How to achieve scientific literacy
MATHEMATICS
Mathematics, like reading
precedes science literacy. The importance of this statement should
not be underestimated. Someone could argue, of course, that learning
about Nature, say the importance of an insect in the food chain
of an ecosystem, has nothing to do with mathematics. In the same
way, there are probably thousands of topics of this kind, much in
the sense of what we are used to see and 'experience' in a museum,
on the Discovery Channel, or in a brochure of the local zoo. Most
of these topics are visual feasts, appeal to our emotions (like
astronomy, the sky and the 'heavens'), or are indeed a mixture of
the two. We test science literacy with questions like 'does the
sun revolve around the Earth or the Earth around the sun?', or the
naming of an endangered species (or what the term actually means),
or that a guy named Albert Einstein formulated the theory of general
relativity. In learning these facts, there is no mathematics involved
as far as the eye can see or the mind can fathom. And it is indeed
possible to get some understanding of modern scientific facts without
ever being involved in mathematical prove. But the truth is (and
using this word can be problematic) that scientific fact has been
subjected to mathematical treatment of some kind 
counting (!) events or individuals, determining population means
and distributions, classification and clustering species for studies
of evolution, measuring and plotting temperature curves, measuring
concentrations of a substance, describing the effectiveness of a
toxin or the structure of a virus.
It is not unusual that
college students are afraid of mathematics in biology classes. After
all they took biology to avoid math (at this level mostly algebra)
and it comes as a surprise to some students that understanding a
biological fact has always to do with understanding the mathematics
used to corroborate it with experimental evidence. The latter is
the distinguishing feature of science and can be said to be the
repeated testing of an observation such as to prove reproducibility,
i.e., predictability in the context of known circumstances. Numbers
make the science world go round. And because reproducibility is
key to scientific fact finding, statistics (i.e. math) is central
to all things scientific. Statistics is adding and dividing and
it has to be done to a degree of no nonsense activity, that is
to say, in your sleep, to come to a correct conclusion. Science
is not about being smart, or what ever this may mean, but to be
accurate and tedious and the most needed yet most dreadful term
for any scientist is 'control experiment'. Controlling means testing
the influence of independent parameters by repeating an experiment
again and again so as to separate fact from fiction. And the only
way to prove that repetition shows consistent behavior is through
statistical analysis. So all the facts we see and read about in
museums, on TV, or in books are there because they have been shown
beyond a reasonable doubt to be reproducible and consistent with
observation and expectation. That an insect is an insect, the very
existence of a food chain, or the prove that the Earth revolves
around the sun, contrary to everyday experience. The latter comes
from the success of geometry, a branch of mathematics that describes
the form and behavior of usually imaginary objects like lines, dots,
triangles, or parallel planes in one, two, threedimensional
space.
Scientific reasoning is
abstract reasoning and it is often difficult for scientists to go
beyond their specialized language (e.g. using mathematical formalism)
to talk about their work. If they use mathematics in their talk,
most people tune out. An unfortunate yet understandable fact. They
key to scientific literacy, e.g. to understand why population genetics
has a different quality than the book of Genesis, although depends
on literacy in mathematics, or should I say a liking of mathematics.
It is to show that numbers can represent a visual observation, quantify
this observation, and that this quantification can later be used
by someone else to make the same observation over again to say with
confidence that it is the same observation.
H
o m e
Copyright © 20002011
Lukas K. Buehler
