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The Development and Validation of the Social Enterprise of Science Index (SESI): An Instrument to Measure Grasp of the Social-Institutional Aspects of Science


Abstract and Figures

Significant gaps remain between public opinion and the scientific consensus on many issues. We present the results of three studies (N = 722 in total) for the development and testing of a novel instrument to measure a largely unmeasured aspect of scientific literacy: the enterprise of science, particularly in the context of its social structures. We posit that this understanding of the scientific enterprise is an important source for the public’s trust in science. Our results indicate that the Social Enterprise of Science Index (SESI) is a reliable and valid instrument that correlates positively with trust in science (r = .256, p < .001), and level of education (r = .245, p < .001). We also develop and validate a six question short version of the SESI for ease of use in longer surveys.
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Original Research
Background and Motivation
In an influential review, Jon D. Miller (1983, p. 29) presented
evidence that “the level of scientific literacy in the United
States [was] deplorably low.” Alarm was raised around the
same time in the United Kingdom by the so-called Bodmer
(1985) Report of the Royal Society. Measured in a variety of
ways, the state of U.S. scientific literacy has not changed
significantly in the intervening decades (Board, 2016; J. D.
Miller, 2016). At first glance, one reflection of this “deplor-
able” situation is the existence of a number of recalcitrant
gaps between the consensus within the scientific community
on issues such as anthropogenic climate change or the safety
of vaccines or genetically modified organisms (GMO) and
the level of agreement in the U.S. public on these issues—to
say nothing of recent well-publicized upticks in more out-
landish conspiratorial theories (e.g., concerning the planet’s
bulk geometry) (Funk & Goo, 2015; Lewandowsky et al.,
2013; J. D. Miller, 2004; Organisation for Economic
Co-operation and Development, 2007). However, the gaps
between public acceptance and scientific consensus may not
be due to low scientific literacy. As Kahan and colleagues
(2012, 2016) have argued, when it comes to accepting con-
sensus science on issues like climate change, greater scien-
tific literacy can correlate with greater polarization. This
result raises many important questions about our strategies
for education and science communication, of course. We do
not intend to address such questions in this article; instead,
we offer a new tool for their investigation: a validated survey
instrument measuring one’s grasp of important social dimen-
sions of the scientific enterprise.
Let us take a step back. What does it mean to be “scientifi-
cally literate”? This question has of course garnered signifi-
cant attention over the last several decades—which, again,
we cannot hope to survey in this context (see, for example,
Bodmer, 1985; Durant, 1993; Jasanoff, 2014; Laugksch,
2000; J. D. Miller, 1983, 2010, 2016; Norris & Phillips,
2009; Shen, 1975). We can, however, note some general cat-
egories of answers to contextualize and motivate the survey
instrument we have developed.
To begin with, one might draw an initial distinction
between questions of content and those of methodology or
more general aspects of the nature of science (NoS) (see
Figure 1). Regarding questions of content, some aim to
determine whether individuals are familiar with certain key
scientific terms or concepts (of varying levels of specificity)
1016411SGOXXX10.1177/21582440211016411SAGE OpenHuxster et al.
1Eckerd College, Saint Petersburg, FL, USA
2Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA, USA
3Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, USA
Corresponding Author:
Joanna K. Huxster, Environmental Studies Discipline, Eckerd College,
4200 54th Ave South, Saint Petersburg, FL 33711-4700, USA.
The Development and Validation of the
Social Enterprise of Science Index (SESI):
An Instrument to Measure Grasp of the
Social-Institutional Aspects of Science
Joanna K. Huxster1, Matthew H. Slater2,
and Asheley R. Landrum3
Significant gaps remain between public opinion and the scientific consensus on many issues. We present the results of
three studies (N = 722 in total) for the development and testing of a novel instrument to measure a largely unmeasured
aspect of scientific literacy: the enterprise of science, particularly in the context of its social structures. We posit that this
understanding of the scientific enterprise is an important source for the public’s trust in science. Our results indicate that
the Social Enterprise of Science Index (SESI) is a reliable and valid instrument that correlates positively with trust in science
(r = .256, p < .001), and level of education (r = .245, p < .001). We also develop and validate a six question short version
of the SESI for ease of use in longer surveys.
scientific literacy, public understanding of science, instrument development, scientific enterprise, scientific community
2 SAGE Open
as well as certain theories or accepted scientific facts.
Regarding questions of methodology, some aim to measure,
on one hand, whether individuals know about basic
approaches to “doing science”—for example, how hypothe-
ses are tested, how theories are developed, confirmed, and
revised, what counts as a good explanation, what role models
have, and so on—and, on the other, whether they grasp more
abstract concepts such as theories, hypotheses, degrees of
confirmation, and scientific uncertainty.
Most conceptions of scientific literacy in the literature can
be seen as selecting items from the basic menu on the indi-
vidual-level of Figure 1. For example, in Kahan et al.’s (2011,
2012) early studies, science literacy is measured using a
combination of questions from the National Science Board’s
2010 Science and Engineering Indicators—questions of par-
ticular scientific fact (e.g., “Does the Earth go around the
Sun?”) and basic methods (e.g., the best way to test the effi-
cacy of a drug)—as well as a few numeracy and cognitive
reflection questions (sensu Frederick, 2005). In subsequent
work (e.g., Kahan, 2015), Kahan employs a similar compos-
ite scale he calls “Ordinary Science Intelligence” (OSI) that
uses questions from various sources, including the Science
and Engineering Indicators questions (see Kahan, 2016 for
discussion and validation).
Only one of the items in the OSI scale (VALID) involves
methodological concepts that might serve to measure indi-
viduals’ “knowledge about science” or grasp of “the nature
of science”, an area that has long been part of the educational
agenda in the United States (Duschl & Grandy, 2013, §1;
Jarman & McClune, 2007, ch.1). This is not meant as a criti-
cism. Researchers typically must be selective in what they
can measure. And many other scales do attend to NoS con-
cepts (see Lederman, 1998 for a useful overview). What
appears to be much less common, however, are measures that
address some of the key social or community-level aspects of
the scientific enterprise. By this, we intend something more
constrained than general aspects of the science–society
nexus; while important and interesting, our focus is more
narrowly on the social/institutional features of the scientific
enterprise. For example, in Lederman et al.’s (2002) Views of
Nature of Science (VNOS) open-ended questionnaire, items
address the possibility of changing theories, the role of cre-
ativity in the design of scientific experiments, and possibility
of scientific disagreement; but no item focused on social pro-
cesses underlying these phenomena. Or consider the
“Scientific Enterprise” subtest of Billeh and Malik’s (1977)
Test on Understanding the Nature Science (TUNS) which
contained only one topic with an implicit connection with the
social/institutional features of science: that science is a “self-
correcting enterprise” (it is left unspecified and unasked how
this occurs); the concepts in the “Processes of Science” sub-
test include only high-level NoS concepts (such as observa-
tion, measurement, classification, experimentation,
formulation of hypotheses, theories, laws, and models, and
so on). While these items may well address important com-
ponents of a holistic grasp of science, they do not get at the
social processes that give the scientific enterprise its distinc-
tive epistemic character.
We may then shift our focus from the individual-level
conceptions of scientific methodology (or NoS more gener-
ally)—including methods that an individual investigator
might use to test hypotheses or a nuanced conception of sci-
entific theories—to the processes, institutions, and norms
that guide the functioning of the scientific community (or its
many subcommunities). By this, we have in mind the ways
in which such communities police themselves, train and edu-
cate their members, collaborate but simultaneously compete
with one another, vet, contest, and disseminate claims, appor-
tion funding, set research priorities, and so on (topics found
on the Community-Level branch in Figure 1). Arguably, by
making it more likely that rigorously vetted scientific theo-
ries will yield more accurate (or anyway empirically ade-
quate) representations of the world, such institutions and
norms (when well-functioning) are an important part of the
story of how scientific consensus derives its epistemic sig-
nificance (Longino, 1990; B. Miller, 2013; Oreskes, 2019;
Figure 1. Elements of scientific literacy; popular conceptions focus on individual-level elements.
Huxster et al. 3
Slater et al., 2019). While it is not much of a jump from here
to the proposition that a grasp of the workings of the scien-
tific enterprise would contribute to one’s trust of science, we
are not prepared to assert this connection here; it is, after all,
an empirical hypothesis that—so far as we are aware—has
not been tested.
This may be for want of a suitable measure of such a
grasp. While the social-institutional processes we have in
mind have been well studied by historians, philosophers, and
sociologists of science (Boyer-Kassem et al., 2017; Kitcher,
1992; Kuhn, 1962; Latour & Woolgar, 1979; Merton, 1973;
Shapin, 1994; Shapin & Shaffer, 1985; Strevens, 2003), very
few survey instruments focus on measuring one’s grasp of
this aspect of scientific literacy. Individual items concerning
social aspects of the scientific process can (occasionally) be
found in other instruments. For example, Lombrozo et al.
(2008) developed a 60-item questionnaire designed to mea-
sure subjects’ understanding of the NoS of which five items
related to the idea that “the scientific community plays an
important role in science” (292). Likewise, Hawley et al.’s
(2011) Evolutionary Attitudes and Literacy Survey (EALS)
includes a section on “Knowledge about the scientific enter-
prise”; but only one item (“For scientific evidence to be
deemed adequate, it must be reproducible by others”) had
any direct connection to social processes that animate the
scientific enterprise. But with one exception, no contempo-
rary survey that we found goes much further than this to
probe how the scientific community plays a role in the gen-
eration of scientific understanding.
An exception is an instrument called the Institutional
Knowledge Scale due to Bauer et al. (2000). The authors
describe motivations similar to our own, also noting that the
“institutional side of science” is often ignored or left out in
researchers’ approaches to public understanding of science.
Although the authors’ conceptions of the “scientific institu-
tion” (31) bear significant similarities to what we are here
calling the (social aspects) of the scientific enterprise, there
are some important differences between our respective mea-
sures in their formulation, validation, and content. We dis-
cuss these in more detail in the next section.
In the balance of this article, we document the develop-
ment of an instrument—what we call the Social Enterprise of
Science Index (SESI)—that researchers can use to investi-
gate subjects’ grasp of the social–institutional aspects of the
scientific enterprise. It is not intended as an instrument for
measuring scientific literacy in toto; indeed, we doubt that
there is any one thing that scientific literacy is or should be.
Instead, we see the SESI as a measure for an important and
under-studied aspect of scientific literacy that may be a use-
ful tool for future researchers’ inquiries into different popula-
tions’ knowledge and understanding of the social enterprise
of science (as it is approached in the United States and pos-
sibly other national contexts)—one that might readily be
conjoined with distinct measures of other aspects of scien-
tific literacy.
Development of the SESI
Instruments and assessments of knowledge can be designed
in at least two ways. On one hand, researchers can aim to
capture the degree of understanding of a particular topic. In
these circumstances, items are chosen because they represent
the key concepts that experts (or other relevant authorities)
have decided must be understood to have competency in the
topic (of course, different experts can have different ideas
about what concepts are required for proficiency; proficiency
on many fronts is also presumably a contextual matter).
Population scores, then, reflect the number of items answered
correctly—or of concepts understood—which need not be
normally distributed. Instead, populations can score “lower”
(meaning the population, on average, only answer a few
questions correctly, i.e., positive skew) or “higher” (meaning
the population, on average, answer many questions correctly,
i.e., negative skew). An example of this type of instrument
design are measures like the National Science Board’s
Science Indicators (2020), which are used as a measure of
science literacy in a number of studies (e.g., Gauchat, 2011;
May, 1997).
On the other hand, researchers can design an instrument
that aims to best capture the wide variation among the popula-
tion on a particular construct (e.g., knowledge of evolution—
see Weisberg et al., 2018). This requires carefully selecting
items that vary in difficulty and have high discriminatory
power, so that scores on the assessment are normally distrib-
uted. Importantly, as the test is designed to fit the population,
researchers cannot use these scores to determine whether a
representative sample from that population “scores high” or
“scores low” on the targeted concept. Examples of this type
of instrument design are measures of intelligence, which are
centered and normalized to the population. This was the
method used to develop the OSI scale (Kahan et al., 2012).
Here, we adopt elements of both approaches. First,
through our interviews with scientists and academics, mem-
bers of the public (and based on our understanding of the
literature and our own expertise), we identified important
concepts relevant to the social enterprise of science that were
suggested as indicative of proficiency. Second, through pilot
testing and item response theory (IRT) analysis, we narrowed
down the instrument to 25 items (i.e., SESI v3.0). Finally,
based on the difficulty and discriminatory power of each of
the items, we created a short, 7-item version of the measure
(SESI v3.0s) that can be used to capture variance among the
general public, but does not include all of the concepts
important for demonstrating proficiency.
The development of our instrument occurred in four
phases (see Figure 2): (a) initial item selection, (b) item eval-
uation using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk (MTurk) workers
(N = 108), (c) a field test with MTurk workers (N = 231),
and finally (d) a field test using participants from a national
online consumer panel recruited by Research Now. We
describe each of these phases in more detail below.
4 SAGE Open
Phase 1: Initial Item Creation
We began our process by locating existing measures of scien-
tific literacy and identifying any items on those instruments
that specifically dealt with the social–institutional features of
the scientific enterprise. We adapted six items from a scale
developed by Cooley and Klopfer (1961) and two items from
the Lombrozo et al. (2008) measure. We then compiled a list
of important aspects of the scientific enterprise, organizing
these further into specific concepts and then into topics within
each concept. Beyond a review of extant literature, we drew
heavily from our own experience and expertise at this stage as
well as a series of qualitative interviews we conducted with
lay publics to identify common misconceptions about the sci-
entific enterprise (see supporting materials).
Phase 2: Item Evaluation (Pilot Study)
We conducted a pilot study to test the preliminary items of
the SESI with a sample of American adults. To establish con-
vergent validity, we compared scores on the SESI with scores
on Kahan et al.’s measure of science intelligence (OSI) and
Nadelson et al.’s (2015) measure of trust in science. We pre-
dicted that those with higher scores on the SESI would also
have higher scores on the OSI and higher scores on trust in
science. To establish concurrent validity, we compared scores
on the SESI to education level. We predicted that higher
scores on the SESI would correspond to higher self-reported
levels of education.
Participants. The sample for this study consisted of 121
American adults recruited via Amazon’s Mechanical Turk
platform (MTurk) and paid $1.50 for their participation.
After the elimination of incomplete surveys, the remaining
sample (N = 108) was 56.5% male and 82.4% identified as
white, non-Hispanic. The mean age of the participants was
34.3 years old and 51% had a bachelor’s degree or higher.
Materials and procedure. For the study, participants com-
pleted an online survey consisting of three blocks: (a) the
27-item preliminary SESI v1.0, (b) the OSI measure (i.e.,
OSI, 21 questions, Kahan, 2017), and (c) a Trust in Science
Measure (19 items, Nadelson et al., 2015). The order of the
three blocks was randomized between participants, and the
order of questions within the SESI and the Trust measure
blocks were also randomized. The order of questions for the
OSI remained the same (consistent with Kahan et al.’s stud-
ies). Finally, participants were asked a series of demographic
questions (e.g., age, race, and education level).
Scoring. Each item was scored at the level of the question,
and each question was worth 1 point. For true-false and mul-
tiple-choice questions, participants received 1 point for pro-
viding the correct answer. For Likert-type scale questions,
“strongly agree” and “agree” were collapsed together (or
“strongly disagree” and “disagree” for reverse-worded ques-
tions) with one point awarded for agreement with a correct
statement (or disagreement with an incorrect statement). For
check-all-that-apply items participants were awarded frac-
tions of points for each correct selection, and fractions of
points were also subtracted for incorrect selections, but no
score below 0 was awarded (i.e., if someone chose three
incorrect answers and one correct answer, their score for that
question would be 0). Participants’ scores were the sum total
of points earned. A detailed codebook for scoring the final
version of the SESI is available in the supporting materials.
Figure 2. SESI scale development.
Note. SESI = Social Enterprise of Science Index.
Huxster et al. 5
Preliminary measurement analysis and interitem reliability.
Scores on the first draft of the SESI (SESI v1.0) ranged from
7.17 to 34 (M = 22.35, SD = 6.03) out of a possible 37 points
and were negatively skewed. The negative skew was not
unexpected, given that MTurk workers in general, and our
sample in particular, tend to report a higher level of educa-
tion than the general American public. Interitem reliability
for the 27-item SESI v1.0 was strong (α = 0.83). Four items
with low interitem correlations were noted and were either
eliminated or reworded after qualitative feedback from the
expert reviews (see Table 1).
Criterion and convergent validity. As predicted, scores on the
social enterprise of science measure were positively related
to measures of other aspects of scientific literacy, including
OSI scores and trust in science scores: individuals who
scored highly on the SESI v1.0 also scored highly on the OSI
(r = .74, p < .001) and on the Trust in Science measure (r =
.59, p < .001). Similarly, those with higher self-reported lev-
els of education scored higher on the SESI (r = .203, p =
.03), but this relationship was much weaker than the others.
All correlations for the pilot study can be seen in Table E1 in
the supporting material.
Expert Review for Content and Face Validity
As explained in the previous sections, we created the items in
our initial measure based on previous literature, semistruc-
tured interviews, and our scientific colleagues’ (and our own)
expertise. However, acknowledging that many scientific
fields can vary in their norms and practices, we sought vali-
dation from experts from a range of fields in science as well
as experts on the history and philosophy of science. Thus, we
conducted two rounds of expert review with the SESI to test
content and face validity.
Round 1 of expert reviews. In the first round, a total of 16
scientists and historians and philosophers of science
(recruited at the 2016 Philosophy of Science Association and
History of Science Society joint meeting and via social media
connections) viewed and completed the survey online as
study participants would see it (M = 26.71, SD = 2.06), and
then were asked to rate and comment on the 27 items. More
information on recruitment and demographics for these indi-
viduals can be found in the supporting materials. We then
examined the ratings for each question, and two researchers
coded and analyzed the expert comments. After reviewing
the comments and ratings, we substantively reworded sev-
eral survey items for clarity and to better reach a general
audience (Table 1). Items were also rewritten to better distin-
guish between topics and to render each more domain-gen-
eral. We updated the SESI (v2.0) based on this first round of
expert review and the results of the pilot test.
Round 2 of expert reviews. The second round of expert review
examined the updated version (v2.0). The experts consisted
of 35 scientists, historians of science, and philosophers of
science from a variety of backgrounds recruited using the
Philosophy of Science Association mailing list and snowball
sampling via social media contacts of colleagues in science
departments from two of the authors’ home universities. As
with the first round of reviews, these experts were asked to
rate the quality and accuracy of all the questions, and were
encouraged to comment on the items. Again the ratings were
examined and the comments analyzed by two researchers.
The SESI was revised again based on this feedback (v2.5).
The first field test examined this version.
The purpose of the pilot study was to examine the reliability
and validity of our initial measure. The results show that the
first iteration of the SESI (v1.0) has good convergent and
predictive validity, as well as strong interitem reliability. The
SESI was more strongly correlated with the OSI measure
than trust in science or education level. Two rounds of quali-
tative data gathered from expert review panels helped us to
refine and reword several survey items for a more domain-
general measure that is also more understandable for the
intended audience (the U.S. public.). The resulting, revised
version of the SESI (v2.5) is used in Field Test 1.
Phase 3: Field Test 1 and Item
One common point of debate in knowledge measures is
whether to include “I don’t know” as a possible response
option (e.g., Feick, 1989). In some disciplines, the inclu-
sion of “I don’t know” options in knowledge batteries is
encouraged (Delli Carpini & Keeter, 1996), while in others,
it is traditionally eschewed. In the social sciences, it is not
common practice to include an “I don’t know” option, as
people tend to select it preferentially rather than attempting
to answer (Goodwin & Goodwin, 2017). Prior studies have
shown that including “I don’t know” in tests of knowledge
can skew scores and that women are more likely to omit an
answer or choose “I don’t know” than men (Ben-Shakhar &
Sinai, 1991; Mondak & Davis, 2001). Therefore, to help
determine whether the SESI should include an “I don’t
know” response option, we conducted field test 1 using
both approaches. Field test 1 randomly assigned partici-
pants to one of two versions of the SESI (v2.5): one with
the option for participants to select “I don’t know” for each
question (n = 108), and one without that option (n = 103).
Based on prior research, we predicted that the inclusion of
“I don’t know” would decrease participants’ SESI scores by
decreasing the number of times participants chose the cor-
rect answer when they had a hunch that it was correct but
were not certain. Field test 1 also served to allow us to test
6 SAGE Open
Table 1. Item Concepts, Topics, and Development for the Social Enterprise of Science Instrument.
SESI Version Concept Topic Reworded or choice eliminated after IRTcFinal Q#
Retained items
v1.0 Training Educationav2.0, v2.5, v3.0 Q20
Inquiry initiation Research direction v2.0, v2.5, v3.0 Q1
Funding Funding sources v2.5, v3.0 Q2
Application of funds v2.5 Q3
Acquisition of funds v2.5 Q4
Collaboration Role of communitybv2.5 Q5
Solitary scientist mythbv2.5 Q6
Sharing of data v2.5 Q7
Context Role of universities v2.0, v2.5 Q8
Disagreement Disagreement in science v2.0, v2.5, v2.8, v3.0 Q9
Acceptance of work Confirmation of findingsav2.0, v2.5 Q10
Dissemination of work Communication of results v2.5, v3.0 Q11
Purpose of journals v2.5, v2.8, v3.0 Q12
Journal readership v2.5, v3.0 Q18
Status of journal content V2.0, v2.5 Q17
Payment for publication myth v2.5, v2.8 Q22
Peer review Methods questioning v2.0, v2.5 Q13
Role of reviewers v2.0, v2.5, v3.0 Q14
Competition Criticism scenario v2.5 Q15
Critical reviewav2.0, v2.5, v3.0 Q16
Scientific credit Discovery naming v2.5 Q23
Credit and success v2.5, v3.0 Q19
v2.0 Cooperation Multiple authors v2.5 Q21
v2.5 Conferences Q24
Journal impact Q25
Eliminated items
After v1.0 Training Education comparisona
After v2.0 Oversight Society membershipa
Society functiona
Bias Objectivity of scientists v2.0
After v2.5 Inquiry initiation Research direction v2.5
After v2.8 Dissemination of work Disclosure of funding (Added v2.5)
aItems adapted from Cooley and Klopfer (1961). bItems adapted from Lombrozo etal. (2008). cItem Response Theory.
the reliability and validity of the SESI, and to further refine
the scale.
In this test, we included 1-item, self-reported measures for
both trust in science and religiosity (see section “Materials and
procedure.”). We predicted that the SESI (v2.5) would correlate
positively with trust in science and negatively with religiosity.
Participants. The sample for Field Test 1 included 239 Amer-
ican adults recruited via MTurk and paid $1.50 for their par-
ticipation. After incomplete responses were eliminated, 211
participants remained. The sample was 53% male and 86.7%
reported identifying as white, non-Hispanic. The mean age
of the participants was 38 years old and 44.1% had at least a
bachelor’s degree. On a scale of 1 to 7 for political ideology
(where 1 = “very liberal” and 7 = “very conservative”), the
mean score was 3.66.
Materials and procedure. Participants in Field Test 1 were
randomly assigned one of two study groups. Each group
completed the online survey via Qualtrics. One group took
the SESI with an option to select “I don’t know” for every
question (v2.5_IDK), while the other group took the SESI
without the option to select “I don’t know” (v2.5). The sur-
vey items were presented in random order on both versions.
After the demographic questions, the respondents were
asked to self-report their trust in science (“How much would
you say that you trust in the findings of science?” on a
5-point Likert-type scale from “A great deal” to “Not at all,”
Huxster et al. 7
M = 3.88, SD = .88) and their religiosity (“How important
is religion in your life?” on a 5-point Likert-type scale from
“Extremely important” to “Not at all important,” M = 2.22,
SD = 1.48).
Scoring. The SESI v2.5 was scored similarly to the first ver-
sion, with partial credit being awarded for correct responses
on “select all that apply” items and partial points subtracted
for incorrect responses, but with no score lower than a 0
assigned per item. On the SESI v2.5_IDK, selection of “I
don’t know” was scored as an incorrect answer. Separately
from the SESI score, we tallied the “I don’t know” responses
to create an “I don’t know,” or self-reported ignorance, score
(IDK_Score), which could range from 0 to 27.
Comparison of measures and “I don’t know” scores. We were
first interested in whether there was a difference between SESI
scores for the two treatment groups, v2.5_IDK (M = 19.13,
SD = 5.35) and v2.5 (M = 19.86, SD = 4.94). An indepen-
dent samples t-test revealed no significant difference between
groups, t(209) = −1.04, p = .301, Cohen’s d = 0.14. A
between subjects analysis of variance (ANOVA) with groups
organized by gender and test version revealed a significant dif-
ference in SESI score between groups F(3,210)= 2.93, p =
.04. Post hoc analysis using Tukey’s HSD indicated that
female participants taking v2.5_IDK (M = 17.92, SD = 5.3)
scored lower than male participants on the same version (M =
20.42, SD = 5.14) and male participants taking v2.5 (M =
20.33, SD = 4.87) but that those differences were not signifi-
cant (p = .056 for both). To further explore this finding,
we compared the IDK_Scores between genders. Men
(n = 52) selected “I don’t know” significantly fewer times (M
= 4.25, SD = 3.22) than did women, n = 56, M = 6.66, SD =
4.80, t(106) = −3.39, p < .001, Cohen’s d = 0.59. Means and
standard deviations for men and women on all three of these
measures can be seen in Table E2 in the Supporting Material.
Given the gender difference in the use of the “I don’t know”
option, we decided to not include “I don’t know” in the final
version of the SESI. Therefore, further examination of the pre-
dictive validity of this scale includes only the results from the
version without the “I don’t know” option (v2.5).
Table 2. Bivariate Correlations Between SESI, Other Metrics, and Demographic Variables in Field Tests 1 and 2.
v2.5 Field test 1
n = 211
v2.8 Field test 2
n = 325
v3.0 Field test 2
n = 325
v3.0s Short form
n = 325
Trust in science (2-item) .240* .267*** .256*** .302***
Education level .244* .249*** .245*** .289***
Religiosity −.177 −.226*** −.277*** −.221***
Political conservativism −.268*** −.266*** −.281***
Note. SESI = Social Enterprise of Science Index.
*p <.05. ***p <.001.
Scale analysis and interitem reliability. A total of 103 partici-
pants took the SESI (v2.5) survey (SESI score M =19.86,
SD = 4.94, range: 6–28.67). As with the first iteration of the
SESI, the distribution was negatively skewed, which was
expected, given that the MTurk population is more highly
educated than the general population (Paolacci & Chandler,
2014). Interitem reliability was strong (α = 0.82) but inter-
item correlations revealed that Cronbach’s alpha would
increase to α = 0.83 if two items, Q2 and Q8, were deleted.
This increase in Cronbach’s alpha alone is not justification
enough for removal, but after reviewing both items and the
qualitative comments made in the expert review panels, we
decided to eliminate Q2, and to reword Q8 for the next ver-
sion of the SESI (SESI v2.8, presented in §5, see also Table
1). Two further items were reworded for clarity. The reworded
and eliminated items can be found in the supporting material
for this article.
Criterion and convergent validity. The SESI v2.5 behaved
mostly as predicted in correlations with demographics and
other included metrics (Table 2). Those who scored higher
on SESI v2.5 also reported higher levels of trust in science
(r = .240, p = .02), and those with higher self-reported
levels of education also had higher scores on SESI v2.5
(r = .244, p = .01). There was a negative relationship
between higher self-reported religiosity scores on the
SESI v2.5, but this relationship was marginal (r = −.177,
p = .077).
The motivations for Field Test 1 were twofold. The first was
to test the revised version of the SESI and to further refine
the items. The second was to determine how inclusion of an
“I don’t know” option affected participant scores on the mea-
sure. The results showed that the inclusion of an “I don’t
know” option, while not affecting the overall score as com-
pared to the version without an “I don’t know,” created a
significant difference in the scores on the SESI v2.5 between
genders. We chose, therefore, not to use the “I don’t know”
option in the final version of the SESI (v3.0). Validity and
reliability analyses in this field test helped to further refine
the SESI for the final field test.
8 SAGE Open
Phase 4: Field Test 2 and Item
Field Test 2 served as our final validation and reliability test
for the refined version of the SESI (v2.8). We employed a
sample that more closely approximated the U.S. population
in Field Test 2 by collecting data through the digital data col-
lection company Research Now rather than through MTurk.
We also included the demographics and other metrics
included in Field Test 1.
We predicted that this final version of the SESI would
correlate with trust in science and that we would see a nega-
tive correlation with self-reported religiosity and conserva-
tive political ideology (Brewer & Ley, 2012; Gauchat, 2012).
We also expected to see a positive correlation between edu-
cation level and SESI scores, and a lower mean SESI score
as the sample had a more representative education level than
did the MTurk samples.
Participants. Field Test 2 employed 325 participants from the
U.S. population collected by Research Now (the name of this
company changed to Dynata after these data were collected)
with a completion rate of 83%. Participants were compen-
sated $2.50 in online currency. The sample was 55.7% male
and 75% reported identifying as white, non-Hispanic. The
mean age of the participants was 46 years old and 47.9% had
at least a bachelor’s degree. On a scale of 1 to 7 for political
ideology (where 1 = “very liberal” and 7 = “very conserva-
tive”), the mean score was 4.35. Trust in science (M = 3.68,
SD = .915) and religiosity (M = 3.11, SD = 1.42) were mea-
sured with the same items used in Field Test 1. Life Science
Materials, procedure, and scoring. SESI v2.8 included 26
items. Participants in Field Test 2 completed an online sur-
vey, which included the SESI v2.8 with items (randomized
between participants) and the same 1-item measures of trust
in science and religiosity used in Field Test 1. The SESI v2.8
was scored in the same manner as the previous versions.
Scale analysis and interitem reliability. The mean score for the
SESI v2.8 was 16.10 (SD = 6.37, range: .33–29.15) out of 32
possible points. Cronbach’s alpha for the 26-item SESI scale
was strong (α = 0.88).
Criterion and convergent. Once again, the SESI behaved as
predicted (see Table 2 for reference). The SESI v2.8 was
positively correlated with trust in science (r = .267, p <
.001) and negatively correlated with religiosity (r = −.226,
p < .001). Those participants with higher self-reported levels
of education also had higher scores on the SESI v2.8
(r = .249, p < .001). The SESI v2.8 was also negatively cor-
related with political conservatism, meaning as participants
ranked themselves higher on a scale from 1 (very liberal) to
7 (very conservative), the scores on their SESI v2.8 decreased
(r = −.268, p < .001).
Item response theory (IRT) analysis. As a final evaluation of
our scale, we conducted IRT analysis, employing a graded
response model (or ‘GRM’; see Samejima, 1969, 1997).
GRMs are used in cases in which some or all items in a scale
are ordered categorical responses (e.g., Likert-type or Likert-
type responses). The GRM specifies, for each question, the
likelihood that someone with a given score on the SESI will
choose a certain response level.
IRT assumes that the scale measures a unidimensional
latent trait (here, understanding the social enterprise of sci-
ence). This trait is referred to as “theta” and is often described
as “ability.” The scores along theta resemble standardized
scores and are often centered on 0. The unidimensionality of
the scale was determined by examination of the eigenvalues
in an analysis of the item covariance matrix.
A benefit of using IRT analysis methods is that we can
evaluate questions along two parameters: “difficulty” and
“discrimination.” Difficulty is the location along theta that is
the halfway point between the minimum probability of
answering correctly and the maximum probability of answer-
ing correctly where the slope is maximized. Discrimination,
then, is the maximum slope, or how strongly the item dis-
criminates between participants who do and do not answer
the item correctly. By evaluating the item parameters, we can
determine whether items are too difficult for our sample
(e.g., item theta is >3), too easy (e.g., item theta <−3), if the
item has very low discriminatory power (e.g., discrimination
<.25), and/or if the likelihood of answering the item cor-
rectly is inversely related to scores on the index (i.e., a “bad”
item). For the items that had multiple response options (i.e.,
the Likert-type items), in place of a single difficulty param-
eter, the GRM provides a “boundary” score. The boundary
score defines the point along theta where the likelihood of
choosing one of two adjacent response options is equal.
When conducting the GRM, true or false questions were
coded so that 1 = incorrect answer and 2 = correct answer.
Check all that apply questions were treated as binary response
options and were coded just as the true or false items, where
1 = incorrect and 2 = correct. Likert-type questions were
coded to start at 1 (incorrect response) to 5 (more correct
response). We used the ltm package in R to run the model.
As a result of the IRT, we learned that some of the ques-
tions and some of the item response options (for the check all
that apply questions) were “bad” items; that is, people who
do better on the SESI as a whole, were less likely to answer
these items correctly than those who do worse on the SESI as
a whole. We removed these questions and response levels
from the final survey and re-ran the IRT analysis (see Table 1).
The eliminated items and choices from multiple-choice
Huxster et al. 9
questions can be found in the supporting material. The distri-
bution of the participants theta scores with the bad items
removed was bimodal and slightly positively skewed. See
Figure 3A.
Scoring and Results of Final SESI v 3.0
Scoring of the SESI v 3.0. As stated in section “IRT analysis,”
we removed some items and individual responses after per-
forming IRT analysis. The scale was scored in the same man-
ner as previous versions. The code book for this final version
of the SESI can be found in the supporting material. Scale
analysis and interitem reliability
The mean score for the 25-item SESI v3.0 was M = 16.4
out of 31 possible points (SD = 6.86, range: .33–29.73).
Cronbach’s alpha for the SESI v3.0 was strong (α = 0.90).
Figure 4 shows the frequency distribution for the final ver-
sion of the SESI. The complete item wording and individual
question difficulty can be found in section A of the online
Supporting Material for this article.
Criterion and convergent validity. The final version of the SESI
behaved similarly to previous versions (see Table 2). SESI
v3.0 was positively correlated with trust in science (r = .256,
p < .001) and negatively correlated with religiosity (r =
−.227, p < .001). Those who self-reported as being more
politically conservative scored lower on the SESI v3.0 (r =
−.266, p .001), and those who reported higher levels of
education earned higher scores on the SESI v3.0 (r = .245,
p < .001).
In conducting this final field test, our intent was to test the
validity and reliability of the refined version of the SESI, and
to do so with a more representative sample of the American
Figure 3. Distribution of (A) participant theta scores on the SESI and (B) participant scores on the short form of the SESI.
Note. SESI = Social Enterprise of Science Index.
Figure 4. Distributions of scores on (A) SESI v3.0 (M = 16, SD = 6.86) and (B) SESI Short Form (M = 2.57, SD = 1.53).
Note. N = 325 for both measures. SESI = Social Enterprise of Science Index.
10 SAGE Open
public. Our results with the Research Now sample of 335
participants show that SESI v3.0 has good convergent and
predictive validity, as well as a very good level of interitem
Development of a Short Form of the
Short Form Development
Although SESI v3.0 is a robust and useful new tool for mea-
suring literacy in the social enterprise of science, its length
could make it difficult or expensive to employ on longer sur-
veys or on particular types of studies. For this reason, we
developed a “short form” version of the SESI (SESI v.3.0s)
that focuses not on proficiency but on capturing the widest
range of variance in understanding on the SESI with as few
questions as possible. To do this, we began by choosing
questions across the complete range of item difficulty esti-
mates from the results of the IRT analysis (see section
“Round 2 of expert reviews”); specifically questions close to
difficulty estimates of −2, −1, 0, 1, and 2 that had the largest
discriminatory power. In addition, we included two Likert-
type scale questions for which the boundary scores for the
response options also span the range of difficulty estimates.
The resulting short form includes seven questions (see sec-
tion B of the supporting material).
As the item parameters can shift based on the questions
included in an index, it is possible that—despite selecting
items ranging in difficulty from −2 to +2—their difficulty
scores would shift. Thus, we re-ran the IRT analysis with
just the short form items and determined that the item
parameters did not differ greatly. As with the full SESI, the
distribution of theta scores was bimodal, but it was not par-
ticularly skewed (see Figure 3B). It should be noted that
we did not conduct a separate data collection with the short
form, and there is a possibility that the other questions on
the survey may have biased individuals responses to the
seven questions included here. When analyzing data on
participants who have only completed the short form, the
results may vary slightly.
Validation of the Short Form
Scale analysis and interitem reliability. The mean score for the
SESI v3.0s was 2.89 (SD =1.67). The complete item list,
wording, and difficulty can be found in the supporting mate-
rial to this article.
Criterion, convergent, and predictive validity. The SESI v3.0s
was highly correlated with the SESI v3.0 (r = .859, p <
.001). It behaved as predicted in correlations with
demographic variables and other included metrics (Table 2).
The SESI 3.0s was positively correlated with trust in science
(r = .302, p < .001). The SESI v3.0s negatively correlated
with religiosity (r = −.221, p < .001) and political conserva-
tism (r = −.281, p < .001), meaning that as participants
ranked themselves as more conservative, their SESI v3.0s
scores decreased. Those with higher self-reported levels of
education had higher SESI v3.0s scores (r = .289, p < .001).
In creating this short form version of the SESI, our intent was
to present a measurement that could capture variance in the
general public in a format short enough to be employed on
longer surveys or at less expense than our 25-item SESI v3.0.
The resulting SESI v3.0s shows strong convergent and pre-
dictive validity. The reliability of the SESI v3.0 is close to
the normal level of acceptability, and given the intent of the
scale and the IRT results, we believe the scale is best with the
inclusion of item Q7 (the removal of which would slightly
increase the Cronbach’s alpha).
General Discussion and Conclusion
We conclude by considering some possible objections and
misunderstandings that will hopefully lead to clarifications
regarding our goals for the SESI instrument and stance con-
cerning its development. One concern involves the novelty
of the SESI. In the “Background and Motivation” section, we
mentioned a study by Bauer et al. (2000) in which an instru-
ment is developed with motivations similar to our own. We
also noted some important ways in which our respective
measures diverge. A key difference involves our conceptual
frameworks and instrument content: while Bauer et al. focus
on teamwork as the main social aspect of science, our instru-
ment also addresses the existence of competition and dis-
agreement in science, which we believe are relevant to the
public’s trust of consensus science (Slater et al., 2019). Our
measure also goes into greater depth on a number of impor-
tant social–institutional concepts and processes within sci-
ence (such as education, peer-discussion/criticism, and the
epistemic standing of publications); Bauer et al.’s instrument
is more focused on cross-national collaboration and govern-
mental funding schemes than our instrument is. In addition,
the development process for our instrument was more exten-
sive, including the IRT analysis detailed in section “IRT
analysis.” We report a stronger Cronbach’s alpha for our
instrument than do Bauer et al. and have validated a short
version of our measure.
Another worry we have encountered involves the extent
to which the model of the scientific enterprise implicit in the
SESI is really general to all corners of science. For instance,
a culture of openness of data is less common in some disci-
plines (e.g., in the social sciences or within various indus-
tries). Or perhaps it might be seen as presumptuous to think
Huxster et al. 11
that there are settled facts about how the scientific enterprise
works. While there are of course facts about the correct
answers to items in traditional measures of scientific literacy
(the Earth does orbit the Sun), the correctness of items con-
cerning the social enterprise of science are more in question
and thus a matter of opinion or value.
Consider the latter version of this objection first. We agree
that one should expect a certain degree of reasonable dis-
agreement concerning which elements of the social enter-
prise of science ought to figure into this aspect of scientific
literacy; research into subtleties of scientific practice is
ongoing and sometimes contentious. Nevertheless, we
believe that something approaching an “overlapping consen-
sus” (to borrow a phrase from John Rawls) may be possible
concerning a representative range of important features of
the scientific enterprise at the macro scale. The most recent
version of the SESI highlights what we and our expert vali-
dators believe are generally applicable items (scored in a
way that we believe will be regarded as clearly correct),
steering away from ongoing debates concerning nuances of
the social processes inherent to scientific work and the epis-
temic dynamics of theory choice. While we believe that most
readers will find this to be the case upon inspection of the
SESI, we would also highlight the fact that the measure was
refined through two rounds of expert reviews including sci-
entists from a variety of fields, as well as historians and phi-
losophers of science. Similar comments apply to the former
version of the objection. In designing the SESI, we sought to
capture a broadly applicable characterization of the scientific
enterprise that will inevitably be subject to local exceptions;
our aim was to ensure that such exceptions would be rare and
that the instrument would do a good job of measuring indi-
viduals’ grasp of basic, general features of the scientific
Our reliance on expert knowledge when it comes to the
construction and validation of the SESI might raise ques-
tions about the extent to which the measure is relevant to
the everyday experiences of average people. Here, we need
to distinguish between the role that experts can play in set-
tling (to the extent anyone can) matters of fact about gen-
eral features of the scientific enterprise and settling
questions of value. Pace concerns discussed in the previous
paragraph, we think that the factual role of expertise should
be uncontroversial.
When it comes to the questions of value, the story is more
complex. Such questions can take various forms, but two
salient ones are (a) whether a certain fact about the scientific
enterprise is significant—whether it is important to know in
order for one to count as enjoying a certain level of familiar-
ity with the scientific enterprise—and (b) whether the grasp
of the social functioning of the scientific enterprise is a
worthwhile thing to have. We do believe that expert judg-
ment concerning which features of the scientific enterprise
are significant enough to play a role in measuring one’s grasp
of this enterprise are possible (question 1). To a certain
extent, this is obvious. There is presumably some fact of the
matter about the total mass of Ph.D. students in chemistry at
a given moment, but no one would be remotely tempted to
think that knowing this number should reflect on one’s grasp
of the scientific enterprise. That is an extreme example
(expert judgment is hardly needed to make this determina-
tion), but it illustrates that such determinations are clearly
possible; it seems to us quite plausible that on less obvious
questions, expert judgment as to what is distinctive and
important to know about the scientific enterprise to be
counted as having a general grasp of that enterprise is the
best that one can do.
Notice that this presumes no official stance on value ques-
tion (b). Consider a parallel: it is clear that understanding the
rules surrounding what constitutes a “traveling violation” in
basketball is an important component for one’s understand-
ing of the game of basketball; but this does not, of course,
entail that understanding basketball should be important to
anyone. Applied to a grasp of the social enterprise of science
(SES-literacy, as we might call it), we do not presume that
such an understanding of science is relevant to the daily lives
of “average people” (cf. Wynne, 1996). It is an open empiri-
cal question whether SES-literacy would have instrumental
value—for example, enabling better decision-making when
it comes to questions of personal and public health or public
policy—and a much broader question whether (and in what
contexts) there is intrinsic value in such an understanding.
The SESI is designed to make answering the former sort of
question more tractable.
Along these same lines, some might question the value of
developing an inventory for measuring the public’s grasp of
the scientific enterprise over and above their grasp of basic
scientific facts and the NoS. Isn’t the scientific enterprise
already part of the NoS? In one sense it is; science, as it is
practiced in recent decades in the United States (as well as
many western nations), is inherently social (while there may
be a sense in which an isolated researcher conducting exper-
iments in their basement may be regarded as participating in
science, this is far from the mainstream model). But as men-
tioned previously, we have found that most inventories of
knowledge of the NoS focus on abstract concepts or very
general epistemic features of the scientific process—for
example, that science is, in certain ways, tentative and self-
correcting, that scientific theories, while in a certain way
tentative, are not mere guesses—rather than assessing indi-
viduals’ grasp of what social–institutional aspects of the sci-
entific enterprise underlie these more abstract epistemic
features of science. Such a grasp is plausibly instrumental to
our trust of science as an institution. If, for example, science
was “self-correcting” in the sense that a small panel of sci-
entists had the task of deciding which findings were correct
and which were not, that should plausibly reduce one’s ten-
dency to trust in a scientific consensus on a given issue.
Understanding, by contrast, that there is no such entity (and
indeed that there are potential incentives for taking a critical
12 SAGE Open
stance toward others’ findings) may very well facilitate one’s
trust in scientific consensus (at least in some cases—see
Miller, 2013). The SESI thus provides researchers with a dis-
tinctive tool for investigating questions in this vicinity.
More generally, we believe that it should be uncontrover-
sial that the epistemic respect properly owed to science—
however much, and in what contexts, we deem this to be in
the end—stems in large part from the workings of the com-
munities, institutions, and norms in which scientific activi-
ties play out (Oreskes, 2019; Strevens, 2020). At present,
there are a number of research questions that scholars across
a variety of fields are ill-equipped to answer for want of a
tool to measure subjects’ grasp of important social aspects of
science. How common is this knowledge? How is it distrib-
uted? In educational contexts, how and when does it nor-
mally come about? Does a better grasp of social aspects of
the scientific enterprise indeed predict greater trust of scien-
tific consensus? What are the best predictors of such a grasp?
How can educators and communicators best produce it? We
submit that answering such questions is a clearly valuable
endeavor, particularly in the context of persistent skepticism
about the value and trustworthiness of science and the threats
these tendencies pose to rational policy-making.
To sum up: this article has documented the development
of a novel instrument—the Social Enterprise of Science
Instrument (SESI)—for measuring public knowledge of
salient, general features of the social–institutional enterprise
of science that will facilitate inquiries like the ones described
above. Concepts relevant to the SESI were identified through
a number of means, including reflection on the Science,
Technology, and Society and History and Philosophy of
Science literature, interviews with academics, scientists, and
members of the public. Several rounds of pilot testing, expert
review, and IRT allowed us to hone the instrument to 25
items (SESI v3.0), as well as create a 7-item “short-form”
version of the instrument for use in longer surveys (SESI
v3.0s). Although the short form no longer contains all of the
elements deemed necessary for proficiency in the social
enterprise of science, it does sufficiently capture variance
among the general public and thus provides a potentially use-
ful tool for investigations into scientific literacy.
Although the described development and validation of
this instrument are sufficient, in our view, for the SESI and
short-form SESI to be considered useful to the field, there is
always room for improvement. Future research should con-
tinue to test the reliability and validity of these measures,
including those with access to large, nationally representa-
tive samples, and improve upon the measure for their and
others’ use as deemed necessary.
The authors would like to acknowledge the contributions of the
Forney Family Foundation and Bucknell University to this research.
They would also like to thank the expert panel participants at the
annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Science and the biennial meeting of the Philosophy of Science
Association and the History of Science Society. MHS acknowl-
edges the financial support of NSF (SES-1734616) for teaching
relief and research assistance in 2018–19.
Declaration of Conflicting Interests
The author(s) declared the following potential conflicts of interest
with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this
article: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be
construed as a potential conflict of interest.
The author(s) disclosed receipt of the following financial support
for the research and/or authorship of this article: This research was
funded by the Forney Family Foundation, Bucknell University, and
the National Science Foundation (SES-1734616).
Data Availability Statement
The data sets [generated/analyzed] for this study can be found in the
[name of repository] [link]. Please see the Data Availability section
of the Author guidelines for more details.
Ethics Statement
This research was approved by the Institutional Review Board of
Bucknell University (approval no. 1617-047)
Joanna K. Huxster
Asheley R. Landrum
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