Mar 17 2009

Scientific Literacy in the US

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Comments: 31

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.Β  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?Β  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.Β  Shouldn’t that be at least one goal of science education?

31 responses so far

31 thoughts on “Scientific Literacy in the US”

  1. John Conway says:

    I am always very wary of surveys like this. I suspect a lot of people get tripped up by the deceptive simplicity of the questions. “Earth round the the sun, a year obviously…. no wait maybe it’s more complex than I thought and that’s why they’re asking… a day… maybe, oh dear…”.

    I would be more interested in method questions. Double-blind trials are an interesting one. Very few people seem to know what they are, even in a vague sense.

  2. CrookedTimber says:

    It occurs to me that one deficiency (of many) in my own science education (or education in general) was the piecemeal manner in which it was taught. It seems we generally moved on to new topics and left previous topics behind with no synthesis of ideas. Since the average person only retains a certain percentage of what was learned, the loss quickly builds up. I believe it would be greatly beneficial to periodically revisit previously learned concepts and to tie them together with newly covered material. I also believe there is too much emphasis on rote learning instead of understanding underlying concepts.

  3. delaneypa says:

    Thanks for the post. I used to get somewhat disconcerted about such reports about the abysmal state of scientific literacy in the US. However, many American are illiterate in general, about many topics, not just science. We routinely hear reports about how few people can identify the US on a world map, how few can do simple math, know that there are three branches in the US government, or can name the mayor of their town.

    Scientific illiteracy makes me somewhat disconcerted…..put it in context above and I am VERY disconcerted!

  4. Watcher says:

    D, I think what you’re saying and what Steve is saying boil down to one thing: The anti-intellectual society that has been propagated and magnified through the past 3-4 generations. People are more worried about watching something, or buying something, or doing something and not stopping to think, “Wow, the trees are budding again … how cool is that!” (or something along those lines :D)

    But, as you said, it doesn’t end there. Mayoral names, government makeup, etc all get lost in the process of consuming. It’s sad, imagine what our country would be like if instead of 1-2% had PhD’s, 5% did. What if 50% of people who graduated college went back for a master’s?

  5. Benjamin Lobato says:

    I consider myself to be a scientifically literate person, as would probably anyone else who reads this blog, but I still missed a question on that survey. I guessed that 75% of the earth’s surface is covered in water, but the real answer is about 70%. I think I made a fairly informed and accurate guess, but with the way that this survey is set up, I’m as wrong as those who answered 1% or 99%.

    That 47% of those asked couldn’t accurately answer how long it takes for the earth to move around the sun, makes me more suspicious that their is something wrong with the survey than anything else. I realize that people like us get enjoyment from marveling at how stupid the general public is, but I think we would be better served by being skeptical about the conclusions of this survey.

  6. superdave says:

    What I glean from this is that not only do we have to improve basic education in this country, but we need to do a better job of teaching people why basic education is important. I would guess that you would get similar responses to questions in any area of study.

  7. Paul says:

    I really want to meet some of these people. It seems like most adults I know are capable of answering these.

    I hope…

  8. weing says:

    What I find reassuring is that in today’s WSJ there is an article saying that only a quarter of college students in Turkey accept Darwin’s theory and the rest believe in creationism as championed by their own ignoramus called Harun Yahya. So there is still hope that the rest of the world will not overtake us in science and technology, but it sure is cutting it awfully close.

  9. artfulD says:

    Regarding the earth’s surface in water question, the approximately correct answer range for this question was defined as anything between 65% and 75%.
    So if you thought an answer of 75% would have been wrong, you would have been wrong.

  10. Scepticon says:

    I think you should be looking on the bright side with these statistics, in the sense that at least you know them. Even if the surveys are deeply flawed there is an attempt to look at this question and once you have the beginnings of an answer to it you can think about solutions.

    While I live in outside the US (in NZ) and it is sometimes amusing (as well as disturbing) to see these statistics come out, I can find nothing similar for my own country so I don’t even know how bad (or good) it is where I live.

    So I applaud you guys in at least asking the question, even if you don’t like the answer.

  11. Watcher says:


    And according to the study methodology, you would have been correct.

    This survey was conducted by telephone within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the California Academy of Science between December 17 and December 21, 2008 among 1,002 adults ages 18+.

    * The approximately correct answer range for this question was defined as anything between 65% and 75%. Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%.

    Taken from

    And, to be honest, we’re taught that, “Nearly 3/4(sometimes 2/3) of the earth’s surface is covered in water …”

    Yes, they’re being alarmist to a point, but this just backs up everything else out there stating that as a populace, we’re in the scientific crapper. πŸ™‚

  12. Watcher says:

    Oh, sorry ArtfulD, didn’t see that you addressed this already πŸ˜€

  13. artfulD says:

    One source says: “About five percent of Earth’s water is frozen solid and exists as glaciers covering about ten percent of the land surface.”

    This source also says: “Seventy-five percent of Earth’s surface is covered by oceans (and most of the water is salty).”

    This would or could mean that if you consider ice as water, then water may cover as much as 85% of earth’s surface.

    So in the end Ben could be right that there is indeed something wrong with the survey.

    I don’t want to say any of this is true to a certainty, however.
    That wouldn’t be scientific.

  14. HHC says:

    I have read studies that indicate that the average U.S. college student forgets 80% of what they have studied within a decade of graduation. So it doesn’t matter how many you think you’ve educated, the facts show that the information provided is not relevant to be retained for daily living and used for economic success.

  15. HHC says:

    Scepticon, I enjoy learning about New Zealand’s scientific finds on cable television. I think your land amphibians are cute, especially the frogs that carry their offspring on their backs.

  16. Watcher says:

    You mean IN their backs right … Where’s that “sick” emote … πŸ™‚

    Mostly just kidding, evolution yields some pretty bizarre reproductive pathways though.

  17. HHC says:

    Watcher, Male Archey’s frogs carry their offspring on their backs.
    I would not expect you to understand these frogs reproductive ways;they don’t go through the tadpole stage.

  18. bachfiend says:

    ArtfulID, 10% of 25% is 2.5%, so if the oceans cover 75%, land covers 25%, and glaciers cover 10% of land, then water would come to a total of 77.5% (not up to 85%). Just simple arithmetic (I expect I have made a mistake somewhere here, to leave egg on my face).

  19. catgirl says:

    The results of this survey are a little suspicious. Unfortunately, the link in your post does not work for me, so I don’t know what the survey was like. It seems like at least the first question was multiple choice, and I’m curious what the other choices were besides 1 year.

    I’m also surprised that the second question was the one that most people got correct, since there is a religious reason why some people (young Earth creationists) would get that answer wrong. In a small percentage of cases, it could be a question about religious beliefs rather than scientific knowledge if some people know the correct answer but just don’t believe it.

    From previous posts, it seems that the third question was not multiple choice, and for question in particular it is difficult to decide where the cut-off point is for a correct answer. I thought that water covers 60-70% of the Earth’s surface, so if I had gone with the lower end of the range, I would have been wrong. I am curious how many people answered from 60-64%.

  20. HHC says:

    Re:Science Based Medicine article posted

    Medicine may require a connection to science and evidence, but culture does not. Hence the issues with acupuncture will not go away in American culture since its relatively recent acceptance. Chinese detente, if you will.

  21. Watcher says:

    Really. I thought there was a frog that carried them under their skin in pockets. Maybe I’m thinking of a different one? Anyways, still interesting.

    Although I’m not sure why I wouldn’t be expected to know since they don’t go through a larval stage πŸ˜› πŸ™‚

  22. Scepticon says:

    HHC, I do occasionally consider myself lucky to live in a country with some unique wildlife, the rest of the time it’s just home.

    Watcher, HHC is correct here’s a link with video:

    They are kind of cute.

    I think you are thinking of the Bromeliad Frog, which carries eggs and tadpoles onder aflap of skin on the back. So not too gross, they don’t burrow in or anything.

  23. Watcher says:

    I think you are thinking of the Bromeliad Frog, which carries eggs and tadpoles onder aflap of skin on the back. So not too gross, they don’t burrow in or anything.

    Gotcha, that could be it. Only thing I know right now is that my Herp professor would be quite sad with me right now πŸ˜€

  24. badrescher says:

    This study was conducted in 2001 as well. Although the same 47% could not answer what I thought was a no-brainer, ground was gained, especially on the question of man & dinosaurs sharing time (only 42% knew they had not in 2001; 59% in the 2008 survey).

    The academy does not seem to think that’s important (or, perhaps they think that a comparison would reduce its impact).

    I find the change encouraging.

  25. HHC says:

    Scepticon, Delightful video with terrific broadband reception! Thank you.

  26. Watcher says:

    Ah found it πŸ™‚ Pipa pipa.

    The videos not for the faint of heart πŸ˜€ A little late night insomnia put to good use.

  27. Scepticon says:

    Thanks Watcher, that was awesome!

  28. Dacks says:

    The summer after graduating from a seven sisters college I was visiting with some college friends and ended the evening by demonstrating with a tennis ball and a flashlight how the seasons were determined by the tilt of the earth’s axis. A few years later another college friend made the conversation stopping remark “I used to think water only flowed downhill.” Not much to say to that.

    Moral of this story: ignorance of basic science is more widespread than one might think.

  29. nwtk2007 says:

    As a teacher of science for some twenty odd years, I can tell you, you have no idea.

  30. Hi Steven,
    I contacted the California Academy and got them to send me the questions. I posted them and some comments at my blog:

    It looks to be more designed to promote the museum by creating a pseudo-controversy than a legitimate attempt to gauge the state of science literacy.

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