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Editor's Corner

Scientific Media Literacy

The Science Teacher—January 2020 (Volume 87, Issue 5)

By Ann Haley MacKenzie

Fake news. Pseudoscience. Bad Science. Never before has so much information, both good and bad, been available to us. One study of students’ online reasoning skills found that “96 percent of students did not consider why ties between a climate change website and the fossil fuel industry might lessen that website’s credibility. Instead of investigating who was behind the site, students focused on superficial markers of credibility: the site’s aesthetics, its top-level domain, or how it portrayed itself on the About page” (Breakstone et al. 2019).

Another study (Education Week 2019) found that students could not discern fact from fiction when exposed to scientific posts on social media. For most of us, this finding is probably not surprising. But what are we doing to counteract this situation in our science teaching? Do we focus on media literacy in our classrooms? What activities do we do to make our students better consumers of science information?

Ohio House Bill 164 just passed, affording students the right to answer scientific questions based on religious beliefs and not be penalized. The ramifications of this bill are obvious and have far-reaching consequences for our teaching and our students’ understandings of what science is and what it is not.

Why, as science educators, should we concern ourselves with these phenomena when we feel compelled to focus on preparing our students for AP science exams and other standardized tests? Science educators have never been more important. If our students graduate knowing the steps of the Krebs cycle but cannot read and interpret scientific reports and social media posts, then we have failed. Our students are consumers of the plethora of information present in today’s world. They are future voters on vital issues, such as climate change, bioengineering, and other scientific phenomena. It is paramount that they understand the science behind these issues.

In 2007 it was estimated that “70 percent of Americans can’t read and understand the science section of the New York Times.” Although this statistic is dated, my hunch is that the percentage is most likely about the same. Currently, 69 percent of U.S. adults say their trust in the news media has decreased in the past decade (Gallup/Knight Foundation 2019). With this mistrust in the media and with the huge amounts of new scientific information surfacing daily, it is imperative that we move media literacy near the top of what we do as science educators. Factoids come and go but scientific literacy is a lifelong skill we must help our students master. 


Breakstone, J., et al. 2019. Students’ civic online reasoning: A national portrait. Stanford History Education Group & Gibson Consulting. 

Education Week. 2019. Students Can't Spot Fake News Websites

Gallup/Knight Foundation. 2019. American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy.

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