Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Scientific Literacy (or Illiteracy) in the United States

Are Americans good or bad at science? Are we scientifically literate (or illiterate)? Just yesterday, a new study conducted by the University of Michigan revealed that only 43% of respondents knew that we live in the Milky Way galaxy, which is a rather frightening finding considering that I remember being taught this information in early grade school.

Needless to say, this is not the first study about scientific literacy in the United States and will surely not be the last. Digging around for more examples of easy science questions that adults get wrong, I came across a study from the National Science Foundation, which has, as far as I can find, the most examples of questions and beliefs regarding science in the United States. Go here for the full report, continue here for the nuts and bolts.

Needless to say, the results of this survey were quite interesting. Below is the summary of the findings with question, answer, and approximate percentage (my estimate by looking at the chart) of people who got it right.

How long does it take Earth to go around the Sun? (a year) 55%
Does the Earth go around the Sun? (yes) 75%
Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling. (no) 65%
Early humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time. (no) 50%
Humans evolved from earlier species. (yes) 50%
Continental drift is is happening and will continue. (yes) 80%
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (no, bacteria only) 50%
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (yes) 50%
Lasers focus sound waves. (no) 45%
A father's gene determines a baby's gender. (yes) 65%
Oxygen comes from plants. (yes) 90%
Radioactivity is purely man-made. (no) 75%
Earth's center is hot. (yes) 80%

Another interesting survey conducted by the NSF dealt wit the belief in pseudoscience. The troubling finding here: except for demonic possession, belief in every area grew in every area from 1990 to 2001. So, here we go here, the various pseudosciences and approximate percentages of the population who believe in them.

Psychic healing: 55%
ESP: 50%
Hauntings: 45%
Demonic possession: 40%
Ghosts: 40%
Telepathy: 35%
Alien visitation: 35
Clairvoyance: 30%
Communicating with the dead: 30%
Astrology: 30%
Witches: 25%
Reincarnation: 25%
Channeling: 15%

By looking at the statistics, for me, anyway, one thing is clear: in America, science and pseudoscience are not really exclusive to each other with the general public. For the most part, at least 2/3 of the population (not good, but not great) got most of the science questions right (those dealing with human history and evolution being not so surprising exceptions), yet a strong belief in things that have no scientific basis whatsoever remains (at least half the population believes in psychic healing and ESP) and appears to be growing. Weird.

Anyway, these types of studies, at least for the scientifically-minded, bring up some interesting points to ponder. For some fun, why not quiz your family and friends with the science questions above and see how they do?


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