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Communicating astrobiology in public: A study of scientific literacy

Oliver, Carol Ann, Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, Faculty of Science, UNSW


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  • Title:
    Communicating astrobiology in public: A study of scientific literacy
  • Author/Creator/Curator: Oliver, Carol Ann, Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, Faculty of Science, UNSW
  • Subjects: astrobiology; scientific literacy; public understanding of science
  • Resource type: Thesis
  • Type of thesis: Ph.D.
  • Date: 2008
  • Supervisor: Walter, Malcolm, Biotechnology & Biomolecular Sciences, Faculty of Science, UNSW; Davies, Paul, Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, Arizona State University; Dawkins, Richard, Simonyi Chair of the Public Understanding of Science, Oxford University
  • Language: English
  • Print availability: T/2008/321 + 1 CD (Please speak to a staff member at the Library Help Zone)
  • Permissions: This work can be used in accordance with the Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.
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  • Description: The majority of adults in the US and in Europe appear to be scientifically illiterate. This has not changed in more than half a century. It is unknown whether the Australian public is also scientifically illiterate because no similar testing is done here. Public scientific illiteracy remains in spite of improvements in science education, innovative approaches to public outreach, the encouraging of science communication via the mass media, and the advent of the Internet. Why is it that there has been so little change? Is school science education inadequate? Does something happen between leaving high school education and becoming an adult? Does Australia suffer from the same apparent malady?The pilot study at the heart of this thesis tests a total of 692 Year Ten (16-year-old) Australian students across ten high schools and a first year university class in 2005 and 2006, using measures applied to adults. Twenty-six percent of those tested participated in a related scientific literacy project utilising in-person visits to Macquarie University in both years. A small group of the students (64) tested in 2005 were considered the best science students in seven of the ten high schools. Results indicate that no more than 20% of even the best high school science students - on the point of being able to end their formal science education - are scientifically literate if measured by adult standards. Another pilot test among 150 first year university students supports that indication. This compares to a scientific literacy rate of 28% for the US public.This thesis finds that the scientific literacy enterprise – in all its forms – fails scrutiny. Either we believe our best science students are leaving high school scientifically illiterate or there is something fundamentally wrong in our perceptions of public scientific illiteracy. This pilot study – probably the first of its kind – indicates we cannot rely on our current perceptions of a scientifically illiterate public. It demonstrates that a paradigm shift in our thinking is required about what scientific literacy is and in our expectations of a scientifically literate adult public. In the worst case scenario, governments are pouring millions of dollars into science education and public outreach with little or no basis for understanding whether either is effective. That is illogical, even irresponsible. It also impacts on the way astrobiology – or any science – is communicated in public.

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