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Continuing Education

How to Be Science Literate

Free online course offers advice to help you separate fact from fiction

By Lisa Szabo, '16 BA

January 21, 2021 •

Some false claims are easy to spot. (And we’ve had more than our fair share in the past year.) 5G networks caused the COVID-19 pandemic. A new vaccine is tracking you with microchips. COVID-19 is a hoax. Other claims seem more believable. That’s where the University of Alberta’s new massive open online course (MOOC) in science literacy comes in. The free, self-paced course provides tools that help you better understand how science happens and how new discoveries fit in with existing knowledge. As you become more science literate, you’ll be able to better test the claims you hear and differentiate science from counterfeit theories.

“It’s a little bit easier to explain why scientific literacy is important in a pandemic,” says Torah Kachur, ’01 BSc(Hons), ’08 PhD, a syndicated science columnist for CBC Radio One and guest interviewee in the U of A course. With the world upended by a virus, she says, you have to become an expert quickly in your day-to-day life, whether you’re a scientist or not. 

As vaccines start to roll out around the world and skepticism keeps pace, it’s not a bad time to put our critical thinking caps on. Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Science is not a subject — it’s a process

If the word “science” makes you think about test tubes and mitochondria, you’re only part way there. Science isn’t a body of knowledge or a subject, Kachur says. It’s a process by which scientists attain knowledge — and there are scientists in pretty much every field you can think of. 

During Kachur’s weekly radio segments, she has two aims. She hopes people will walk away from the show having learned something. (“You now know that if you tickle a rat, it'll laugh,” Kachur says.) But her main goal is that listeners get a glimpse of how the science was done. 

The scientific process can vary, but generally it goes something like this: a scientist tests an idea by carrying out a carefully designed study and making observations. The scientist then analyzes the findings in order to come to a conclusion. Other scientists repeat the study to see if results are consistent or not. If you come across a claim that hasn’t been systematically tested through a process like this, it’s not backed by science.

2. Spot the wonky science 

Not all science is “good” science. The MOOC identifies three impostors to watch for. The first (and probably rarest) is “fraudulent science,” in which someone invents results that weren’t found in the course of the scientific process. The second imposter is “bad science,” whereby scientists make errors collecting or analyzing the evidence, which leads to faulty or misleading results. The third is “pseudoscience,” which isn’t science at all. It often uses science-y language or leverages real science to try to sell a product or idea that is not supported by the science itself — think stem cell moisturizers and "superfoods." 

Test scientific claims you read or hear about by looking for peer-reviewed articles on the topic. When an article is peer reviewed, third-party experts in that field review the study to ensure the evidence was collected and evaluated fairly. Peer reviews have room for human error, too, so look for multiple peer-reviewed publications on the topic when possible.

3. Think critically 

As a weekly science columnist, Kachur has to be able to communicate scientific findings quickly in ways the general public will understand. She knows science journalists and media outlets run the risk of oversimplifying science due to space or time constraints or to get clicks. 

“You have to expect that there’s more to the story,” she advises people. Don’t just read a headline or a few sentences and expect that you have the jist. With her own science journalism, Kachur hopes listeners will add about 10 per cent to their knowledge on the subject but not believe they have the whole picture.

Avoid falling prey to enticing headlines and outcomes that don’t tell the whole story. You can find out more by checking how other media sources present the same study. Real keeners can hunt down the original study, examine the details and investigate the findings. 

4. Popular opinion isn’t evidence

Experiencing the first pandemic since the advent of social media has shown us that information and misinformation can run at the same pace. Stories supported by scientific evidence show up in newsfeeds alongside opinion pieces, sensationalized stories and stories spouting unsubstantiated claims. But just because you see an idea over and over again on social media doesn’t mean it has merit.

“Social media amplifies anti-science, anti-data-driven ideas,” says Kachur. And it’s impossible to ensure that stories backed by science get the same exposure. What you can do is start to see likes, shares and the volume of certain ideas in your newsfeed as measures of nothing more than popular opinion and algorithms at work. Look for evidence of the scientific process before you consider an idea credible.

5. Share the good news

There are many roads to scientific literacy and not everyone will take the same route. But Kachur hopes people who enrol in the MOOC will help spread the word on scientific literacy to their friends, family members and other communities that may not have as much exposure to science. 

“Ultimately, part of how we advocate for scientific literacy is … by creating advocates for science in non-traditional places.” So when you go to your next family gathering — likely via Zoom these days — share an interesting science tidbit that you picked up in the MOOC or online and, more importantly, show them how science happened.

It’s not facts that make people feel like they know something, says Kachur. It’s the process.

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