The Use and Abuse of Epistemic Success Terms in "Public Understanding of Science"

Sunday, February 14, 2016
Victor LoPiccolo, Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA
Background: The “scientific literacy” of the public, especially in democratic societies, is essential to the creation of scientifically sound policy. A great deal of research focuses on whether or how to increase public literacy, but so far the focus of these efforts has varied between either increasing knowledge, understanding, or other related epistemic states. Recent philosophical work focuses on the difference between knowledge and understanding, and the importance of understanding as a better and more stable epistemic goal for science outreach. In light of this work, this study aims to examine the conflation of epistemic success terms in peer-reviewed literature, with the more specific intent of identifying measurement of genuine understanding versus other epistemic states. Methods: This research focuses on the literature published in the journal Public Understanding of Science (PUS), from which two sets of data are collected. In the first set, the digital text analysis tool, Voyant, is used to analyze all papers published in the year 2014 for the use of epistemic success terms. In the second set of data, all papers published in PUS in the last six years (2010-2015) are qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed by two, independent coders, and with digital text analysis software, to identify instances in which epistemic success terms are empirically measured. The measurement instruments and methodologies are analyzed to determine whether the claimed epistemic state, most importantly understanding, is actually measured. Results: We find that in 2014, epistemic success terms are inconsistently defined, and that understanding in particular is frequently confused with other, less comprehensive and effective forms of public literacy, like knowledge. Of the 20 papers published in PUS since the beginning of 2010 claiming to measure epistemic states, only 4 are shown to measure epistemic understanding. The misuse of understanding and other epistemic states is also explored. Conclusions: This study finds that literature available in Public Understanding of Science (a premier resource for information and research on the title subject) does not consistently differentiate between understanding and other epistemic states. We posit that more diligent attention to measuring understanding, with an emphasis on the perceived connections between related concepts and the ability to correctly incorporate new information, will increase efficacy of scientific outreach and communication efforts.