Apr 09 2010

Science Education and Literacy in the US

The National Science Board, which oversees the National Science Foundation, is tasked with assessing periodically scientific literacy in the US, which manifests as their biennial Science and Engineering Indicators. In the 2010 edition the NSB made the odd and controversial decision to omit the data regarding belief by Americans in evolution and the Big Bang. Hiding data is never a good idea. Science thrives on transparency – better to publish the data with an explanation than just sweep it under the rug. As usually happens, the data is now going to get far more attention than it otherwise would have.

Perhaps the NSB did this on purpose, to draw attention to the problem. They would have been exceptionally clever, but I doubt that’s what happened. It is much more likely to have been a bone-headed political move.

The stated reason for the omission is that the results reflect religious attitudes more than scientific knowledge. This is a reasonable inference from the data, but it is not clear how strong each factor is. Further, the NSB should have just released the data with that discussion – which they actually did quite nicely in that section of the report that was deleted. Here are parts of the deleted section.

In international comparisons, U.S. scores on two science knowledge questions are considerably lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have
been asked. Americans were less likely to answer “true” to the following scientific knowledge questions:

“Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”
“The universe began with a huge explosion.”

In the United States, 45% of GSS respondents answered true to the first question in 2008, similar to other years when the question was asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were higher: 78% in Japan, 70% in Europe, 69% in China, and 64% in South Korea. Russia and Turkey were the only countries where less than half of respondents responded correctly (44% and 27% respectively) (Gokhberg and Shuvalova, 2004; EC 2005). Similarly, Americans were less likely than survey respondents in South Korea and Japan to answer the big bang question correctly: one third of Americans answered this question correctly compared with 67% of South Korean and 63% of Japanese respondents (figure 7-11).

The 45% figure is not different than previous years. The report goes on to discuss, quite nicely, that the way survey questions are phrased greatly affect the outcome. If the question about evolution, for example, is prefaced with “according to the theory of evolution” – then more people will endorse it as true. This does suggest that more people understand at least the basic concept of evolution than believe in it.

The NSB explanation also does not make sense because this section is labeled “Public Attitudes and Understanding” – so why omit data on the premise that it reflects attitudes more than understanding? The report is about both – so publish the data and discuss the complex relationship between the two.

In fact, the very complexity they claim they are trying to avoid is exactly what they should be exploring. They should also endeavor to design a survey in the future that further fleshes out this relationship.

I also think it does a very superficial job of assessing understanding. Knowing that, according to evolution, species change over time is so basic that it does not really tell us much about the public understanding of evolution. How about asking about the evidence for evolution, how natural selection works as a mechanism, or how genetics reflects evolutionary history. Start with the basics, and then see how deep public understanding goes – at least scratch beneath the surface a little bit.

Rather – the federal organization dedicated to promoting science education in this country decided to sweep their most pressing issue under the rug. Fail!

To be fair, the NSF does much that is good. A recent editorial in Nature discusses the fact that most people learn most of their science outside the classroom – so-called informal science education. They also report:

The NSF, to its credit, is funding research into this area, and many others relating to informal learning. It should continue to do so. In the meantime, however, education authorities need to recognize the importance of informal science education and do more to promote it — if only as a way to motivate students in the classroom.

I think this is a huge issue that will only increase over time. You, dear reader, are engaging in informal science education when you read this blog or other science blogs. Science podcasts are also becoming increasingly popular. And science programming has long been a part of television programming. Popular science magazines are still huge, and most are learning to increase their presence on the web. This is all good.

It also reflects what I have long believed about science education – the most important thing to teach people is how to learn, how to assess and evaluate science information, and to instill them with a desire to do so – an appreciation for the power and beauty of science. The ultimate goal is to give people a sound theoretical grounding in science and a working fund of scientific knowledge. But this approach follows the proverb – give someone a fish and you feed them for a day, teach them how to fish and you feed them for life. So my approach has been to teach people how to fish.

And, in my opinion, that should be the primary goal of formal science education – to create life-long self-learners in science. As the Nature article points out, as adults many of the issues that are relevant to us now (genetically modified foods, stem cell research, global climate change) did not even exist or were minor issues when we were in school. We need to be preparing students today for the scientific controversies of tomorrow.

Further, our experience with attitudes toward evolution reflects the fact that if we don’t effectively deal with these issues today they will continue to be problems decades into the future.

I am glad to see that attention is being paid to this issue. Hopefully this snafu from the NSB will inadvertently draw more attention.

32 responses so far

32 thoughts on “Science Education and Literacy in the US”

  1. roma0104 says:

    What I don’t understand is why they did this. One of the more scientific administrations in quite sometime, so I doubt any real retribution from policy makers. If they are afraid of the creationists, that makes even less sense as most of them don’t give science any real value anyhow. Lastly, anyone in education or science knows the US lags way behind in teaching its population about anything science, so there is no need to hide that from the international community.

    I think it would be beneficial and maybe even constructive to let the world know, “Hey we still live in the Dark Ages.” and maybe then get some outside pressure, either politically (somehow) or mainly economically to do better in science. We have some of the brightest scientists still working in the US but I find lots of students around me, leaving to go to other nations to practice in their field. The US populace is unfortunately ignoring science and education at it peril with the result being a Dark Age of religion and economics.

  2. Kostas says:

    Its funny you mentioned that the assesing of peoples understanding is “superficial”.I think , as you later pointed out, that what you can do is barely scratch beneath the surface.Doing anything more than that is extremely difficult.

    I am a physicist and i recently had a conversation with some phd level friends of mine (biologists),generally bright people, about elementary newtonian mechanics.They didnt seem to understand even some of the most fundamental concepts.For example they didnt know that an object can move in a direction different than that of the force that is being applied to it and they interpreted the motion of objects that are being thrown as the effect of gravity and air friction (even in cases where friction doesnt make a difference).Not very different than what Aristotle used to think !
    The problem is that they were perfectly capable of answering other questions , the ones that are more likely to be asked.They knew that tides are caused by gravity but i bet if i forced them to explain how gravity could have anything to do with it they wouldnt be able to answer.

    I remember at the university my colleagues were perfectly capable of calculating quantities … without knowing what it was that they were calculating !

    My point is assessing understanding is extremely tricky.You can get the correct answers even when theres no understanding.There need to be many follow up questions and (important) they need to be tailored to each subject and they have to be leading somewhere and be targeted.Otherwise you re doing very little.Even a 5 year old could give you the correct answers to a few simple questions (even about quantum mechanics !)I suspect that even you guys on the SGU dont get many of the issues when you re talking about physics.Sometimes i get a smirk on my face when i hear you talking about physics.(I am gonna blow my brains out if you say decoherence once more !)

    I ve never read a serious discussion on this topic and i d appreciate if you help me find one (or maybe even start one)

  3. Assessing understanding is challenging – testers face this challenge all the time. It is especially difficult with yes/no questions. This is better for assessing “attitudes.”

    Incidentally – what is your issue with our use of “decoherence?” Seriously, before you commit suicide just give us some useful feedback. We want to learn.

  4. mschmidt says:

    I think a problem with science education lies in part to aspects of Kostas’ post. I think there is too much focus on specialized courses. I wish I had spent less time in ‘Physics’ courses (most of which I have forgotten because I was destined to not be a physicist) and more time in a ‘Logic and Everyday Reasoning’ which I spent no time in because it didn’t exist.

    The problem with Americans isn’t that they aren’t being taught evolution, as Dr. Novella pointed out that when questions were phrased ‘according to the theory of evolution’ people answered ‘true’ more than they did ‘false,’ but that they then have no way of applying it. As you said, it’s just memorizing answers to a test. But the way to stop this isn’t to go in depth into every subject. Most people just aren’t equipped for that. However, with a mandatory LER course, throughout elementary-high school, which teaches critical thinking skills that was tailored to students daily problems, I think we’d see a quick turn around.

  5. I think the whole approach to teaching science in school needs to be re-thought.

    I agree – more focus on critical thinking.

    There needs to be, in my opinion, basic level science courses to have at least a minimal fund of knowledge – ideas without facts are not of much use.

    And then more advanced courses for those who want or may be thinking of a career in science.

    Perhaps, for most students, spending more time on integrating basic science knowledge into everyday life, as you suggest, rather than advanced science. It could be more fun and engaging.

    Basically, school needs to be more like the SGU 🙂

  6. Kostas says:

    You d be surprised by how far you can go with yes/no type questions when it comes to teaching , not assessing understanding.Forcing people to answer them and having them confront their (wrong) answers i think is maybe the most important process in teaching.But i suppose you of all people already know that. At some point (somewhere , i dont remember where exactly) you mentioned that you were having a discussion with some of your colleagues and you realized that they were doing their classes they way they “felt like” instead of having some empirical data that this or that way is more efficient or somehow better.Did you ever look into that ?

    Also attitudes are very important but i am not as concerned about that (limited attention span be damned !)

    As for decoherence obviously the whole thing was meant as an asteism.My point was that decoherence , even though its generally a legitimate term its an extremely fine concept that means very little to non physicists.(maybe even some physicists) and its definitely not the only way to describe the situations where it is used in.Its not usually included in undergrad courses and books and you can do perfectly fine without ever using it or knowing about it(depending on what you do obviously).I for one am not entirely convinced of its usefulness as (as far as understand it) it makes sense in a certain interpretation of QM that is not exactly part of the theory as it is an interpretation of it.One other way of putting it is that when you use a phrase with these two words in it the vast majority of the information is included in those words and not the rest.If you dont know the properties of quantum decoherence its difficult to get any useful information out of it.It also makes no sense if you dont already know some QM.It just feels like this word is being thrown around because its cool and not because its the best word you could have used.Here i have to say that i understand that the podcast inst meant to teach people physics or any other science for that matter so i am not blaming anyone for anything obviously.Did i mention its my favorite podcast ? No ? My bad ! Keep up the good work !

    i have to admit that using “simpler” alternatives to decoherence like wave function collapse or something like that doesnt make much of a difference since it is also a complex concept and isnt useful if you dont already know a little QM.Its a difficult balance you have to strike between using “canned” terms and trying to convey the information in every day language within a limited amount of time.Well what can you do ? Nature is just really strange !

  7. superdave says:

    The most important thing is to encourage an atmosphere where intellectual pursuit is admired rather than admonished. This starts at home, but ultimately is the responsibility of everyone.

  8. Ash says:

    An excellent article (as usual). I agree that there need to be changes in the way science is taught, particularly at the introductory level, but there is usually a lot of resistance from governments and school boards to radically overhauling the curriculum. It’s going to require a lot of effort by a lot of people to get changes like this instituted.

    A couple of minor grammar quibbles: in the first paragraph you say “better to publish the data with an explanation, then just sweep it under the rug” which implies you should sweep the data under the rug after publishing it (presumably not what you were trying to say) – it should be “than”, not “then”. The opposite problem in the 1st paragraph after the quote – it should read “then more people will endorse it as true.”

  9. Kostas says:

    I am gonna offer another rant here but since i ve been lurking for so long i think i can get away with it.


    In principle i agree with both of you but as always the devil is in the details.Yes we need more critical thinking , yes we need more reasoning skills but what does it mean to be thinking critically ? Or be more logical (or reasonable?).We take the meaning of these words for granted which i think is a huge mistake.

    Lets try a thought experiment.I give you two teenagers or adults maybe of the same level of education and general knowledge.And you have to tell me which one of them is better at critical thinking.What exactly would you do ? Can you do something else than asking them questions ? Could you rate them somehow in a way different than just whether the answer was correct or not ? But isnt that exactly what school does ? Couple that with the fact that school isnt just for education but one of its primary (unstated) goals is to separate the wheat from the chaff as it were.Legalize the hierarchy and give a convincing reason as to why some people get to choose their job first and others pick one from whats left.This is an important societal function but in general noone likes to put it that way.From my studies it became clear that the professor wasnt so much interested in how much i understood but in whether or not i got the job done.Whether i did whatever it was that i had to do to get the answers right or not.They were looking for some sort or percevierence and determination rather than anything else.The questions themselves were a little bit of a ruse.Now clearly if you understand the underlying concepts you should get the answers right , right ? Well yes but by looking at other people i quickly realized than understanding them wasnt the easiest way to answer them so by doing that i couldnt keep up with the others who chose the “easy way out”.I believe that many students know this at some level.Maybe they re not aware of it but they know.It doesnt seem like you re gaining much by understanding but the benefits of getting the answers right are right there and they are pretty big.You cant have a process that has two clashing goals and expect it to achieve both.

    So how could you tell which one is “better” ? Its all pretty messy and if you re faced with a dilemma its very easy to say that the one who gets the answer right gets the prize.I find the way the modern school is structured to be very reasonable , given what its purpose is.

    You also have to entertain the possibility that the people who understand and “think critically” are not necessarily the ones who are more capable at getting stuff done.If so you d have to choose between the two and believe me thats an easy choice…

    But the thing is though that -in my opinion- people dont really have a problem thinking critically.I believe a big part of the problem is that they dont understand the underlying concepts and therefore have a warped view of those concepts in their mind.They make sense of everything , thinking critically inside their mind, and may times get the answers right , since their warped concepts correspond in a real way to the correct ones , but in the end they just dont get it because the building blocks of thought are defective. This applies to all of us , just to some more than others.

    In my previous post i talked about how people might use the word quantum decoherence without understanding it or conveying the information they wanted to.But why would i need to go that far ? From my discussion with my friends its pretty clear that they used the word force without understanding it ! (or inertia , or both !).They thought they did , they all used it when talking to each other and they thought they were talking about the same thing , but their mental representation of the concept was deeply flawed.Ultimately it couldnt explain anything they see around them and was therefore useless but they never knew until i asked them a few silly “obvious” questions.What good would critical thinking do if in their mind the word force meant something fundamentally different than what it should ?

    To conclude , because this rant is just getting ridiculous , I think what separates people who think critically from those who dont is the profound understanding of some basic concepts and the rest just follows.People who cant think critically are just (or almost) as good at it but because their understanding of those concepts is flawed they reach the wrong conclusions.School in part acts live a sieve that lets the ones who “understand” pass through its holes but because we dont appreciate the complexity of “understanding” a concept and the limitations of language in conveying that , coupled with the fact that this is not the only purpose of the school , its holes are just too big and it lets through people who have distorted ideas and who we perceive as not being able to think critically.What we have to do is make those holes smaller

  10. gmattheis says:


    This thread is awesome!

    that’s all.

    back to the armchair.

  11. Timmyson says:

    “Light a man a fire, and he’ll be warm for a day. Light a man on fire, and he’ll be warm for the rest of his life.”

    I think institutionalized education is critical as well. We can fit new knowledge into our worldview, but it is extremely tempting to fit facts to match the worldview, rather than the other way around. A society of self-educated thinkers has a natural tendency to build echo-chambers. A society of mindless drones is vulnerable to outside manipulation. Something in between, playing one off against the other, is required.

  12. Kostas – you make some legit points, but I think your approach is a bit narrow. I agree that basic concepts are critical, as is a certain fund of knowledge. I am really talking about just shifting a bit toward teaching more critical thinking and process – how does science work.

    I think I can pretty quickly assess who is a critical thinker and who isn’t. It would be tough with yes/no questions (but not impossible) and a lot easier if I can ask open ended questions. When I ask people – “why do you think that” or “how do we know that”, they will typically very quickly give an overall impression of their critical thinking skills.

    What is critical thinking? Understanding logic, how we know what we know, the pitfalls of human thought and memory, the concept of heuristics and how they constrain our thinking – all that good skeptical stuff. Thoughtfully questioning one’s own beliefs and conclusions. Focusing more on the validity of the process than the desired conclusion. And understanding something about the methods of science.

    One way to assess this is by presenting someone with a new claim or alleged fact, and having them dissect it. Or have them read two sides of a debate, and then determine which side is more credible or valid.

    Of course all this is more work than ticking yes/no boxes on a test.

  13. Kostas says:

    Point taken.

    It seems i had a different definition of critical thinking.To me its a combination of drawing the correct inferences from some data you re presented with , in a sense being able to create a coherent model that describes it, and being able to put this model in context with everything else you know.That is it shouldnt make any predictions that contradict other experiences or facts.And if it does , question the facts (or better , the model 😉 )

    What you re describing is what i would call skepticism or the skeptical toolbox as Sagan put it.Its something much more tangible and probably something that can be “taught” more directly.

    By that definition i certainly agree that we need more of that.Lots more ! But i am not entirely sure how that would solve the problem of understanding which i think is more profound

  14. stompsfrogs says:

    SMBC: begging to be linked to sites like this one.


    And I thought decoherence was a non-science word. Like, the opposite of coherence. Coherence and cohesion were pretty much synonymous in my head…and Honors Physics was less than a decade away for me… I would probably do poorly on any test you designed, Kostas. Then I would make a test all about punctuation and you would fail 🙂 And then I would make a test all about making helicopter parts and Steve would fail, then Steve could make a test all about the different parts of the brain and I could fail again… My brother took psych 101 or something and his professor was really big into neuroscience, which I thought was really cool. Only my brother, who is a smart kid, was missing the basic concept that your brain is made of meat. Steve and the SGU and shows like Science Friday and Radio Lab really helped me comprehend ideas like that. I had to help my brother and I never took any psych classes.

    I’m rambling, but my point is that Steve’s right. We need to rethink science education – More “big picture” stuff, less minutiae. Because most of us won’t become scientists, and we’re not going to retain a bunch of boring old facts. Only cool facts will be allowed.

  15. Kostas says:

    Thats funny , i just looked up critical thinking on wikipedia and it has an extremely lengthy definition.In it you can read the definition you gave or the one i gave if you re so inclined.

  16. Big Ugly Jim says:

    I was all set to reply here, but my reply became lengthy and I didn’t want to glom up the thread with my thoughts. Made it a blog post, so if anyone wants to read it it’s up at http://www.meddlingkids.org/2010/04/an-unexpected-rant-on-teaching/

    In short, great article Dr. Novella (as is hardly a surprise). As a former college instructor, it triggered a memory of a conversation I had with one of my old classes.

  17. Kostas says:


    I have to admit i didnt get much of your first paragraph other than the fact that SMBC can be pretty cool.

    But i dont think you got my point either (maybe its because of my horrible punctuation)

    Under my definition the more critically you think , the more facts become less and less relevant.What good would memorizing the first ionization potential of all elements do if you understand what it is and how it can be derived from simpler principles ? What good would it do to remember that objects dont necessarily move in the same direction as that of the net force thats being applied to them when you know that gravity is a radial force yet still the moon doesnt fall on the earth ? What good are all those facts if you cant put them in context ?

    What you call the big picture might be exactly what i call critical thinking.Logic by it itself cant describe any phenomenon but logic plus some basic concepts are enough , at least to the degree anyone can understand anything.We all have logic , but do we have the right concepts ?

    Thats the idea.Facts can be reduced to basic principles and relatively simple rules that govern them.If you dont have that , you cant have science.

  18. tmac57 says:

    Kostas came up with an interesting thought experiment of how to determine who is a better critical thinker between two individuals. This could be a fun party game. Here is a few that I dreamed up.
    1. Ask them if they believe something that is not true. (the answer should be yes).
    2. See if they can understand the answer to the Monty Hall problem…ever! (It’s statistically better to change doors)
    3. Give them a literally true statement presented in the form of a fallacious argument, and see if they can spot the fallacy (or a least sense something wrong with it).

  19. BillyJoe7 says:

    “Then I would make a test all about punctuation and you would fail :)”

    Yeah, what gives? Spaces before question marks. No spaces after periods. Spaces before exclamation marks. Lower case I. Spaces before commas.

    Sorry, forgive me, it’s just my pet hate: complete disregard for proper grammar!
    It’s bad enough that you Americans can’t spell!

  20. BillyJoe7 says:

    “2. See if they can understand the answer to the Monty Hall problem”

    See if they can state the Monty Hall problem correctly.

    (That is, without ending up having endless discussions about why the answer is wrong based on arguments about how the problem was stated incorrectly or ambiguously).

  21. sonic says:

    I would agree

    “the most important thing to teach people is how to learn, how to assess and evaluate science information, and to instill them with a desire to do so”

    Regarding the ‘big bang’


    “There are many misconceptions surrounding the Big Bang theory. For example, we tend to imagine a giant explosion. Experts however say that there was no explosion; there was (and continues to be) an expansion”

    So it would appear that the ‘correct’ answer to the statement, “The universe began with a huge explosion” would be false. (If one were interested in what most scientists think).

    Of course there are reasons to question the ‘big bang’


  22. RoboSapien says:

    The omitted data might be valuable for other purposes, but it could have an effect contrary to the objective of the study. As Steven suggested, I think the context of the question played a huge part in its exclusion. If the purpose of the survey is to assess attitudes and understanding, then I could see how making a clear distinction between the two would be important. Some questions are intended to determine attitude, others for understanding. If a question that is designed for understanding is found to be misrepresented due to religious bias, it could blur those lines of distinction.

  23. RoboSapien says:

    Sonic, I’d be wary of big-bang-theory.com as a source of information, I read through some other stuff of his, and it just reaks of creationist.

    His conclusion on Multiverse Theory: “Thus, the only rational option is that there exists only one universe and that God exquisitely designed the universe for the benefit of mankind.”

  24. BillyJoe7 says:

    His other link is not much better – alternative cosmology anyone!
    Hey, forget peer review, just print your own magazine!

  25. artfulD says:

    I suspect sonic’s purpose was to point out that the answer to the big bang question was “false” because the evidence that it’s “true” has become a matter of dispute. He could have picked some sites that better served his purpose, but it was a well intended effort nevertheless.

  26. BillyJoe7 says:

    It might have helped if he had actually read the links he was posting.

  27. sonic says:

    RoboSapien, BillyJoe7-

    Based on your responses I have no reason to conclude that any of the information on the websites I provided is incorrect. (Ad hominem is not informative).
    Do you have a factual disagreement with any of the information?
    Here is a reference that might suit you better–


    “The big bang model has been extremely successful at explaining known aspects of the universe and correctly predicting new observations. Nonetheless, there are certain problems with the model. There are several features of our current universe that seem to emerge as strange coincidences in big bang theory. Even worse, there are some predictions of the theory that are in contradiction with observation. These problems have motivated people to look for ways to extend or modify the theory without losing all of the successful predictions it has made. In 1980 a theory was developed that solved many of the problems plaguing the big bang model while leaving intact its basic structure. More specifically, this new theory modified our picture of what happened in the first fraction of a second of the universe’s expansion. This change in our view of that first fraction of a second has proven to have profound influences on our view of the universe and the big bang itself. This new theory is called inflation”

    Thanks artfulD.

  28. BillyJoe7 says:

    No one doubts that there are problems with the BB theory. It’s just the best there is. The model against which others must be judged. But to create an alternative cosmology and bypass the peer review process by publishing your own magazine, come on, get off the grass….

    And you have just thanked someone who suggested you could have chosen better references…that’s funny! 🙂

  29. bhengeveld says:

    Couldn’t read this nice blogpost without thinking constantly about:

    Kikas, E. (2003). University students’ conceptions of different physical phenomena. Journal of Adult Development, 10(3):139-150. http://dx.doi.org/10.1023/A:1023410212892

    I translated Kikas’ questions and did the test this at my school (I’m a Nursing student from the Netherlands). My subject didn’t fare all that well, but it was very cool to talk about it. I implemented in a sort of a lecture I did for my fellow student on science and pseudo-science (in a way: Rath vs. Gawande)

    Nevertheless I frowned a bit while reading the question ‘did the universe start with a big explosion’? I’m no cosmologist, but is speaking of an ‘explosion’ correct?
    Yes, space expanded very quickly at the beginning, but when I think of an explosion, I think of something that is – in the end – governed by what we see as ‘laws of physics’ (which is how we THINK nature behaves and have good reasons for doing so).

    But these ‘laws’ didn’t – as far as my knowledge is concerned – exist at the beginning of the universe, or at least: there was no ‘stuff’ that could explode. Doesn’t our understanding of the laws of physics completely collapse in that very brief moment at the beginning of the universe? So very rapid expansion- yes: ‘explosion’: no. If I’m not mistaken. If so, I guess I’ll be set straight quite quickly here. 😀

  30. ccbowers says:

    “So very rapid expansion- yes: ‘explosion’: no. If I’m not mistaken. If so, I guess I’ll be set straight quite quickly here.”

    The question of wording was not great from an accuracy perspective, but I think they chose the word ‘explosion’ because of the target audience. These questions are meant to be understood by the average person (and below average) and need to be worded in a way that does not go too deep.

    Sometimes in surveys being technically more accurate in wording may have the unintended consequence making the question more confusing for the person taking the survey. Most people can comprehend the idea of an explosion more than a rapid expansion so it may be a better way to word the question from that perspective.

    That is the problem with Steve’s comment about the superficiality of the questions. Before we can probe the depth of understanding, we have to first determine if there is even a superficial understanding first and to what degree. How can we probe the depth of something that people don’t understand superficially? I do agree that depth of understanding is also important, but this would appy to a smaller percentage of the population and I imagine that the data on that is even more dismal.

  31. zoe237 says:

    Have you heard of Bloom’s taxonomy? Different orders of thinking are knowledge, comprehension, analysis, application, synthesis, and evaluation. Teachers mostly focus on knowledge and comprehension because it’s a lot easier to lecture than to involve/create/discuss. The sad thing is that science teachers have been taught for 40 years, probably a lot longer, to use inquiry methods for education, but many, while well intentioned, end up burned out for various reasons. For example, standardized testing is designed to focus mostly on the first two levels of thinking, and that’s where the focus is.

    Scientific literacy is also demeaned by those who claim that only “experts” can have well informed opinions in any one field. I wonder how Dr. Novella would resolve the contradiction between general public scientific literacy and an ever narrowing, very specific technical track higher education system. Can an english major grasp the issues behind love canal, gmos, global warming, vaccines, evolution? Can a neurologist comment on global warming? Can a computer scientist have a well informed opinion on string theory? Can a physicist truly understand the biology behind evolution?

  32. Xulld says:

    So when we speak of matter expanding rapidly we call that an explosion, but when its space it must be called expansion?

    To me it seems like a useless distinction.

    I think this really goes to the heart of critical thinking, and in many respects scientists can often fall into word games, and semantic arguments without even realizing it.

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