Reflections on scientific illiteracy

By Francesco Gonella

Dr. Gonella is a Professor of Physics at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, Italy, who has worked in Canada (Laval University) and Japan (Tokyo Institute of Technology). He was Director of the International School on Emergy Accounting, Venice 2013 and 2015. Research interests include nano-structured glasses, environmental Physics, systems thinking, and higher education. Other interests are Baroque Music, Shodo (1st dan at the Japanese Federation of Calligraphy), and Foundations of Quantum Mechanics.

“Philosophers are people who know less and less about more and more, until they know nothing about everything. Scientists are people who know more and more about less and less, until they know everything about nothing.” –Konrad Lorenz

Modern scientific illiteracy arises from a number of causes. Modern science often requires an advanced background, making it inaccessible. And many basic scientific concepts are commonly misunderstood, such as Darwin’s Evolution Theory. But since most of the present global issues such as climate change are related to complex systems, the literacy gap is related to the set of conceptual tools pertaining to Systems Theory. Global problems can be faced only with skills, languages, approaches and methodologies that come from a systemic view, using tools that are neither strictly scientific theories nor pieces of technology. This kind of science literacy is needed in all decision-making processes concerned with complex, technology-based, and environmental systems, and in general with actions inspired by concepts like Sustainable Development, or Prosperous Way Down. Furthermore, systemic concepts like emergence, non-linearity, pattern, feedback, self-organization, criticality, and chaos that have a specific role in Systems Theory, are used as well within other contexts, including the everyday life language, with different meanings, giving rise to a further functional illiteracy. As David Goodstein observes, “Approximately 95 percent of the [American] public is illiterate in science by any rational definition of science literacy”, and there is little hope that the policy makers all come from the remaining 5% who are scientifically literate.

I suggest that systems thinking-based knowledge is critical for all University curricula, whether in Science, Humanities, Economics, Philosophy or other subjects. Of course, this is not a new point. But we still under-rate the necessity of including this kind of modern scientific knowledge in the current non-scientific higher education curricula. In the revision process of the academic institution’s activities, research tends to react faster to the novelties brought by the inter- and cross-disciplinary knowledge than any innovation in educational curricula. The main reasons for this are the traditional structure of the University courses, the University recruitment systems, and the preparation of the professors themselves, who are often focused on a single discipline or sub-discipline, giving rise to a heavy inertia of the educational apparatus to update contents and working methodologies. In this sense, specific attention should be paid to the doctorate programs, which are the most prone to be hyper-specialized. At the same time, these hyper-specialized PhDs are expected to be the most well-educated “global citizens,”  most likely to assume the roles and jobs of decision-makers in Society.


 The so-called “energy problem” is probably the best example of the necessity for an updated systemic approach. Impoverishment of fossil fuels, geo-political instability, global warming and globalization of markets beg the use of a shared language, which would permit all these aspects of the problem to be assembled together in the same analysis lying on the table of decision-makers. Also, an understanding of integrated systems is essential to any effective policy action, or political or public information campaign against the multinational lobbies that play a fundamental role in the definition of the current energy policies that currently make rich people richer. Technology, economy, geographical constraints, political situations, environment, anthropological backgrounds, food chains, migrations, biodiversity, educational structures, and information are connected to each other in a heavily entangled network of feedbacks, requiring a common baseline for the many variables involved in any quantitative study. Since energy plays a fundamental role in all eco- and socio-economic systems, HT Odum’s emergy appears to be one of the most suitable concepts to quantitatively link the four flows driving a system operation, namely, matter, energy, information and money. Nevertheless, emergy-based approaches rarely find a place even in scientific curricula. Life Cycle Assessment is now commonly used in several analytical contexts as an operational tool for evaluating the sustainability of something. But what I claim here is that emergy accounting, unlike LCA, has a general cultural value per se, owing to its specific potential to point out the complex network of relationships that define how some piece of reality works. Its truly integrated, holistic approach provides scholars coming from almost all disciplines with the awareness that complex problems arise from complex systems. Emergy accounting provides a conceptual tool that cannot be set up within the realm of a single discipline, but in principle allows the manager or the ecologist, as well as the economist or the political analyst, to better understand what they are dealing with.

Thus the problem is, this new knowledge remains unknown to most as long as it remains out of any traditional curriculum in the University didactics. Of course, this has to do with the idea that some sort of “universal culture” should be recovered, properly adapted to the demands of modern societies and to the global problems we are facing, and that the University is the place where some wisdom, if not transmitted, should be pointed out as a possible (one of the possible) goals. Less ambitiously, let me outline something that in principle could be established right now. We need a specific course to be delivered within the curricula of both Master and PhD students of any discipline. I do not know how this might be pushed forward, but I think this is the real bottleneck for any effective renovation of the didactic academic programs. These are, to me, the minimum essential items that should be included in the contents of this “integrated course”:

  • icebergPrinciples of Thermodynamics
  • Principles of Systems Theory
  • Theory of Evolution
  • Basic Epistemology
  • Introduction to Complex Systems
  • Emergy and flows analysis
  • Laboratory of systems simulation

One final warning about the way these topics should be taught. Recently, distance learning (e-learning) methods and facilities have had a remarkable impact worldwide in higher education programs. The tremendous potential of on-line courses is based on the idea of reaching a high number of people without any physical contact with the teachers, using the premise that on-line forums can guarantee the quality of the student preparation. This may be true for some extremely technical knowledge, but as a University teacher I never confuse the two indicators, “number of my students” (currently related to the “performance” of my University), and “quality of my teaching” (more difficult to measure, related to the “quality” of my University). Indeed, the very nature of the systemic knowledge listed above has its basis in a holistic epistemology, which can frame our ability to both describe and understand reality in an integrated way. In my experience, this knowledge can only be transmitted in presence, by stimulating cross-disciplinary points of view and developing an effective deep understanding through a common sharing, confronting, and participating. Unfortunately, it has become a praxis to measure the quality of a public University by quantifying its success in satisfying the demands of the market, and not of the society. This could mean that before setting up any action for change the academic curricula, Universities (at least public ones) should be able to clarify explicitly what is, and what they consider to be, their very mission.

  • Garvin H Boyle

    This is a very interesting set of arguments, and, as a person with some experience both as an educator at the high-school level, and as a government administrator in the role of hiring recent university graduates, I agree enthusiastically with most of the points made by the author. I have found that, even among those with an undergraduate degree in a technological field such as Electrical Engineering, they have almost no understanding of the philosophy of science, the need for and purpose of a scientific method in research, or even a basic knowledge of rhetoric and the pitfalls of fallacious arguments. While their technical knowledge was of a sufficiently high level, their ability to discern between valid and invalid arguments was largely limited to their field of expertise. So, in my view, scientific illiteracy is a widespread phenomenon here in Canada, and it promises to become a serious problem.

    The focus of the author, quite naturally, seems to be on higher education associated with Masters and PhD studies. I say “naturally” because this is the part of the educational system in which he is now involved. I suppose my opinions expressed here are not in disagreement with the author’s views, but an expansion on them. I would argue that the development of scientific literacy must start long before a student enters the Master’s program. I understand that those who will be guiding the world’s societies in the future will hopefully come from among this enlightened segment of the population, but the problem of scientific illiteracy must also be addressed for the rest of society. The other less-educated members of society must understand the opinions of the leaders to find themselves in agreement with them. If not, they will adopt other opinions that they CAN understand, and will follow those who propose such opinions, for good or for ill.

    About a year ago I attended a fascinating and thought-provoking presentation in Toronto at the Fields Institute, and, regrettably, I did not note the name of the presenter. Their finding was that most modern curricula in mathematics and science, in virtually all countries around the world, follow the paradigm established in Europe about 1600. The student starts with early historical opinions and techniques, and retraces (or recapitulates) the historical developments. By the time they have completed elementary school, they are functionally able to cope with 17th century mathematical and scientific concepts. By the time they have completed high school, they are dealing with concepts common circa 1750-1900. After first year university they have a broad knowledge of the mathematical and scientific knowledge and opinions of the late 1800s and very early 1900s, and after that they start to specialize. In a survey of such curricula around the world they found that only two countries, Russia and Israel, were no longer following this “recapitulation of history” paradigm.

    I have long thought that many topics should not be delayed until university when students can better understand the deep philosophical issues. Many such topics could in fact be taught as mere reflex skills in elementary schools. Calculus can be presented as areas and slopes, or as manipulations of symbols, and can be taught as soon as young students can read and write, or maybe earlier. Probability and statistics can be taught as curves and distributions, as truth tables, as symbolic manipulations, as problem-solving skills. All of this could be taught in late elementary and early high school. Systems concepts such as Nash equilibria, positive and negative feedback under iterations, trajectories in phase space, can all be taught in early high school in the context of physical, biophysical, social and economic systems, fads and trends. I would add to these mathematical skills the early and regular discussion of the philosophy of science, the nature and value of scientific methods of various sorts when seeking to determine the truth of a matter, the difference between Sophist rhetoric and rhetoric accepted by scientists, the role of rhetoric of various sorts in courts and in politics, the difficulties of logical and social traps, the nature and value of honest debate. All of this can be done in all threads of educational curricula, including history, geography, social studies, studies of literature, etc.

    Such a re-organized curriculum would much better prepare young adults to live in a society in which they are daily bombarded with manipulative advertisements, claims made via faux science, invalid or unsubstantiated political opinions, questionable debate on public policies, and the general flow of bad information that characterizes a modern society. They would be more scientifically literate, and more able to cope with life in a technology-driven society. It would also make them much better candidates for Masters and PhD programs that would serve to enhance and use that scientific literacy by pushing back the boundaries of knowledge.

    I am not saying it would be easy to re-organize the educational curricula in all elementary and high school systems around the world. But it is time to discard this old “recapitulation of history” paradigm and replace it with a more pragmatic paradigm that prepares young adults to participate more effectively in a modern society, regardless of the level of education they manage to achieve.

    It’s a big job. It’s got to be done. It’s time to start.

    Garvin H Boyle

    • Hi, Garvin. Yes, systems and science literacy should begin in elementary school or earlier. The Waters Foundation has a nice elementary curriculum for systems thinking, for example. Without that early training the technological, reductionist side of science takes over, subverting the questions we ask, particularly given the larger cultural world view that results in the denial and avoidance of the broader, important questions by scientists that we see today. Science becomes compromised by the mainstream views. We are often answering the wrong questions, with an increasingly narrow focus.

      Francesco, I was delighted to see your post in my email inbox, since you said some of the things I’ve been thinking recently. I took 3 graduate courses online at a “flagship Florida University” this past year. Only one of them was any good, and none of them did anything to expand my critical thinking skills or develop any academic “socialization.” The courses were reductionist, with multiple choice exams and token “discussion” boards, for which I had to post several sentences to get course credit—no discussion or interaction of any sort with anyone else, teachers or students, required. The focus of the university, even in graduate courses, now appears to be making money to feed the bureaucracy of administration and to make meaningless “best of” rankings rather than lighting intellectual fires. I feel sorry for generic undergraduate students today, who feel compelled to get their ticket punched in order to become a “salary-man” while running up immense debts promised to an imaginary future that can’t be paid as we descend.

  • northsheep

    My background knowledge of systems thinking is works by HT Odum and D. Meadows, and graduate courses in system dynamics modeling using texts of Sterman and Ford. Using this knowledge, I have had some success teaching systems thinking at the undergraduate level as part of a course in ecological agriculture. ​Last year Gaia College commissioned me to create this course,​, and recently it finished its first run. It is a semester-long online course available to individuals, colleges, NGOs and business organizations. It includes live facilitation and practical assignments in systems principles and problems modeling, as well as grading and credit as needed. Students gain a wide-angle thinking lens that is appropriate to the complexity of the world. It teaches tools to view problem situations in any area of life in a way that allows us to transcend the limitations of expert knowledge and to see how situations evolve over time to generate unexpected consequences.

    Specifically, our systems thinking approach offers instruction in the following tools:

    Visual mapping of our mental models of situations and problems to make them more available for critical examination.

    Causal loop diagramming to discover the feedback structure that generates problem situations, and provides insights about solutions.

    A step by step framework for problem solving in complex situations.

    Practice with simulation models in many areas of life, which teaches how system behavior responds to changes in structure in complex situations.

    I welcome questions and critical comment. Please share and forward to other potentially interested parties.

    • Thanks, Northsheep. We need more courses like this, and Gaia College looks very interesting. Can you post different link? The one you posted takes one to an error page at Gaia College.