Scientific Illiteracy

Posted on June 17, 2006  Comments (5)

Scientific Illiteracy and the Partisan Takeover of Biology by Liza Gross, Public Library of Science:

Since 1979, the proportion of scientifically literate adults has doubled—to a paltry 17%. The rest are not savvy enough to understand the science section of The New York Times or other science media pitched at a similar level. As disgracefully low as the rate of adult scientific literacy in the United States may be, Miller found even lower rates in Canada, Europe, and Japan—a result he attributes primarily to lower university enrollments.

While the 17% figure does not amaze me I am surprised that the scientific literacy has doubled since 1979.

A comparison of science education achievement: International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (TIMSS), Average science scale scores of eighth-grade students, by country (2003), top 13 shown below:

Country Average
Singapore 578
Taiwan 571
South Korea 558
Hong Kong 556
Estonia 552
Japan 552
Hungary 543
Netherlands 536
USA 527
Australia 527
Sweden 524
Slovenia 520
New Zealand 520
International Average 473
In 1988, just 26% of adults in a national survey knew that antibiotics do not kill both viruses and bacteria. By 2005, 54% knew that antibiotics kill only bacteria—an increase that Miller attributes to informal learning through a variety of sources.

Good news.

The era of nonpartisan science is gone, says Miller, who urges scientists and science educators to learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science.

I disagree that the era of nonpartisan science is gone. Extremist often gain an inordinate amount of media and political attention. But overall most people realise science is the driving force behind economic gains that they want to see continue. The challenge is making sure the fairly boring task of investing in basic research, basic science education encouraging engineering innovation, etc. don’t get overlooked as spicier topics get attention.

There really isn’t much question scientific and engineering breakthroughs will continue to provide huge economic benefit to humanity; the question is where those advances will be made. I believe the USA will continue to be home to many of those innovations however that global share will decrease as others, especially Asia, are responsible for an increasing share. I believe, increasing scientific literacy of the country (for the USA or any others) will lead to that country increasing their share of global scientific and engineering advances and gain that country economic benefits.

5 Responses to “Scientific Illiteracy”

  1. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Blog Archive » Primary Science Education in China and the USA
    July 19th, 2006 @ 8:23 pm

    […] Some things are not that complicated. If you choose not to put in the work to study and learn you are less likely to be equally prepared. The USA can make excuses for poor performance compared to other countries or can decide that we don’t really want to try and be as successful (say aim for about 40th place among counties for level of primary science education). It seems to me the more honest assessment right now is we don’t want to put in the effort that other countries do. That is a choice that seems to have been made, and while I think it is a mistake, that doesn’t mean the USA can’t still make it – I know that might surprise you that an option I disagree with might be chosen […]

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    February 23rd, 2008 @ 7:13 pm

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    March 19th, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    According to the national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences: only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun; only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time…

  4. Curious Cat Science and Engineering Blog » Poor Results on Evolution and Big Bang Questions Omitted From NSF Report
    April 10th, 2010 @ 8:44 am

    […] USA continues to lag far behind the rest of the world in this basic science understanding. Similar to how we lag in other science and mathematical education. Nearly Half of Adults in the […]

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