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In the maw of the Ouroboros: an analysis of scientific literacy and democracy

Bang, Lars (2018) In the maw of the Ouroboros: an analysis of scientific literacy and democracy. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 13 (3). pp. 807-822. ISSN 1871-1502

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Abstract

This paper explores the concept of scientific literacy through its relation to democracy and citizenship. Scientific literacy has received international attention in the twenty-first century as demonstrated by the Programme for International Student Assessment survey of 2006. It is no longer just a concept but has become a stated and testable outcome in the science education research community. This paper problematizes the ‘marriage’ between scientific literacy and democracy, particularly the idea that scientific literacy is a presupposed necessity to proper citizenship and awareness of the role of science in modern society. A perusal of the science education literature can provide a history of scientific literacy, as it exists as a research category. Through Gilles Deleuze’s notion of the Dogmatic Image of Thought and its relation to a Spinozist understanding of individuation/Becoming, it is argued that scientific literacy is not a recent invention and is problematic in its relation to democracy. This article is thus intended to act more as vehicle to move, stimulate and dramatize thought and potentially reconceptualise scientific literacy, than a comprehensive historical analysis. The concept of scientific literacy has undergone specific transformations in the last two centuries and has been enacted in different manifestations throughout modernity. Here the analysis draws upon Deleuze’s reading of Michel Foucault and the notion of the Diagram related to Foucault’s oeuvre, and is specifically using Foucault’s notion of rationalities as actualized threads or clusters of discourse. The obvious link between science and democracy is an effect of specific rationalities within the epistemological field of science, rather than intrinsic, essential characteristics of science or scientific literacy. There is nothing intrinsic in its function for democracy. Through a case study of the work of Charles W. Eliot and Herbert Spencer and the modern enactment of scientific literacy in contemporary science education, this paper shows the cultural and historical contingencies on which the relation between scientific literacy and democracy has been constructed through a rationality this article calls the Man of Science. The mythical Ouroboros will be used as a Fresh Image of Thought to explore the movements and folds within the discursive formation of Scientific Literacy, the rationality of the Man of Science, and their relation to democracy.

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