The public struggles with science literacy.
A traditional view of science literacy focuses on information and facts — on textbook knowledge, but critical science literacy emphasizes awareness of how science is practiced, from the collaborative nature of research and how science is funded to the ways we evaluate what we know to be true at any given moment.
A science literate public is less concerned with scientific concepts rotely-memorized; rather, they are armed with enough understanding to think critically about the world around them and to participate in a democratic society. They are skeptical of sensational science headlines and carefully consider the sources of the information they consume. And, most importantly, they possess agency and autonomy, which strengthens our commitment to provide tools for decision-making without manipulation or covert persuasion.
Informed citizens make better decisions.
However, an ever-changing media landscape creates significant barriers between the public and the scientific understanding necessary to inspire meaningful action on climate change.
While climate change makes headlines daily, there are fewer (and fewer) journalists assigned to science and environmental beats. This combined with the deluge of data and information widely available on the internet makes critical science literacy fundamental in an age where science and technology pervade almost all aspects of our lives.
Evidence of sea level rise, hypoxic zones, and ocean acidification are just a few of the indicators that suggest the ocean is inextricably linked with climate change. Factoring in other human-caused stressors like plastic and pollution adds an even greater sense of urgency to the task of communicating about how oceanic changes impact our future and the future of many other species.
Experts believe climate change is a science communication emergency. Mounting evidence suggests that action now may be our only hope.
The ocean poses additional challenges for engagement. Over 70 percent of Earth’s surface is covered by water, but most of the ocean is out of sight and out of mind for the students, activists, and change-makers who might help mitigate threats to our vital ocean ecosystems.
Because of this disconnect between awareness and the scope of threats to our oceans, vast expanses of our planet remain unexplored and unknown. In the deep, cold waters, there are mountains that would tower over the Himalayas and bioluminescent sea creatures who use tools. There are species that coordinate with other species to hunt and survive in the harshest of environments. Currently, at least half of the anticancer drugs on the market come from marine resources, so ancient sea sponges and cold-water corals we’re discovering now may unlock medical breakthroughs the likes of which we can only imagine.
How do you build literacy and engage with something so distant, with a place that seems out of our reach? We’re working to build emotional investment in ocean issues with multimedia storytelling and informal science education.
Science is a human endeavor and we are storytellers constantly searching for the connective tissue to make an audience keep reading, keep looking, and — most importantly — keep thinking.
Jenny Woodman, Proteus founder and executive director, is a science writer and educator living in the Pacific Northwest; she is a 2018 lead science communication fellow for the Exploration Vessel Nautilus. Follow her on Twitter @JennyWoodman.
Goodwin, J. (2018). Effective Because Ethical: Speech Act Theory as a Frameworks for Scientists’ Communication. In Ed. Priest, S., Goodwin, Jean, & Dahlstrom, Michael F. (2018). Ethics and practice in science communication. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press.
Priest, S. (2018). Communicating Climate Change and Other Evidence-Based Controversies: Challenges to Ethics in Practice. In Ed. Priest, S., Goodwin, Jean, & Dahlstrom, Michael F. (2018). Ethics and practice in science communication. Chicago ; London: The University of Chicago Press.