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Biomedical Literacy in the United States: Exploring the borderland between science and citizenship
Unformatted Document Text:  3 Building on previous work by Miller (1983b, 1987a, 1995, 1998) defining civic scientific literacy, the public understanding of biomedical science is conceptualized as having two dimensions — one that reflects a vocabulary of basic terms and concepts and a second that reflects an understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry. A basic vocabulary of biomedical terms and concepts is needed to be able to read a newspaper report on a new medical discovery or to judge the relative merits of various levels of funding for biomedical research. A citizen who does not understand the role of DNA in living systems is likely to have a great deal of difficulty in understanding a news story about the identification of a gene related to a particular disease or disorder and the implications of this finding for his personal health in the years ahead. Similarly, a citizen who does not understand the difference between a bacterial infection and a viral infection may not be able to understand a news report about the growth of bacteria resistant to a particular antibiotic and relate that report to the reluctance of her physician to prescribe an antibiotic for her cold. At the policy level, a citizen who does not understand the genetic basis of many diseases may be unable to reconcile substantial government expenditures for the study of molecular biology with a commitment to cure cancer. At the same time, it is important for consumers, patients, and citizens to understand the nature of scientific inquiry, which is the foundation of virtually all biomedical and biotechnology research. The 19 th century saw a period of popularity for medical tonics and elixirs that their salesmen claimed would cure a wide range of diseases and conditions and produce happiness. In the post-war decades in the United States, there have been major disputes over substances such as Krebiozen and Laetrile, whose advocates claimed would cure cancer, but for which there was no accepted empirical data. At least once a week, major U.S. newspapers and television newscasts report the results of one or more medical studies, often including a brief mention of the nature of the study and the number of subjects included. This pattern of reporting will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead, and it is important that consumers and citizens understand the empirical nature of scientific investigation and the general structure of experimental methods. It is also important that informed adults learn that non-empirical approaches such as astrology provide no information comparable in reliability to the cumulative results of scientific investigation.

Authors: Miller, Jon. and Kimmel, Linda.
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Building on previous work by Miller (1983b, 1987a, 1995, 1998) defining civic scientific
literacy, the public understanding of biomedical science is conceptualized as having two dimensions —
one that reflects a vocabulary of basic terms and concepts and a second that reflects an understanding of
the nature of scientific inquiry. A basic vocabulary of biomedical terms and concepts is needed to be able
to read a newspaper report on a new medical discovery or to judge the relative merits of various levels of
funding for biomedical research. A citizen who does not understand the role of DNA in living systems is
likely to have a great deal of difficulty in understanding a news story about the identification of a gene
related to a particular disease or disorder and the implications of this finding for his personal health in the
years ahead. Similarly, a citizen who does not understand the difference between a bacterial infection and
a viral infection may not be able to understand a news report about the growth of bacteria resistant to a
particular antibiotic and relate that report to the reluctance of her physician to prescribe an antibiotic for
her cold. At the policy level, a citizen who does not understand the genetic basis of many diseases may be
unable to reconcile substantial government expenditures for the study of molecular biology with a
commitment to cure cancer.
At the same time, it is important for consumers, patients, and citizens to understand the nature of
scientific inquiry, which is the foundation of virtually all biomedical and biotechnology research. The 19
th
century saw a period of popularity for medical tonics and elixirs that their salesmen claimed would cure a
wide range of diseases and conditions and produce happiness. In the post-war decades in the United
States, there have been major disputes over substances such as Krebiozen and Laetrile, whose advocates
claimed would cure cancer, but for which there was no accepted empirical data. At least once a week,
major U.S. newspapers and television newscasts report the results of one or more medical studies, often
including a brief mention of the nature of the study and the number of subjects included. This pattern of
reporting will undoubtedly increase in the years ahead, and it is important that consumers and citizens
understand the empirical nature of scientific investigation and the general structure of experimental
methods. It is also important that informed adults learn that non-empirical approaches such as astrology
provide no information comparable in reliability to the cumulative results of scientific investigation.


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