American Adults Science Grade: D
The state of the nation’s knowledge regarding some basic scientific facts is not good. As reported by the Los Angeles Times earlier today:
The public opinion and research organization quizzed a representative sample of U.S. adults on geology, physics and astronomy, among other topics. Out of 12 questions, the test-takers answered 7.9 correctly, on average. That’s a score of 66%.
These findings come from Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults. The survey of 3,278 adults (including 2,923 adults online and 355 respondents by mail) was conducted Aug. 11-Sept. 3, 2014.
Not surprisingly, formal education seems to be the primary factor in determining a person’s success in understanding science. Folks who had earned some type of graduate degree scored an average of 9.5. Those who didn’t make it past high school averaged only 6.8 correct answers. Race also seemed to be a significant factor. Those who identified themselves as “Caucasians” scored 8.9, while those who identified themselves as “African Americans” scored only 5.9.
For the skeptic in all of us, perhaps the most cringe-worthy question had to do with people confusing astronomy and astrology:
More than one in five (22%) of those taking the test said astronomy was “the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behavior.” The answer they should have given was astrology.
Because astronomy was essentially born from the practice of astrology, it is possible to see how some people could be confused between the two … that is, assuming they know about the history of both astrology and astronomy. As Carl Sagan reminded us in the original Cosmos series, Johannes Keppler, the father of modern astronomy was in fact “the first astrophysicist and the last scientific astrologer”. But that was about 400 years ago, and arguably, the “statute of limitations” should have run out on this one by now.
There are many ways to try and measure the scientific literacy of a population, and polls like this one are one possible way to do so. It is by no means THE definitive representation. For those who have been paying attention to how literate people are in the sciences, it does correlate with other observations, and when looking at the big picture, it does reinforce the idea that Americans have more work to do when it comes to learning about science. The pattern is consistent with Pew Research’s 2013 report, and the National Science Board’s Science and Engineering Indicators on this topic.
One thing we can be sure of is that where there is an absence of science understanding, people will often appeal to pseudosciences to help fill the void.