The NSF’s Science and Engineering Indicators report came out not too long ago, and the bulk of it is, as usual, spent on quasi-quantitative measures of scientific productivity– numbers of degrees granted, numbers of patent applications for various countries, etc. I find all of those things pretty deeply flawed, so I tend to skip past them and go straight to the stuff about public knowledge and understanding (chapter 7, available as a PDF at the link above).
This doesn’t get much press, probably because the results are depressing. They’ve asked a bunch of factual knowledge questions of people every so often for going on thirty years now, and the results are essentially the same year in and year out. There are two questions in particular that I like to look at, and because I am a shameless traffic whore, I’ll reproduce them here so we can see whether people who read science blogs are smarter than the general public:
These are both true/false questions of a factual nature, so there are no silly options added. I also tend to think that they’re pretty obvious. But what do the survey results show?
Here’s a clip from the results graph in the report, comparing various countries:
The type is a little small, but the graph on the upper left shows the percentage of people in various countries who correctly answer the true-false question “Lasers work by focussing sound waves” and the graph on the lower right is the percentage correctly answering the true-false question “Electrons are smaller than atoms.”
49% of Americans correctly answered the laser question, and 53% of Americans correctly answered the electron question. That’s roughly what you would expect if people tossed a coin to determine the answer.
And here’s the depressing thing: we lead the world in correct responses to those questions. The Europeans are close (and might actually edge us out, though we’d be blowing them away if not for the huge gender split on the laser question– only 34% of women got that right. Come on, women, you’re letting down the side!). I have no idea what the hell they’re doing in Japan, China, and South Korea, where 30% or less of the population got these right.
These aren’t hard questions, these aren’t questions whose answers offend moneyed interests, these aren’t questions with any religious component. Oil companies aren’t running slick ad campaigns to confuse the issue of whether lasers use light or sound, and preachers are not pushing Large Electron Theory on their congregations. And still, a coin toss would beat most of the world’s citizens in answering these.
This is, to put it bluntly, pretty pathetic. And it’s been consistent over decades. The table showing the time series in this report doesn’t go back past 2001, but I’ve seen earlier versions that went back to 1988 or 1982, and the results are the same.
On the bright side, of course, the results haven’t gotten any worse, despite well-funded and politically connected attempts to weaken science education across the board. That’s pretty small comfort, though.
The fundamental problem here, in my opinion, is that we live in a society where it is considered perfectly ok to not know anything at all about scientific issues. People ought to be embarrassed not to know the answers to these questions, and yet around half of the population feel fine exposing themselves as idiots when asked a survey question. (I would never be able to collect data for this, because I don’t think I’d be able to hide my contempt.) This isn’t limited to one end of the political spectrum– I’ve heard leftist college professors say mind-bogglingly silly things about science– or one side of the science and religion conflict. Across the board, people know next to nothing about science, and are perfectly content with the fact.
The usual response to this complaint is “These are really just trivia questions. What matters is the process, not the facts.” I disagree that these are insignificant trivia– the idea that electrons orbit the nucleus of atoms is pretty central to modern physics and chemistry– but this year’s report included a bunch of new questions about the scientific process. The results are in Table 7-6 and 7-7, and aren’t really any better than the factual knowledge questions. It’ll take several years of these questions (and, ideally, asking them of international populations) to see if this provides any hope, but the initial results are not too encouraging. (40% of US students think watering crops with seawater would be a good idea. If you want proof that we’re no longer an agricultural society, that’s it…)