Journal for General Philosophy of Science
Understanding andTrusting Science
MatthewH.Slater1 · JoannaK.Huxster2· JuliaE.Bresticker3
© Springer Nature B.V. 2019
Science communication via testimony requires a certain level of trust. But in the context
of ideologically-entangled scientiﬁc issues, trust is in short supply—particularly when
the issues are politically ‘entangled’. In such cases, cultural values are better predictors
than scientiﬁc literacy for whether agents trust the publicly-directed claims of the scien-
tiﬁc community. In this paper, we argue that a common way of thinking about scientiﬁc
literacy—as knowledge of particular scientiﬁc facts or concepts—ought to give way to a
second-order understanding of science as a process as a more important notionfor the pub-
lic’s trust of science.
Keywords Science communication· The social structure of science· Consensus
The state of scientiﬁc literacy in America and in other developed nations has been an issue
of concern for many decades now (Miller 1983, 2004; Bodmer 1985; OECD 2007). More
recently, a palpable anti-science sentiment has become more prominent (McCright and
Dunlap 2011; Kahan 2015). This is reﬂected, in part, by the fact that large portions of the
public remain intransigent with respect to their dismissal of policy-relevant science, such
as that concerning the risks of anthropogenic climate change (Leiserowitz et al. 2016).
Given the amount of attention that scientiﬁc education and communication have received
in the intervening decades, these facts may seem a little surprising. Why have wefailed to
bring about better outcomes?
A number of plausible explanations could be cited, from the persistence of problematic
models of science communication to the increasing prominence of well-funded anti-science
* Matthew H. Slater
Joanna K. Huxster
Julia E. Bresticker
1 Department ofPhilosophy, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA
2 Environmental Studies, Eckerd College, SaintPetersburg, FL, USA
3 Department ofMedical Physics, Duke University, Durham, NC, USA
M.H.Slater et al.
groups (Dunlap and McCright 2010, 2011; Brulle 2014). And while we believe that these
are indeed relevant factors in our present diﬃculties, our focus in this essay will be to raise
(again) the question of whether we have our priorities for scientiﬁc literacy in order—and
whether a somewhat diﬀerent approach might mitigate some of the damaging social–politi-
cal dynamics that make the consensus gaps we observe so recalcitrant.
This is not the right forum for a full hearing on the question of how we should con-
ceptualize ‘scientiﬁc literacy’ or ‘the public understanding of science’ (let alone how to
bring about such goods). Our aims in this essay are more programmatic. First, we wish to
oﬀer a framework for formulating and evaluating diﬀerent conceptions of scientiﬁc literacy
(Sects. 2, 3); second, having brieﬂy considered the outlines of a popular conception, ﬁnd-
ing it wanting when it comes to enabling its possessors to appreciate the epistemic signiﬁ-
cance of scientiﬁc consensus, we will outline a conception that emphasizes certain social
dimensions of the scientiﬁc enterprise that seem to us undervalued in most discussions of
scientiﬁc literacy. We call this approach the Social Structure of Science (SSS) conception
of Scientiﬁc Literacy and argue on conceptual/epistemic grounds that its possessors will
be better positioned to recognize occasions on which the scientiﬁc community is appropri-
ately regarded as a source of epistemic authority. To our mind, this makes it an attractive
social goal; however, we do not argue here that this variety of scientiﬁc literacy is the end-
all or universally appropriate minimum standard for the public’s grasp of science. Our hope
is that this essay will provide STS researchers1 a useful starting point for engaging in an
important and growing area of interdisciplinary research in which their expertise is needed.
2 Varieties ofScientic Literacy
What is scientiﬁc literacy and what is it for? Such questions resist univocal answer. This is
not overly surprising. Consider other forms of practical competence or epistemic success.
What does it mean to be technologically literate, for example? Presumably the answer to
this question will depend on the context in which judgments about technological literacy
are to be made. What is expected and valued will depend on what standards are in play.
Standards in turn depend (in part) on goals, which are themselves sensitive to context. Sim-
ilar comments apply to epistemic competencies. We might say that you understand how
a car engine works—unless you were employed in the front oﬃce of the local auto shop,
in which context we might be disinclined to attribute suchunderstanding lest it engender
faulty expectations of your capabilities (Wilkenfeld etal. 2016).
This strikes us as a productive light in which to consider Benjamin Shen’s much cited
(1975) three-fold distinction between Practical, Civic, and Cultural “forms of science liter-
acy”. Shen deﬁned the ﬁrst as “the possession of the type of scientiﬁc and technical know-
how that can be immediately put to use to help improve living standards” (Shen 1975, 265).
Today, in the democratic, developed world, many might be inclined to think of “civic sci-
ence literacy” as particularlysigniﬁcant. Here he deﬁned the aim as “[enabling] the citizen
to […] participate more fully in the democratic processes of an increasingly technological
society” (ibid., 266). Cultural science literacy Shen explicated (in shades of Snow 1959)
by analogy to the sort of competence and familiarity a scientist or engineer might seek
1 Among whom we include historians, sociologists, and philosophers. We note that it is a little surprising,
in particular, that philosophers of science and epistemologists have had little to say on this topic (as indeed
they have had rather little to say to each other).
Understanding andTrusting Science
to develop by studying ancient history, poetry, or classics: it is “motivated by a desire to
know something about science as a major human achievement; it is to science what music
appreciation is to music. It solves no practical problems directly, but it does help bridge the
widening gulf between the scientiﬁc and humanistic cultures” (Shen 1975, 267).
Shen’s varieties of scientiﬁc literacy are thus functionally deﬁned in terms of what they
aim to bring about.2 He says relatively little about what speciﬁcally it takes to satisfy each
concept.3 Many proposals have been oﬀered (and criticized) in the intervening decades
(Miller 1983; Thomas and Durant 1987; Shamos 1995; DeBoer 2000; Laugksch 2000;
Miller 2010a; Snow and Dibner 2016). Before oﬀering our own proposal for a concep-
tion of scientiﬁc literacy that we think is worthy of being taken seriously, let us take a step
back and consider the form that such proposals may usefully take. Very plausibly, scien-
tiﬁc literacy centrally involves a certain kind of epistemic success. We interpret this suc-
cess expansively, potentially to include such states as propositional knowledge, know-how,
understanding, and so on. We are not so expansive, however, to include aﬀective states—
e.g., taking a certain attitude about some aspect of science. Tempting as this might be,
doing so has the eﬀect of making analytic what should remain empirical questions about
the connection between one’s grasp of science and one’s attitudes toward it (Thomas and
Durant 1987, 10 make a similar point).
Conceiving of such epistemic states as relations, a straightforward approach to scien-
tiﬁc literacy will start by specifying this relation (or relations) and its (or their) relata. Our
framework thus involves answering three questions:
(1) What epistemic relation(s) are at stake? If scientiﬁc literacy is a kind of epistemic suc-
cess, what kind of success is it?
(2) Who or what are taken to be the primary subjects of this success? Is it every individual
member of the public, only some, the public as a whole (or some other option)?
(3) What is the content of this success? For example, what facts or theories are to be truly
believed (or known or understood or …) in order for one to count as being scientiﬁcally
literate (in the given sense)?
Further components may of course be added to accommodate non-epistemic dimensions
of a conception that cannot adequately be captured by (1–2). We shall assume in this paper,
however, that the epistemic can suﬃciently subsume these aspects.
To get a better sense of how answering these questions can generate diﬀerent concep-
tions of scientiﬁc literacy, let us consider some potential variety to these answers. We take
the questions ‘out of order’ to simplify the discussion, starting with (2).
2.1 The Possessors ofScientic Literacy
Who are ‘possessors’ of (a variety of) scientiﬁc literacy? We can think of this as a question
with normative content (as in who is expected to possess scientiﬁc literacy for the given
conception?) or simply as a factual question of what the target of a certain evaluation is.
2 For this reason, Norris and Phillips call scientiﬁc literacy a “programmatic concept” (Norris and Phillips
3 Shen’s few gestures towards greater speciﬁcity tend themselves to be functionally deﬁned: e.g., “the sci-
entiﬁcally literate layman knows how to separate the nontechnical from the technical, the subjective from
the objective, and to make full use of scientiﬁc expertise without being overwhelmed by it” (Shen 1975,
M.H.Slater et al.
For now, let us stick with the latter interpretation.4 A straightforward answer is that when
we attribute scientiﬁc literacy, we attribute it to individual people. For example, when one
is asking after the scientiﬁc literacy of the American ‘lay public’ it seems that one typically
is interested in the scientiﬁc literacy of each member of this group.
But other possibilities are worth considering. Instead of focusing on individuals, one
may wish to countenance communities (or other ensembles of epistemic agents) as the rel-
evant possessors of scientiﬁc literacy. In a recent report of the National Academy of Sci-
ences (Snow and Dibner 2016), the Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception
of Science acknowledged the concept of “community-level science literacy” as the idea
that certain knowledge or abilities might be possessed not by individuals but by groups of
people (cf. Bird 2010; Ludwig 2014; Miller 2010b). Perhaps we see hints of this thought
in Shen’s discussion of Practical Science Literacy. We leave this interesting nuance unex-
plored in this paper and focus henceforth on the scientiﬁc literacy of individuals.
2.2 Content/Subject Matter
In asking after the content of scientiﬁc literacy, we are asking what is to be grasped or
known (or …?) by the scientiﬁcally literate. Here too we should expect a contextual or
developmental element in any plausible answer to the above. This is characteristic of edu-
cational policy documents aiming to outline programs for science education (OECD 2007;
NRC 2012; PISA 2012; Snow and Dibner 2016). Answers here typically include particular
pieces of scientiﬁc fact (e.g., that the earth orbits the sun or that molecules are composed
of atoms), theories (evolution by natural selection, universal gravitation), or concepts (e.g.,
radiation, genetic inheritance, and so on). Another common answer to the content question
emphasizes concepts from the so-called “Nature of Science” (NoS): e.g., theory, hypoth-
esis, conﬁrmation, and perhaps other basic methodological ideas in the vicinity. We shall
return to the question of content—and the range of answers we see—in greater detail in
2.3 The Epistemic Relation
Suppose that we have in mind a conception of both the content of scientiﬁc literacy and the
possessors of that content. What is the epistemic relationship between them? This is a ques-
tion that seems to us surprisingly neglected in the existing literature. There are a number of
straightforward options here: one might know something about science, one might merely
truly believe it (perhaps without reasons good enough to count as knowing), or one might
understand something about science. What is the relationship we should favor in our con-
ception of scientiﬁc literacy? The answer might seem obvious: the reason why literacy has
seemed an apt label for this quality stems in part from the comparison with grasping—or
understanding—a language (Norris and Phillips 2003). One is not literate in, one does not
understand, a foreign language when one merely knows what some words mean; literacy is
more ﬂexible and holistic, expressing a kind of grasp or mastery. In the epistemic context,
it involves seeing how things “hang together” (Zagzebski 2001; Elgin 2006; Grimm 2012).
4 A further complication that becomes salient when taking up the normative interpretation of this question
is that diﬀerent communities, political contexts, social roles, and so on may carry diﬀerent expectations for
a certain depth and content of scientiﬁc literacy; we thank an anonymous reviewer for raising this point.
Understanding andTrusting Science
The fact that “scientiﬁc literacy” is usually discussed under the rubric of “public under-
standing of science” in Europe further corroborates this suggestion (Laugksch 2000, 71).5
We are sympathetic to this line of thought, but it is too simple as stated (and thus the
question deserves a place in our conceptual framework). First, as a matter of practice, sci-
entiﬁc literacy is often treated as boiling down to agents’ knowledge (indeed, their mere
true belief) of some facts. Most widely used measures of it consist in multiple-choice
items. Sometimes this occurs despite assertions or intimations that understanding is the
relevant goal.6 Second, even if understanding takes a prominent role in a conception of sci-
entiﬁc literacy, knowledge may yet be involved. Whatever the precise relationship between
knowledge and understanding (Kvanvig 2003; Grimm 2006), it is credible that an under-
standing of a subject matter often incorporates various bits of propositional knowledge.
Even the richest understandings are ultimately based to some extent on the say-so of others
(Coady 1992; Lipton 1998; Goldman 2001). Moreover, a conception of scientiﬁc literacy
might also involve a certain range of rote knowledge—even of propositions that are not
themselves understood in any deep way—in addition to a deeper understanding of other
matters. Thus, a conception of scientiﬁc literacy may plausibly involve a range of diﬀerent
epistemic relations between agents and content. Getting clear on these relations is impor-
tant for determining how best to bring about more of it via education and communication,
as it is not universally granted that understanding can be transmitted via testimony (Hills
2009; cf. Boyd 2017).
So much for describing an approach to ﬁlling out a conception of scientiﬁc literacy.
Clearly other frameworks are possible. Why, for instance, don’t we include goals in our
framework questions? In part, because we see value in seeking greater speciﬁcity in the
speciﬁcation of content, capabilities, or epistemic relations and then asking what more gen-
eral good for individuals or society scientiﬁc literacy so deﬁned might be expected to bring
about. Of course, a given conception may be motivated in the ﬁrst place by an expectation
of its social function; it may thus be thought of or labelled in terms of that function. We
merely wish to leave it open whether the speciﬁc content of a conception would in fact
serve an intended end in a given context. Let us now turn to the more diﬃcult matter of
evaluating such conceptions. As before, our aim is not to provide an exhaustive survey of
which sorts of scientiﬁc literacy are of value (and in what contexts); our discussion will
focus on a certain range of evaluations that we hope will provide useful context for evaluat-
ing our own conception of scientiﬁc literacy.
3 Evaluating Conceptions ofScientic Literacy
We mentioned above the ‘functional’ or goal-directed character of Shen’s three concep-
tions of scientiﬁc literacy. An obvious approach to evaluating a given proposal for a par-
ticular population could thus be evaluated in terms of, ﬁrst, whether the goal itself is of
value, and, second, whether the proposed answers to our framework questions are poised to
bring it about.
5 Shen’s initial gloss of it is also typical: it is “in the interest of everybody […] to gain a better understand-
ing of science and its applications […]. Such an understanding might be called ‘science literacy’” (1975,
265; emphasis added).
6 Previous research has shown that epistemic success terms like “knowledge” and “understanding” are
often left undistinguished from one another or even conﬂated in the scholarly literature on scientiﬁc literacy
and the public understanding of science (Huxster etal. 2018).
M.H.Slater et al.
What sort of goals might we seek or expect? Without describing an exhaustive typol-
ogy, the literature on scientiﬁc literacy oﬀers various examples of goals purportedly of
either practical or intrinsic value. Shen’s Practical and Civic forms of scientiﬁc literacy are
examples of the former, while Cultural scientiﬁc literacy is an example of the latter: some-
one who improves the latter does so, he writes, “in the same spirit in which a science stu-
dent might study ancient history, an engineer read poetry, or a physician delight in classical
tragedies […]. [It] is motivated by a desire to know something about science as a major
human achievement […]. It solves no practical problems” (Shen 1975, 267). As Michael
Strevens put it at the outset of his book on scientiﬁc explanation, “If science provides any-
thing of intrinsic value, it is explanation. Prediction and control are useful […] but when
science is pursued as an end rather than as a means, it is for the sake of understanding—
the moment when a small, temporary being reaches out to touch the universe and makes
contact” (Strevens 2008, 3). On whether seeking to fulﬁll the goals of Cultural Scientiﬁc
Literacy—as opposed to studying ancient history or poetry—we take no position. It does
seem doubtful that a univocal case for a purely intrinsically motivated conception of scien-
tiﬁc literacy will be in the oﬃng.
So let us consider instead conceptions motivated by practical goals. Civic Scientiﬁc Lit-
eracy will probably be high on the minds of science educators and communicators con-
cerned about the opinion gaps between the lay public (particularly in the U.S. and U.K.)
and the scientiﬁc consensus on various issues. Shen motivated its value by pointing out
how common it was (in 1975) for legislative bills in the U.S., to “have a scientiﬁc or tech-
nological basis […] [involving]health, energy, food and agriculture, natural resources,
the environment, product safety, outer space, communication, transportation, and others”
(Shen 1975, 266). Little has changed in the intervening decades—except of course we can
add to Shen’s list. Consider a recent essay of Miller’s:
Today’s political agenda includes a debate over the consequences of and solutions for
global climate change, a continuing debate over the use of embryonic stem cells in
biomedical research, a spirited set of disagreements over future energy sources, and
a lingering concern over the possibility of a viral pandemic. In Europe, the political
landscape is still divided over nuclear power and genetically modiﬁed foods. No seri-
ous student of public policy or science policy thinks that the public-policy agenda
will become less populated by scientiﬁc issues in the twenty-ﬁrst century. Yet only
28% of American adults have suﬃcient understanding of basic scientiﬁc ideas to be
able to read the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times. (Miller 2010a, 241)
The question, then, is what is needed for citizens to actively participate in the democratic
processes that weigh in on such issues. Miller’s view has two main components, again
indexed to a certain functional competency: (1) “a basic vocabulary of scientiﬁc terms and
constructs” and (2) “a general understanding of the nature of scientiﬁc inquiry […] suﬃ-
cient to read and comprehend the Tuesday science section of The New York Times” (Miller
2004, 273–274). Presumably content falling under the heading of the “Nature of Science”
(NoS)—a range of conceptual and methodological aspects of science such what scientiﬁc
theories are, their status as revisable and provisional, how they may be tested and con-
ﬁrmed, and so on—is part of the latter, if not also the former. The former, as judged by
Miller’s measurement instruments, consists in an agent’s grasp of such facts as whether the
center of the Earth is hot or what lasers do (Miller 2010a, 47; see also Snow and Dibner
While it is certainly plausible that a basic understanding of scientiﬁc vocabulary and
a grasp of basic facts about the natural world may be a necessary condition for being an
Understanding andTrusting Science
informed participant in democratic decision making7 concerning issues informed by or
involving science and technology (which is to say a large portion of decision making in
developed nations), it is quite a bit less clear whether—assuming other conditions are
met—possession of scientiﬁc literacy on conceptions like Miller’s credibly in fact results
inits possessors’ informed participation.
Defenders of a strong focus on NoS content sometimes seem to suggest that grasp
of this concept will allow members of the lay public to evaluate scientiﬁc claims them-
selves—including determining whether a given scientiﬁc claim can be relied upon (OECD
2007, 34). Here we anticipate a connection with Miller’s justiﬁcation: perhaps one thing
that is practically useful about being able to competently read science reporting is the abil-
ity to know when that reporting is reliable or whether the claims themselves are plausible.
This suggests that the epistemic relation centrally in question in these conceptions is under-
standing. As Elgin notes, understanding involves “an adeptness in using the information
one has, not merely an appreciation that things are so” (Elgin 2007, 35; see also Grimm
2012; Zagzebski 2001, 110–111). But while it is plausible that such a grasp of basic foun-
dational scientiﬁc and NoS content might allow agents to weed out certain obviously prob-
lematic content, it seems doubtful that it would allow one to evaluate apparently competent
but competing claims.8 As Stephen Jay Gould pointed out in a (Gould 1999) editorial in
Science, this is something that other scientists can barely manage; he wrote that science
had then “reached the point where most technical literature not only falls outside the possi-
bility of public comprehension but also […] outside our own competence in scientiﬁc dis-
ciplines far removed from our personal expertise” (cf. Shamos 1995). And note that Gould
has in mind only comprehension, not evaluation. Nearly 20years later, this situation has
only become more dramatic.
The practical reality is that the public is not—and likely will never be—in a position
to vet scientiﬁc claims themselves (Anderson 2011, 144; Jasanoﬀ 2014, 24; Keren 2018).
They must instead rely on the division of epistemic labor and trust the scientiﬁc community
as a source of intellectual authority, relying on the community itself to vet its own deliver-
ances. This latter claim needs to be nuanced if it is to be plausible; what, for instance, is
the force of the “must”? What is the scope and strength of this trust? This is a question
for another time (Zagzebski 2012; Keren 2007, 2014). For now, let us assume a plausibly
conservative general gloss on trust of, and/or deference to, scientiﬁc authority. The diﬃ-
culty, as Shen saw, is that it is sometimes diﬃcult to identify this authority; he wrote of the
legislators “who have to decide on [matters concerning science]” that they “usually do not
lack expert advice from contending sides; rather they complain of not knowing which set
of experts to believe” (Shen 1975, 266). This problem persists.
Many, we submit, would ﬁnd it plausible that the attitudes and abilities that enable
such trust are an important social goal for a conception of Civic Scientiﬁc Literacy. This
is shown, in part, by the fact that the public’s deviation from scientiﬁc consensus is often
treated as evidence of the widespread lack of scientiﬁc literacy. But supposing that we
accept this desideratum as important, recent public opinion research should give us fur-
ther pause concerning the worth (or suﬃciency) of the foundational conception of scien-
tiﬁc literacy discussed above. In a series of papers, Dan Kahan and colleagues have shown
7 How to deﬁne this last idea with more precision is a diﬃcult question; our thoughts here turn initially to
work by Kitcher (2001, 2011) on “well-ordered science”, though we have no particular account to oﬀer.
8 This is not to deny that there won’t be some occasions on which an understanding of basic scientiﬁc facts
and methods will not allow laypeople to reject some theories as ill-defended or pseudoscientiﬁc.
M.H.Slater et al.
that higher levels of scientiﬁc literacy—understood as comprising basic scientiﬁc facts
and methods9—do not correlate with higher levels of deference to scientiﬁc authority for
socially controversial subjects: despite expectations “[a]s respondents’ science-literacy
scores increased, concern with climate change decreased slightly (r = − 0.05, P = 0.05)”
(Kahan etal. 2012, 732). Moreover, this eﬀect was greater for those who identify with the
political right; the more “scientiﬁcally literate” right-leaners are, the less likely they are to
accept the scientiﬁc consensus about the causes and risks of climate change (ibid., 733).
One might understandably object that such results should be regarded as inert with
respect to our promotion of other conceptions of scientiﬁc literacy. The present social
context for science is politically and culturally charged in a variety of ways. As has been
carefully documented by historians and social scientists, a great deal of eﬀort has been
expended in recent decades by individuals and organized groups (many industry-funded)
to cloud the science on important issues or undercut the trustworthiness of the scientiﬁc
community at large (Diethelm and McKee 2009; Torcello 2016; Smith and Leiserow-
itz 2012; Brulle 2014; McCright etal. 2016; Dunlap and McCright 2011, 2010; Oreskes
and Conway 2010). In contemporary society, such eﬀorts are facilitated by what might be
euphemistically dubbed “the democratization of information ﬂow” via social media, which
enables the establishment of political/ideological “echo-chambers” (Takahashi and Tandoc
2016; Jasny etal. 2015; Carmichael etal. 2017; Bernauer 2013; Leiserowitz etal. 2013).
These phenomena have been thoroughly explored in the case of climate science where,
despite a near perfect consensus among climate scientists (and the scientiﬁc community at
large), major portions of the public remain skeptical (Leiserowitz etal. 2016).
Thus, as Anderson suggests, perhaps what is missing from our conceptions of scientiﬁc
literacy is not so much ability as inclination; she writes: “While citizens have the capacity
to reliably judge trustworthiness, many Americans appear ill-disposed to do so” (Anderson
2011, 145); perhaps, then, we should focus on changing “the social conditions” that inﬂu-
ence the public’s attitudes about science.10 We shall suggest in the next section, however,
that a somewhat diﬀerent approach to NoS-style conceptions of scientiﬁc literacy may be
relevant to laypersons’ trust of the scientiﬁc community.11
4 Understanding theSocial Structure ofScience
Anderson argues that many of the members of the lay public have the capacity to judge
the trustworthiness of scientiﬁc authorities, including both individual scientists and the
scientiﬁc community as a whole: “second-order judgments [of expert trustworthiness]
address whose testimony regarding scientiﬁc matters should be trusted, and whether
the trustworthy agree on the issue in question” (Anderson 2011, 145). This involves
making three judgments about authorities’ (1) expertise (or competence), (2) honesty,
11 In this eﬀort, space constraints force us to focus on the content pillar of our conception; there is more to
say about both the agent and relation pillars that must wait for another occasion.
9 Kahan calls his measurement scale “Ordinary Science Intelligence” (OSI), which incorporates ques-
tions from the National Science Board’s 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators as well as some common
numeracy and cognitive reﬂection items (see Kahan 2017, for discussion and validation).
10 This presumes, of course, a separation between the epistemic and aﬀective dimensions of scientiﬁc lit-
eracy that may in real life be quite a bit more blurry. We take no position in this context on how we should
respond to this blurriness.
Understanding andTrusting Science
and (3) epistemic responsibility (ibid., 145–146). Anderson’s framework on expert trust
thus dovetails closely with work in epistemology on testimony—which, as she and oth-
ers point out, is ubiquitous in our epistemic lives (Hardwig 1985; Coady 1992; Lipton
1998; Lackey 2008). She amply demonstrates that the resources for making such judg-
ments are available to anyone who can conduct a web search. Again, it comes down
to the social–cultural conditions—and resultant attitudinal dispositions—that incline
one to expend the eﬀort to identify appropriate authorities and instances of consensus
We think that there is more to be said on the epistemic side, however. Focus on the
question of one’s trust of the scientiﬁc community (in cases where there is a strong
consensus), rather than on individual scientists. It is one thing to be able to recognize
cases of scientiﬁc consensus. It is quite another to recognize the epistemic signiﬁcance
of such consensus. Why is it that this consensus should interest us? What kind of con-
sensus is important (Odenbaugh 2012; Miller 2013; Keren2018)? What is it about the
scientiﬁc community that makes this so? We submit that these are matters on which the
public’s understanding of science could be improved. The suggestion is that improving
them may result in greater willingness to seek and defer to scientiﬁc consensus where it
It is clear enough in individual cases of testimony that knowing things about how a
potential source thinks, what their motivations may well be, and so on, can be relevant to
judgments about the questions that Anderson identiﬁes as important. You will probably be
more inclined to trust a source about the quality of a particular car model if you know that
they would not beneﬁt from your purchasing the car in question. You can determine this, of
course, by ﬁnding out whether they are employed by the relevant company or work as an
agent for that company in some other way (e.g., as an advertiser). But consider that seeing
these facts as relevant proxies for the question of inﬂuence (and thus honesty) depends on
having a certain amount of background knowledge concerning how individuals might ben-
eﬁt from your purchasing decisions. We sideline such knowledge in talking about this sort
of case because it is so obvious and so clearly shared.
The relevant background knowledge in the context of science is considerably less obvi-
ous and not widely shared—especially when it comes to the question of scientiﬁc con-
sensus, but also in other aspects of judging scientiﬁc authority. Consider Anderson’s four
signs of concern for judging epistemic responsibility: “Evasion of peer-review”, “Dialogic
irrationality”, “Advancing crackpot theories”, and “Voluntarily associating with crackpots”
(Anderson 2011, 147–148). Our previous research (and anecdotal experience) suggests that
the concept of peer-review is rarely understood (Huxster etal., unpublished manuscript);
most members of the lay public, we suspect, do not know that such a process exists (let
alone understand the role it plays in the scientiﬁc enterprise or avoid common misconcep-
tions about it if they do—e.g., that it is, for the most part blind and unpaid). Moreover,
when it comes to the avoidance of “crackpot theories”, many members of the public har-
bor a model of the scientiﬁc enterprise that regards such labels as ad hominems. This was
expressed in a much-quoted passage from Michael Crichton’s 2003 speech at Caltech:
Let’s be clear: the work of science has nothing whatever to do with consensus. Con-
sensus is the business of politics. Science, on the contrary, requires only one investi-
gator who happens to be right, which means that he or she has results that are veriﬁa-
M.H.Slater et al.
ble by reference to the real world. In science consensus is irrelevant. What is relevant
is reproducible results. The greatest scientists in history are great precisely because
they broke with the consensus.12
Many members of the lay public seem to share something like this individualistic model
of science—stemming, one can’t help but think, from the celebration of individual “Great
Men of Science” such as Galileo, Darwin, and Einstein who, it is believed, represented
lone voices against an overly dogmatic community of science.
Historians and philosophers of science of course understand that this is a vast over-
simpliﬁcation and that science has changed dramatically in the intervening decades (or
centuries). The social structure of science is complex, nuanced, and still contested by
researchers. This may be why it is an aspect of scientiﬁc literacy that is both lacking in
the lay public and not well represented in measurement instruments for scientiﬁc literacy
or our thinking about the NoS.13 But while many of the details may yet be controversial,
we believe that the broad strokes of such an understanding—for example, of the sense in
which scientists are simultaneously competing and collaborating with one another (Kitcher
1990; Kuhn 1962; Strevens 2003; Oreskes and Conway 2010, 272–273)—are both well in
hand and conceptually important to the recognition of the epistemic signiﬁcance of scien-
tiﬁc consensus and, in general, the recognition of epistemic responsibility.14
Why so? A fuller argument must wait for another occasion, but one strand of justiﬁca-
tion is the following. First, we need to recognize that the dominant lay model of science is
individualistic. This has some immediate consequences for the public’s trust of scientists.
Regarding a source as epistemically trustworthy involves seeing that source as being (a)
in a position to know and (b) being apt to honestly represent the information in question
(Lipton 1998). However, recent research has shown that individual scientists are generally
judged by the public as being “competent but cold” (Fiske and Dupree 2014, 13593)—
that is, they are generally seen as in a position to know but not necessarily to be trusted.
After all, individual scientists have been guilty of misconduct of various forms; they are
sometimes biased or ‘pig-headed’; they are, after all, human. But as one moves from an
individualistic model of science to a communitarian model, one can begin to appreciate
how certain forms of consensus (and consensus-forming processes) ameliorate the honesty
question (b) above. Less important than trusting scientists as individual testiﬁers is defer-
ring to the scientiﬁc community as a whole—in a sense, treating the group as a source of
testimony (Odenbaugh 2012). As Roberts and Wood aptly put it: “Kuhn alerts [us] that
much that is salutary in the intellectual life is guided and channeled by institutions and
social pressures that transcend the character of individuals, correcting for vice and sup-
porting virtues. Aberrations like David Irving and Henry Casaubon are often forestalled
or made less pernicious by processes of peer review” (Roberts and Wood 2007, 201–202).
12 A stable and authoritative URL for a transcript of this speech seems to be diﬃcult to come by—one tran-
script is available at http://steph ensch neide r.stanf ord.edu/Publi catio ns/PDF_Paper s/Crich ton20 03.pdf—but
readers may search for “Aliens Cause Global Warming”.
13 Lombrozo etal.’s (2008) instrument for assessing understanding of the nature of science includes two
items relevant to the scientiﬁc community: “The scientiﬁc community is essential to the process and pro-
gress of science,” and “Unlike many other professions, science is almost always a solitary endeavor” (Lom-
brozo etal., 292).
14 In this sense, we submit, our collective understanding of the social structure of science resembles our
understanding of many scientiﬁc issues—anthropogenic climate change, for example—on which the general
core of the theory is at this point almost beyond doubt while signiﬁcant uncertainties remain about some of
the ﬁner details.
Understanding andTrusting Science
But it is not only peer-review and the various vetting processes that are signiﬁcant in
Kuhn’s view. It is the fact that, as a loose assemblage of various communities, scientists are
engaged in a collaborative and competitive enterprise. This is part of the reason why sci-
ence is seen by insiders as “self-correcting”: bad actors are excommunicated, crackpot or
badly supported theories are ignored, fruitful theories are pursued until such point as their
anomalies encourage certain practitioners to forge out on their own to explore new frame-
works (Jamieson 2018). When this haphazard assemblage of more or less independent
agents speaks with one voice, prima facie, we ought to listen. Supposing that one accepts
that the public’s prima facie trust of the scientiﬁc community (when speaking with a con-
sensus voice) is often warranted and an important dispositional goal for citizens of tech-
nologically developed democracies, we submit that a conception of scientiﬁc literacy that
enables and encourages such a disposition is an attractive candidate for at least a core com-
ponent of Civic Scientiﬁc Literacy. We hypothesize that a nuanced understanding of sci-
ence as a social enterprise—what may be called the “social structure of science” (SSS)—
may be expected to increase this disposition and so argue that further work to (a) ﬁll out
the content of the SSS and (b) test this hypothesis empirically are warranted.
We close this section by noting two further points about the SSS conception of Civic
Scientiﬁc Literacy. First, by focusing on the social-epistemic background for the signiﬁ-
cance of certain forms of scientiﬁc consensus, we are eﬀectively side-stepping some of
the more diﬃcult questions about how expertise should be detected, particularly on con-
tested issues (Goldman 2001; Pettit 2006; Brossard and Nisbet 2006; Almassi 2012; Fiske
2012). It is compatible with our approach that suspension of belief is the right epistemic
attitude to take in cases where experts appear to disagree(Slater etal. 2018). Second, in
support of the empirical plausibility that the SSS conception would contribute broader
social goals of rational policymaking, science communication researchers have proposed
that consensus messaging serves as “gateway belief,” even for polarizing science (van der
Linden etal. 2014, 2015). But it is worth emphasizing that in our conception of the SSS
approach, understanding is the key epistemic relation at issue: merely knowing some iso-
lated facts about the way scientists work seems unlikely to form a suﬃciently robust and
ﬂexible background against which the epistemic signiﬁcance of scientiﬁc consensus—and
how to detect it—can emerge.
5 Next Steps
Our eﬀorts in this paper have obviously been preliminary; more work is needed. But let
us sum up before oﬀering some parting suggestions for where we can go next. First, we
oﬀered a general framework for thinking about diﬀerent conceptions of scientiﬁc literacy,
arguing that greater attention to the epistemic properties and the correlative capacities
stemming from a given conception is needed. We also argued that a plausible desidera-
tum—ability and inclination to identify and trust robust consensus messages from sci-
ence—is not credibly met by popular conceptions. Moreover, other desiderata associated
with such conceptions are probably out of reach. Finally, we proposed that a greater focus
on the social structure of science in a conception of Civic Scientiﬁc Literacy would do bet-
ter to meet an important desideratum and is thus something that ought to be promoted.
This hypothesis stands in need of further speciﬁcation and empirical testing: is it indeed
the case that members of the lay public with a good grasp of the social structure of science
will tend tobe more willing to trust consensus messages from the scientiﬁc community?
M.H.Slater et al.
Will such an inclination translate to ideologically-entangled issues such as climate change
or the safety of childhood vaccines? How much of the lay public should be expected to
possess SSS-literacy?15 We are currently pursuing this research; but we hope that others—
particularly HPS and STS researchers—will also contribute to this broad eﬀort. We con-
clude by identifying what we take to be several fruitful avenues through which such schol-
ars might contribute to this eﬀort.
First, they can contribute to the eﬀort to characterize a general, consensus picture of
what aspects of the social structure of science are relevant to the public’s treatment of the
scientiﬁc community as a source of epistemic authority. This includes both descriptive and
normative aspects and requires addressing a highly non-trivial question of the appropriate
level of granularity and idealization for how this picture might be described in the context
of science education and communication.
Second, and relatedly, STS scholars can contribute to eﬀorts to develop better measure-
ment instruments and frameworks for studying the public’s understanding of and trust of
science and scientiﬁc institutions.
Third, epistemologists can provide insight about both the epistemic relation connect-
ing the public to a range of scientiﬁc content as well as how the SSS and other aspects of
scientiﬁc literacy might be successfully communicated—e.g., through education or public
messaging and engagement initiatives. If our suspicion that a robust conception of under-
standing is relevant to scientiﬁc literacy, we will need better models of how understanding
(in addition to knowledge) may be transmitted (or produced) by testimony or other means.
Finally (but not exhaustively), philosophers can contribute to the project Anderson iden-
tiﬁed of changing the social conditions under which scientiﬁc issues become entangled and
recognition of scientiﬁc authority becomes problematic.
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