The Challenge of Scientific Illiteracy

Galileo must be rolling over in his grave.

So many of the problems* facing modern civilization require a basic of scientific understanding in order to assess alternative policy (read that as “taxes”) options. Far too many Americans lack the foundation to make an informed choice, were they to be inclined to actually research a technical or scientific issue.

Here’s why we need to worry. Seriously.

  • From 1997:
    “Researchers have concluded that fewer than one-fifth of Americans meet a minimal standard of civic scientific literacy.” 
  • From 2001 (NSF chart):
    1-in-2 Americans agreed with the statement: “The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs”. Only 40% of the Europeans surveyed got this wrong. That’s not a resounding vote for Europe.
  • From 2001 (NSF summary): 
    “[T]he number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995.” 
  • From Aug 2005:
    “[S]cientific literacy has doubled over the past two decades, only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are ‘scientifically savvy and alert’ … Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.”
  • From 2008 (NSF, Chart 7-11):
    3-in-10 Americans think the sun revolves around the earth.  
  • From Aug 2009:
    “[F]ederal funding of physics and related sciences has fallen by nearly half since the 1980s, U.S. schools trail in math and science versus Japan, England, South Korea and others.”
  • From March 2009:
    “Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.”
  • From Mar 2010:
    “[T]he share [of Japanese] who knew antibiotics won’t kill viruses doubled in 2001 – to 20 percent of adults.” The problem is bigger than the U.S.
  • From Feb 2010:
    “30 percent [of the Texans surveyed] agree with the statement, ‘Humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time’.” 
  • From Aug 2010 (seed):
    “New research shows three in 10 Australians believe dinosaurs and man did exist at the same time. The survey, by the Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies, shows a ‘worrying’ lack of basic scientific principles.”

I have no idea how to “fix” this problem — but it is a problem and appears relatively intractable especially when the facts run counter to that of religious leaders. (This might explain the dinosaur issue but I truly don’t understand how that many people don’t understand that the earth revolves around the sun. Help?)

* Oh, you know, climate change, our dependence on a non-renewable resource (oil) as a major energy driver, pollution, recycling laws and initiatives (which is what prompted me to test my search skills), making decisions about a health care system. Stuff like that. Don’t get me started on economic illiteracy.

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