Assessing American’s Science Knowledge

ByLee Dye

July 26, 2000 -- So here we are, zipping down the Information Superhighway, vastly expanding our knowledge of the wondrous world of science.

But guess what the National Science Foundation has found? We don’t seem to know a whole lot more now than we did back in the horse and buggy days. The Internet was supposed to have changed that through cheap and rapid exposure to all things science, but it turns out that fewer than one out of six Americans can even define the Internet in their own words.

Knowledge Slightly Up

It isn’t a case of lack of interest. The foundation’s most recent survey of public interest and understanding of science found that nine out of 10 Americans are interested in science, but only 17 percent think they are well informed.

“Most Americans know a little, but not a lot, about science and technology,” according to the report, Science & Engineering Indicators 2000.

That’s not to say there hasn’t been any improvement at all. Five years ago, only 11 percent of Americans could define the Internet. Now, that’s up to 16 percent. Today, a few more people are able to tell you what a molecule is, and the number of people who think they understand DNA is up slightly, probably thanks to O.J. Simpson.

The report, released last month, has brought forth the usual hand-wringing by scientists, educators, and the media, mostly blaming each other for the dismal understanding the public seems to have of basic scientific issues. Underlying the concern is the fact that if the unwashed masses don’t understand science and technology, the country is not going to produce the workforce it needs to fuel the economic machine that drives U.S. prosperity.

That’s a legitimate concern, and according to the report most people understand that technological and scientific prowess is what keeps the U.S. ahead of the global pack.

Similarly, a recent Gallup poll commissioned by the Bayer Corp. found that Americans are huge science buffs. The poll found that nearly all Americans (93 percent) believe it is important for the U.S. to maintain its current global leadership in science and technology. The same percentage recognizes that science contributed to the economic success this country enjoyed in the last century.

But if people are basically interested in science, and recognize its value for everything from the quality of life to economic prosperity, why do we seem so dumb about it all?

The More You Know...

At the risk of incurring the wrath of the dozens of very learned people who conducted the study for the NSF, I think it’s very difficult to measure public understanding of science, and it may be that the process itself was partly flawed. Participants were asked to “self assess” their knowledge of science, and it shouldn’t be surprising that nearly everybody thinks they don’t know a lot about something as broad and complex as science.

In fact, it could be argued that believing that you don’t know much is a sign of progress. It’s easy to think you know a lot about something you know nothing about. Once you get your toe wet in the wellspring of knowledge, however, the first thing you learn is how little you really understand.

So maybe more people are getting their toes wet these days, and realizing just how little they really understand.

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 A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.

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