Coronavirus (1259) Misinformation and science literacy

4 May, 2021

CITATION: (Mis)informed about what? What it means to be a science-literate citizen in a digital world

Emily L. Howell and Dominique Brossard

PNAS April 13, 2021 118 (15) e1912436117;


Science literacy is often held up as crucial for avoiding science-related misinformation and enabling more informed individual and collective decision-making. But research has not yet examined whether science literacy actually enables this, nor what skills it would need to encompass to do so. In this report, we address three questions to outline what it should mean to be science literate in today’s world: 1) How should we conceptualize science literacy? 2) How can we achieve this science literacy? and 3) What can we expect science literacy’s most important outcomes to be? If science literacy is to truly enable people to become and stay informed (and avoid being misinformed) on complex science issues, it requires skills that span the “lifecycle” of science information. This includes how the scientific community produces science information, how media repackage and share the information, and how individuals encounter and form opinions on this information. Science literacy, then, is best conceptualized as encompassing three dimensions of literacy spanning the lifecycle: Civic science literacy, digital media science literacy, and cognitive science literacy. Achieving such science literacy, particularly for adults, poses many challenges and will likely require a structural perspective. Digital divides, in particular, are a major structural barrier, and community literacy and building science literacy into media and science communication are promising opportunities. We end with a discussion of what some of the beneficial outcomes could be—and, as importantly, will likely not be—of science literacy that furthers informed and critical engagement with science in democratic society.


'The crucial question remains, however, on how to actually achieve this greater science literacy in the American society, and if it even is attainable. Can adults realistically gain the skills necessary to become science literate in the United States nowadays and be better equipped to navigate online discussions of science? If the answer is yes, and we believe it is, then how? Many aspects of science literacy we discussed in this report could (and should) be achieved through K-12 education and other formal education settings...'

'our preheld beliefs, values, and cognitive shortcuts and biases also make us especially susceptible to the influence of misinformation'

'we have little understanding of how science literacy would help people be informed about science and protect themselves against misinformation, nor what kinds of skills science literacy would have to include to do so'

Neil Pakenham-Walsh, HIFA Coordinator,