues now confronting us. Science offers answers, and I think the onus is on every human to gain that scientific literacy and move forward.

    Liked by 1 person

    • brigittarongstad says:

      I totally agree! I think that climate science benefits everyone, but only if everyone has the level of understanding needed to use it. I’ve been fortunate enough to grow up attending schools and universities that hold science to highest regard, but not everyone is so lucky. The biggest struggle is reaching those people that have never connected with science or who have never been taught how useful it can be, and I think it’s up to the scientific literate of the world to keep trying until people start listening.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Flop til you drop "FTYD" says:

    Based off Matthew’s earlier comment:
    Science offers answers, and I think the onus is on every human to gain that scientific literacy and move forward.

    And your response:
    The biggest struggle is reaching those people that have never connected with science or who have never been taught how useful it can be, and I think it’s up to the scientific literate of the world to keep trying until people start listening.

    Find a way to take 1 concept, explain it in a funny way or anecdote and you’ve got a student willing to learn. And others will follow…

    Sandi

    Liked by 1 person

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