Mar 17 2009

Scientific Literacy in the US

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Yet another poll shows how distressingly illiterate the average American is when it comes to science. Harris Interactive conducted a telephone survey for the California Academy of Sciences. The full results are not yet available (at least I could not find them anywhere), but here are some highlights in the press release:

Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.
Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

That is pretty horrific, but in line with prior surveys.

I discuss science education occasionally on this blog. There is a strong consensus that the US is doing a poor job of science education, but not as much of one when it comes to what would be an effective solution. These surveys make me feel, however, that my discussions of how to get from mediocre to high quality science education may be largely irrelevant, because we’re not even up to mediocre yet.

For example, I recently discussed the difference between depth of science education vs breadth, and concluded that we need a thoughtful blend of both. I am not sure how relevant this is, however, to people who do not even know that it takes a year for the earth to go around the sun – who could not even pick “1 year” out of a multiple choice.

The “teaching facts vs teaching theories” discussion also frequently comes up among those who wish to optimize science education. Again, I feel a thoughtful combination of both is optimal, but what about people who have learned neither.

What surveys such as this suggest is that we need to fix some basic problems with education itself, not just science education specifically. I am not suggesting that we do not also simultaneously take steps to improve science education at the high end. These are complementary goals – we need to increase the basic level of scientific literacy in society, as well as produce more science nerds to fill high-end jobs and research positions.

Interestingly, there is a disconnect between the public’s respect for science and their understanding of it. According to the survey:

About 4 in 5 adults think science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%).

What this says to me is that people want the benefits of science, but many think that science is something that other (more nerdy) people do.  But they don’t have to make any effort to understand themselves even the most basic knowledge of the natural world. These are the Sherri Shepherds of the world.

Also, a metaquestion raised by this survey is how good these surveys are themselves. What do they really tell us? If anything they overestimate scientific literacy because they are multiple choice – so some of the percentage correct were due to lucky guessing. Also, they don’t really test scientific understanding, just random bits of scientific trivia. There probably is some correlation between knowing basic science facts and being interested in and understanding science, but these are not the same thing.

I would like to see a survey that asks more probing questions about how science is supposed to work. For example, how many people know what a double-blind study is, or could answer why double-blinding is important in clinical trials?  What percentage of the US could give a cogent definition of science?

These surveys don’t tell us what percentage of the population has a working scientific knowledge – where they can use logic, knowledge of the process of science, and a fund of basic factual knowledge to think clearly and critically about new scientific claims.  Shouldn’t that be at least one goal of science education?

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