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.