The Other Half: Functional Illiteracy and Science Communication | The Body of Evidence

The Other Half: Functional Illiteracy and Science Communication


50% of Canadians have difficulty reading.

That figure took me by surprise. In fact, I did not believe it at first and sought a primary source. My boss mentioned hearing about this, but numbers, claims, and reports have a way of evolving through the telling. They undergo the natural selection of facts that favour exaggeration in the struggle for virality.

But my boss got the information from his brother-in-law, who read it in the newspaper Le Journal de Montréal, which was quoting a massive assessment conducted by Statistics Canada. While the newspaper article focused on absolute illiteracy, it contained this throwaway-but-jaw-dropping line: "In Quebec, the proportion of functional illiterates is higher between 16 and 24 years of age (49%) than between 25 and 44 years of age (42%). In the general population, this proportion is 53%." (Translated from the French by yours truly, the original article can be found here.) The dictionary app on my computer tells me that the phrase "functionally illiterate" means "lacking the literacy necessary for coping with most jobs and many everyday situations". Most jobs, it says. 

There's an important link to science communication here, but first, let me unpack the juiciest bits from this national assessment. Because it can't possibly be true.

This massive endeavour comes courtesy of the Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC). The Quebec arm of Statistics Canada, the Institut de la statistique Québec, released its own report based on the PIAAC data, looking specifically at Quebec and comparing it to other provinces and territories. The data were collected in 2012 and released a few months ago. Participants were aged between 16 and 65 years old, with a sample size of 5,911 in Quebec alone, and these assessments were conducted by an interviewer in the participant's home.

In terms of literacy, 53% of Quebecers and 49% of Canadians between the ages of 16 and 65 scored below 3 on a scale from 0 to 5. People who scored below 3 cannot understand dense or long texts, or deal well with contradictory information within a text. They can, however, find the phone number of an event organizer on a Web page or fill out simple forms or, at a lower level, can find in a short text an even shorter piece of information if that phrase or figure is given to them "as is" in the question.

In terms of numeracy, 56% of Quebecers and 55% of Canadians scored below 3. To qualify for level 3, a person has to be able to correctly answer a question of the type: here is a box unfolded in two-dimensional space, can you link the outline to the correct assembled box? 55% of Canadians could not do this.

The assessment also tackled problem-solving in technology-rich environments (e.g. the use of a computer), showing that 50% of Quebecers and 46% of Canadians were at or below level 1 (out of 3). This means people who can, for example, only either browse the Web (inferior to level 1) or sort emails into preexisting folders (level 1).

I can already hear my more lazily-minded readers (decried as "ageists" by the progressives) saying that these percentages must be much lower for the kids, since they grow up practically fused to technology. The assessment does not bear this out. Among Quebec's teenagers and young adults, 49% scored below 3 on literacy and 45% scored 1 or below in technology-related problem solving.

I want to let these numbers sink in.

If we round these numbers up or down a bit, they all gravitate around 50%.


Take a ride in the metro. Go to your grocery store. Sit down at the movie theatre. Half of the people there are functionally illiterate, innumerate, and technologically illiterate. (Granted, these sampling examples may be biased, but you hopefully get the point)

What about scientific literacy?

The CBC reported in August 2014 that "42 per cent of Canadians have a basic level of scientific literacy necessary to understand media reports about science, putting Canada first among 35 countries with similar available data" (a statement based on the report Science Culture: Where Canada Stands by the Canadian Council of Academies). This data point, 42%, is the result of your typical science trivia survey: does the sun go around the earth or the other way around? are electrons smaller than atoms? These bite-size factoids, as Dr. Steven Novella has argued, do not represent true scientific literacy.

A real understanding of science includes the knowledge that scientific facts are organized into theories and laws; that science is a process and not an outcome; that science uses logical methods like deductions, inductions, and inferences; that scientific conclusions are always tentative and that absolute certainty is anathema to science. 

The CBC article pats Canadians on the back for being #1 (I can almost see the American foam finger), but also quickly points out that "fewer than half of us would be able to read and understand a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery".

Turns out, half of us may not be able to understand a newspaper article about anything, much less one about the latest development in genetic engineering or the search for an elusive subatomic particle.

"Who are we reaching as science communicators?" is an important meta question we need to ask ourselves once in a while.

Think about this: half of the Canadian population could not read and understand this blog post even if they had it in front of them on a piece of paper, in their native language.

You are part of the other half.

Where does the first half get their health information? Hopefully from their doctor, if they have one, but probably also from secondary sources, like relatives and coworkers. Quite possibly television. And we all know how reliable health information is on television, and how rational and evidence-based our relatives and coworkers tend to be.

The Society for Science-Based Medicine's logo is Sisyphus, whom Greek god Zeus punished by forcing him to roll a massive boulder up a hill, only to have the rock magically roll back down before it reached the top, with poor Sisyphus repeating the chore for all of eternity.

Educating the public on science-based medicine is a Sisyphean task.

We may never reach half of the population.

You are part of the other half.


Photo by Alosh Bennett on flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

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