From time to time my colleagues and I discuss the basic requirements of science literacy. We envisage a group of intelligent people at a party discussing various topics. Let's restrict our discussion to Western European culture.
Everyone agrees that they should be familiar with the basic outlines of history (e.g. who did Paul Revere warn in 1775?) and politics (what's the difference between socialism and capitalism?). Everyone agrees that you would look like an idiot if you didn't know who Will Shakespeare was and what Hamlet said. Everyone agrees that you can't call yourself an intellectual if you don't know the difference between French Impressionists and Michelangelo. You're expected to know something about Socrates and Aristotle. You're expected to know at least a few foreign words and knowledge of a foreign language is almost a requirement.
You should know something about food even if it's only the difference between couche couche and curry. Any "intellectual" should be able to discourse for five minutes on a favorite wine. You get the picture—there are some things that you just have to know if you claim to be literate.
What about science? Are there any things in science that you just have to know if you want to be taken seriously as an informed literate person?
No, there aren't. We've all experienced the situation I describe where a group of non-scientists at a party or bar are showing off their knowledge. Knowledge of science and math is not a requirement. In fact, you get points if you brag about always being too stupid to understand mathematics and dropping it as soon as you could in high school, especially if you're a woman.
Are there scientific facts and concepts that you really should be expected to know if you claim to be literate? Yes there are, and it's up to us to make sure they are widely publicized.
Today's your chance to publicize one of those facts. The summer solstice happens two hours from now no matter where you are on the planet. Ask your non-science friends to explain the summer solstice (Northern Hemisphere). It's one of those simple science things that everyone should know about. Not being able to explain it is like not knowing that Libya is in Africa, Napoleon lost the battle of Waterloo, Charles Dickens wrote Oliver Twist, and Frank Lloyd Wright was an architect.
Can you explain the solstice? If so, you are on the way to scientific literacy. What are some other must-know scientific facts and concepts? Evolution is one. If you don't understand the basic concepts of evolution then you can't clam to be scientifically literate. My point is that I'd like to live in a world where you can't claim to be literate, period, if you aren't scientifically literate.
[Image credit: Wikipedia]