The Sad State of Science...

The government recently released its 2006 Science & Engineering Indicators (SE). You can download the entire v2 as a PDF (2.7 MB). The SE serve many functions, but I wanted to highlight, in particular, its assessment of science literacy in America (and other countries), and consider its impact on our culture. The tables of interest are in chapter 7, "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding". They are available as Excel files (.xls) and PDF files:
  • 7-10 (PDF) "Correct answers to specific science literacy questions, by country/region: Most recent year"
  • 7-11 (PDF) "Correct answers to scientific terms and concept questions: Selected years, 1995–2004"
  • 7-12 (PDF) "Correct answers to science literacy questions, by respondent characteristic: 2004"
  • 7-13 (PDF) "Public understanding of nature of scientific inquiry, by respondent characteristic: 2004"
I haven't yet had time to review the data extensively, but suffice it to say, 2004 (most recent year) was the worst year since 1995 for general scientific literacy, across most categories, if not all. I am not surprised.

Can we ever expect a scientifically-illiterate society to acknowledge rationalism, humanism, and atheism as valuable worldviews/positions? What hope do atheists have for expecting religious dogma and superstition to diminish, and reason and freethought to catch on, in a society where a large majority of the population has no grasp on basic scientific principles and methods, to substantiate a naturalistic outlook? If people have no scientific basis to give them answers to some of the basic questions of natural history and philosophy, should we expect them to have anything other than faith? Here are some numbers to consider, reported as the % answered correctly (2006 SE, Table 7-10):
  1. The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 78
  2. All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 73
  3. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) 62
  4. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 42
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 45
  6. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 54
  7. The universe began with a huge explosion. (True) 35
  8. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True) 77
  9. Human beings are developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 44
  10. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around the Sun) 71
Now, compare these numbers to the 2002 SE report:
  1. 70% of American adults do not understand the scientific process;
  2. Double digit percentage gains in belief of haunted houses, ghosts, communication with the dead, and witches in the past decade;
  3. U.S. depends heavily on foreign born scientists at all degree levels, as high as 45% in engineering;
  4. Belief in pseudoscience is relatively widespread and growing;
  5. 60% believe some people posses psychic powers or extrasensory perception (ESP);
  6. 30% believe some reported objects in the sky are really space vehicles from other civilizations;
  7. 30% read astrology charts at least occasionally in the newspaper;
  8. 46% did not know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun (1 year);
  9. 45% thought lasers work by focusing sound waves (they focus light);
  10. 49% believe antibiotics kill viruses (they kill bacteria);
  11. 66% don't believe the Big Bang theory widely accepted by scientists;
  12. 48% believe humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs;
  13. 47% don't believe in evolution which is widely accepted by scientists;
  14. 55% couldn't define DNA;
  15. 78% couldn't define a molecule; (particularly sad to me, a chemist)
  16. 32% believe in 'Lucky Numbers'.
So there's always plenty of superstition to fill in people's heads when knowledge and reason are absent. I don't see religion going away anytime soon, so long as general scientific illiteracy abounds and pervades.


Bruce said...

I've always thought that in addition to teaching the hard sciences, every student ought to be required to take a class in critical thinking skills.

Also, I think every child (and many adults) should read Dawkins letter to his daughter (Good and Bad Reasons for Believing) in the last chapter of his book A Devil's Chaplain.

It may be easy to write off these results, after all "What harm does it do if someone doesn't understand continental drift?" Well, if they haven't learned about continental drift, there is a good chance they don't know the earth is over 4 billion years old, and if they don't know that then there is a good chance they don't understand the Big Bang and the evolution of our Universe and life on this planet.

And if they don't know these basic scientific facts, then they are all the more vulnerable to the influence of superstitious thinking.

And seriously, 30% of Americans don't know that the earth revolves around the sun? I can at least understand why people refuse to acknowledge evolution, but I think they've at least heard of it and have some very rudimentary concept of what it is. But where are they learning something other than the earth revolves around the sun? Is it possible to go through life without ever being exposed to the fact that the earth revolves around the sun? Apparently.

P.S. To be honest, I had forgotten that it was the father's gene that determined sex, so I would have had a 50/50 on that one. But I did know that it is genes that control such things!

Anonymous said...

Prof James Strauss has documented that whenever there is a crisis in the dominant metaphysical belief system of a western culture then people will gravitate towards the occult, and all kinds of superstitious beliefs looking for answers. We are in such a crisis now. The antidote is a better understanding of science, but we are too busy Amusing Ourselves To Death according to Neil Postman.

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