Assessing American’s Science Knowledge

Unfortunately, there’s a little problem with that. In addition to the self-assessment, the participants in the study were asked 20 questions to test their basic knowledge of science. More than 70 percent knew oxygen comes from plants, light travels faster than sound and humans were not around during the age of the dinosaurs. But only 11 percent could define radiation, and only 13 percent could describe a molecule, and those figures have remained fairly consistent in recent years.

There’s a section in the massive report that suggests the root of the problem is much deeper than an ignorance of certain terms.

The report cites numerous studies that show many Americans still insist on believing in pseudosciences like astrology, alien abductions, and parapsychology. That persistent trend is consistent with a fundamental finding in the study.

“Only 21 percent of those surveyed were able to explain what it means to study something scientifically, just over half understood probability, and only a third knew how an experiment is conducted,” the foundation reported.

Asking the Right Questions

What that tells us is that if people don’t understand basic scientific inquiry, they are less likely to ask the right questions about matters that have little or no scientific substance. That leaves them more vulnerable to even preposterous claims that fade quickly when the evidence is examined in a scientific manner.

Science isn’t a bunch of experiments. It’s a cognitive process through which tentative conclusions are reached on the basis of valid evidence.

It’s hard to find someone who is steeped in science and still falls prey to the charlatans of pseudoscience. You won’t find a single reputable astronomer who believes in astrology.

But what’s the harm in it all? Simply this: In the years ahead, voters will be asked about some extremely complex issues ranging from genetics to cloning. Without a solid foundation in science, many will make the wrong decisions.

So there’s good reason for a little hand wringing.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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