That Science Survey is More Complicated Than You Think… and it Has Some Good News

The Web has been abuzz with the results of the National Science Foundation’s latest Science and Engineering Indicators report. In particular, people are freaking out over the “Public Knowledge about S&T [Science and Technology]” section that goes over the results of a survey that looks at the Americans’ knowledge of science and technology as well as their perceptions on scientific and technological issues. One of the most popular headlines points out that 26% of American think the Sun goes around the Earth. And that’s… bad. There’s not a really good defense of that.  (Though consider that America had a school dropout rate of over 10% through the 90s to the early 2000s, so that probably explains  a good hunk of that.)

It’s also pointed out that less than half of respondents knew that human beings evolved from earlier animals.  But if the question is rephrased to say “according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” (emphasis added), 72 percent of respondents answer true. Rephrasing also greatly changes the nature of responses to the Big Bang question. Only 39% answer true to “the universe began with a huge explosion” , but 60% say true to the statement “according to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion.” (It’s also worth pointing out that astronomers really wouldn’t call the Big Bang an explosion if they’re being technical.) So yeah, I don’t get why people don’t want to “believe” the science, but I’d give them credit for being familiar with the scientific theory.

I’m also surprised that there isn’t much criticism of the questions being asked. Science education reformers nearly always complain that current science education is too focused on memorization and not being able to apply the scientific process. But nearly all these questions are basically checking to see if a person knows the relevant fact to answer the question. I think the questions are fine, though, as I think they do reflect science literacy. And I tend to think science literacy is more important to the average person.

The other thing most people don’t mention is the comparison between Americans’ performance on the test and that of people in other countries (China, the EU, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, and South Korea) doing similar surveys. The EU average actually was even worse than the US on the heliocentrism question (only 66% knew the Earth went around the Sun). The US had the most correct responses to the question about whether all radioactivity is man-made (the correct answer is false). And we were the only country where a majority of respondents knew that electrons were smaller than atoms and that antibiotics cannot kill viruses. As a random, but interesting, aside, Japan was the worst of the rich countries in understanding that the father’s gene determines the sex of a baby and it makes me wonder if the “eating lots of meat while pregnant means you’ll have a boy” myth referenced in some anime really is super common in Japan.

Finally, there is some good news. Even if American’s don’t ace the science literacy questions, they do care about science. Over 70% of Americans say the benefits of scientific research outweigh the harms, and about another 20% say the harms and benefits are about equal. Only Canada, Denmark, Finland, and Norway had more people than the US disagree with the statement that “modern science does more harm than good”. Over 80% of Americans think the federal government should fund basic scientific research, and a third of Americans thought we need to increase science funding. The scientific community is nearly as trusted as the military, just shy of 90% confidence by members of the public. Nearly 90% of Americans think scientists and engineers work for the good of humanity and most disagree with the idea that scientists and engineers are odd or have narrow interests. So even if they might not have the best understanding of science and technology right now, I’m hopeful about Americans in the future. But the narrow reporting on this survey may not help.

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