Paul Adair is a 21-year Germantown resident, retired scientist, writer, and lecturer.
We frequently see the results of polls on American scientific literacy. One recent poll by the National Science Foundation (NSF), asked American adults a series of ten true/false questions about very basic physical and biological science concepts. The results were somewhat disappointing.
Americans' best scores were on the questions: The center of the earth is very hot. (T, 85% correct), and:The continents have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (T, 83%). Our worst scores were on the questions: Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (F, 47%), Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (T, 48%), and The universe began with a big explosion. (T, 39%). Several of our worst scores came from questions in which scientific facts conflict with the Genesis creation story.
Another poll was reported last April by Pew Research. You can take this 13 question multiple choice test on-line to see how you compare. The best scores were on the questions: Sunscreen protects from what radiation? (ultraviolet, 83%, (years of Coppertone ads have sunk-in)), and What is the main function of red blood cells? (carry oxygen, 78%). The poorest scores were on: Electrons are smaller than atoms, T/F. (T, 47%), and: What gas makes up most of the atmosphere? (nitrogen, 20%).
We often hear about how poor US education is compared to the rest of the world. That did not seem to be the case in the NSF poll. Americans had similar scores to Western Europeans and Koreans, while our scores were significantly better than Russian, Chinese, and Japanese adults.
And our students are not exactly slackers, either. In recent tests on scientific literacy conducted by the Program for International Student Assessment, American kids rank in the middle vs students from other developed countries. So if we want to improve on our clearly low knowledge of basic science, we are competing against ourselves rather than playing catch-up with other countries.
What difference does it make whether someone is scientifically literate? In many cases it doesn't matter a bit. If a person thinks that astrology is real, the earth is flat, or that the universe is 6,000 years old, it doesn't greatly affect how they function in society. They can still be productive in many fields while carrying those misconceptions. The only people that they are affecting are themselves and often, their children.
However, we keep hearing about how there are many jobs that go unfilled because of the lack of STEM skills in applicants. Certainly, a more scientifically-skilled work force can help create and keep more high-paying design and manufacturing jobs in America.
And possessing a basic understanding of science and technology is one facet of being a better-educated and well-rounded human being. Just as an appreciation for art, music, and literature enhances our lives, so can a scientific knowledge of the wonders of the universe. As Carl Sagan wrote in Cosmos, "Other things being equal, it is better to be smart than to be stupid."
Not everyone needs to be a scientist any more than they need to be a farmer, accountant, lawyer, or chef. But having a basic grounding in science allows voters to make intelligent decisions on science-related issues. And that same grounding keeps people from falling for quacks and charlatans who would exploit scientific ignorance. We don't want Americans to be like the blank-eyed masses in the movie Idiocracy, who kept repeating the product mantra, "It's got electrolytes !"
However, there are some cases in which lack of knowledge of, or even antipathy to science can affect the rest of society. For example, people who are unconvinced of the reality of global warming are less likely to make the lifestyle changes that can cumulatively lessen its effects. And there are those who, despite all proof to the contrary, think that vaccines can cause autism. Refusal of people to get their children vaccinated has resulted in recent measles outbreaks in many US cities.
And when people with scientific misconceptions gain positions of power, the results can be even more troubling. For example, state Boards of Education in Kansas and Texas, and local school boards in Pennsylvania and Ohio have attempted to foist religion, masquerading as the pseudo-science of "Intelligent Design", on public schools. Fortunately, most of these attempts have been rebuffed.
Even at the national level, scientific illiteracy is rampant in politicians. Many who do not understand science have somehow entrenched themselves in positions of power. The House Science, Space, & Technology Committee is loaded with those who deny conclusions based on the scientific method. Committee Chair Lamar Smith (R-TX) is a career climate change denier. And committee member Paul Broun (R-GA) recently stated “All that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and the Big Bang Theory, all that is lies straight from the pit of Hell."
But It isn't just Southern legislators who are scientifically illiterate. Last week, our own Ron "Senator Sunspot" Johnson was schooled by climate scientist Dr. James Hansen during Senate hearings. Still, Johnson had to get the last word in, erroneously insisting that "the science is far from settled."
Recent polls have shown that public knowledge of some areas of basic science are low. We should examine ways to improve scientific literacy in our country. We should at the very least expect our political leaders to be scientifically literate in those areas in which they are developing public policy. To an increasing degree, that seems to not be the case.