What's More Important: Science Literacy or News Literacy?

That’s not really a fair question, because they’re both vital. But if I was the administrator at a university and a foundation offered me funding to establish a program curriculum for one or the other–which would result in a mandatory class for all in-coming freshmen–I would choose news literacy. I’ll explain why in a minute.

First, let me say outright that I am a champion of science education. I want my two sons to not only be scientifically literate, I want them to enjoy science. They are now in kindergarten and third grade, respectively, but since their pre-school days, both of them have taken after-school science classes and have attended science camp during the summers. The person who runs the after-school classes and summer camp is an elementary school science teacher in my neighborhood. His name is Carmelo Piazza. He is a rock star. I know what a formative influence he is from my own experience as a parent of two children who have been learning science from him for several years.

I also know that Piazza has a lasting influence on students. Some months ago, I was in my local Starbucks, working on an article. Two college students were sitting next to me. Piazza walked in and one of them recognized him. She jumped up with a big smile and introduced herself (“Do you remember me, I was in your science class…”). Piazza said he did, they chitchatted, then he got his coffee and left. After Piazza walked out the door, his old student turned to her friend and said, “Best science teacher ever.”

So I get how important science is and how important it is to have really good science teachers. Some of our biggest public debates involve science (such as climate change and genetic engineering). An informed citizenry can only help raise the level of public understanding on these subjects. That said, we are coming to learn that our knowledge of some politically charged issues (like climate change and genetic engineering) is filtered through our worldviews and predispositions. This complicates the discourse and makes facts less relevant that we would like.

Still, if critical thinking is crucial to our understanding of the world, then I believe that skill has wider application for all of us as daily consumers of news. Being able to properly assess the information stream we get via twitter, Facebook and the news media is essential. That’s why I’m a big fan of Stony Brook University’s Center for News Literacy. From its website:

News Literacy is the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge the reliability and credibility of news reports and news sources. Students today are bombarded with blogs, “tweets,” rumors, gossip, opinion, punditry, hype, spin, bias, propaganda, and advertising, all vying with journalism in their claims to be credible. News Literacy is an essential skill if today’s high school and college students are to become not just intelligent consumers of news, but effective citizens.

Here’s a good write-up of a course at Stony Brook that teaches news literacy to its students. This is the sort of class that should be mandated at every high school and university.

Naturally, every aspiring journalist must become a skilled evaluator of information. In the journalism class I’m teaching this semester at NYU, we’ll be spending a fair amount of time analyzing sources of information. For example, one of the first assignments is to write a story about the safety of the flu vaccine.   So on Thursday, by way of introduction to the diverse and confusing array of online information on this topic, I had students read three articles. One of them came from Joe Mercola’s website (a font of irresponsible misinformation on health topics), another was a recent reprehensible Daily Beast piece (which I discussed here) and lastly, this woefully flawed Reuter’s article from yesterday. We also talked about where to find credible sources of information for their stories (such as the CDC, public health agencies, reputable medical journals, etc.). It was a useful exercise.

Next week, we’ll examine self-appointed watchdogs, such as SpinWatch and SourceWatch, which some journalists turn to as legitimate sources of information on people and/or issues in the news. That, I’m sure, will be a useful exercise, too.



6 Responses to “What's More Important: Science Literacy or News Literacy?”

  1. Oh, look–it’s available for comments. Yay! I’ll try my response to this again now.

    I think I agree with you–much to my surprise. I wouldn’t have expected to from the headline. Heh.

    But a more generic BS filter, for assessing source quality and making choices based on solid information, would be wise for most aspects of one’s life. It could be financial, medical, nutritional, even just planning a vacation.

    (for those playing along, I’m MaryM in other threads)

  2. jimmy says:

    I feel that what you are describing as news literacy, specifically the ability to discern a good source of information from a bad one, is a very important skill, but it can easily come from scientific understanding. Science is a system we use to find facts and test new ideas and if you use it in such a way while navigating news media you end up with a very useful filter that achieves what you described

  3. Ruth Shaver says:

    My guess is that kids who are taught the scientific method from early on learn to apply it across fields. Wouldn’t it be nice to raise a generation of kids who don’t need to learn this kind of literacy for news or science in high school or college because they’ve learned and applied it since pre-school?! I agree, though, that news literacy, because of its general applicability across fields, is more urgent than science literacy specifically.

  4. Robert says:

    I think comparing these two pursuits is not a valid comparison. The literacy of science is about discovery, ideas and creativity. It’s about understanding. I agree with Stony Brook’s news literacy assessment, which is important, but being properly informed of an event, is not the same as the search for understanding. A better comparison would be the study of history and news literacy.

  5. dovhenis says:

    On the blissful ignorance:

    It takes a change of culture, of the mode of reactions to
    circumstances, to effect a change of habit. Genetics is the progeny of culture,
    not vice versa. This applies in ALL fields of human activities, including
    economy, to ALL personal and social behavioral aspects.

    Since the early 1900’s ALL “science” has been taken over by
    the Technology Culture of the religious Americans, represented by the
    trade-union-church AAAS. Plain and simple. There has not been any science in
    the world since then except “religious-American-science”.

    On the blissful religious science ignorance…:

    USA-World Science Hegemony Is Science Blind

    Since the early 2000s I have been posting many articles on
    science items surveyed and analyzed by me, without religious
    background-concepts. I have been doing this because I was deeply disturbed by
    the religiosity of the 1848-founded AAAS trade-union and by the consequent
    religious background-tint of its
    extensive “scientific” publications and activities.

    On my next birthday I’ll be 88-yrs old. I know that I’m
    deeply engaged in a Don Quixotic
    mission-war to extricate-free the
    USA and world Science from the clutches and consequences of the
    religious-trade-union-church AAAS, adopted strangely by the majority of
    scientifically ignorant religious god-trusting Americans and by their most
    other humanity following flocks…

    But I am sincerely confident that only thus it is feasible
    and possible to embark on a new, rational, Human culture (Scientism) and on new
    more beneficial and effective technology courses for humanity…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)


    Energy-Mass Poles Of The Universe


  6. Doug says:

    I think that the ultimate course would be called Critical Thinking, and it would address both news and science literacy, because they are essentially one and the same thing. The important thing about science literacy for the general public is not necessarily to get everyone excited about science or knowledgeable about the current important science issues, those are always changing, it is to teach what science is, how it is done, and how to get more information about a subject that is credible. The critical thinking skills you talk about being needed to filter out all of the incoming news has a name. It is called the scientific method. The evolution of a theory to a fact is the same in news as it is in science. You critically check your sources, make sure that you have more than one source, and then you are more confident that what you call a fact is real. The problem with the lack of knowledge in the public of how science is done is that the normal questioning that goes on in science, perhaps a new study that questions an aspect of climate change, is taken as grounds to immediately reject the whole current theory without taking into consideration the source of this new study, the conditions the study was done, or all of the data supporting the current theory. A required course on critical thinking that went into all areas where critical thinking is critical, including news and science, would also have less anti-science stigma attached to it.

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