Posted: January 15, 2008

America's poor scientific literacy

(Nanowerk News) Don’t worry about that sound. It’s just the ghost of C.P. Snow lamenting the persistent gulf between what he long ago labeled the two cultures — science and the rest of learning. The latest survey results have just come out on what laymen know about science, and the picture, mainly concerning Americans, is not pretty. But on the bright side, though most of us know relatively little about it, we generally like it.
The survey results are in a big report, >"Science and Engineering Indicators 2008," issued biennially by the National Science Board, the policy-making body of the U.S. National Science Foundation, which bankrolls university research outside of the medical sciences. The report states that some of the data “are subject to numerous sources of error and should be treated with caution” — rare candor in the survey business. With that understood, we can take a swing through the findings:
“Many Americans,” the report concludes, “are unfamiliar with emerging technologies and research topics, and many have significant misconceptions about them.” Specifically, 54 percent reported they have heard “nothing at all” about nanotechnology — perhaps the hottest and most heavily financed field in the physical sciences today. Sixty percent “believe they have not eaten genetically modified food, although in fact processed foods commonly contain genetically modified ingredients.” Thirty-five percent said they were “not clear at all” about the difference between reproductive and therapeutic cloning.
On the timely topic of teaching evolution, the report summarizes a number of findings by observing that “many Americans are receptive to including nonscientific values in science classrooms,” adding that “more Americans approved than disapproved of instruction about three explanations of the origins of life (evolution, intelligent design, and creationism) in public school science classes. However, many were unsure.”
The expressions of limited knowledge were accompanied by favorable attitudes toward the scientific enterprise and its leaders. In 2006, the report states, “87 percent of Americans expressed support for government funding of basic research, up from levels of around 80 percent in past surveys dating back to 1979.” Those who said Washington spends too little on research rose from 34 to 41 percent between 2002 and 2006. And while public confidence in leaders of major institutions has been slumping for years, confidence in the chieftains of science remains high and consistent, second only to confidence in military leaders.
To what extent are Americans interested in science? Over three-quarters of respondents reported “a lot” or “some” interest in new scientific discoveries. But in rankings of news topics “followed very closely” by the American public, science ranked behind weather, crime, religion, sports, health, and local, Washington, and international affairs. “As with many news topics,” the report observes, “the percentage of Americans who follow S&T news closely has declined over the past 10 years, but S&T’s decline has been more pronounced.”
Are we worse off than other nations? Not so, apparently, despite many warnings that the U.S. is perilously behind other nations in scientific literacy. Bad as we may be, the report concludes that “levels of factual knowledge of science in the United States are comparable with those in Europe and appear to be better than those in Japan, China, or Russia.”
If ignorance elsewhere provides solace for our plight, there it is.
Source: The Chronicle Review (Dan Greenberg)