Americans & Science: Good News and Bad News

The good news: US adults do believe that scientific research and education are important. About 4 in 5 adults think science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the US. health care system (86%), America's global reputation (79%), and the economy (77%). The bad news: most Americans think it is up to someone else to actually do the science. What's worse is that a new national survey, commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences, says that the American public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test.

“There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education,” said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington. “Many of the most pressing issues of our time—from global climate change to resource management and disease—can only be addressed with the help of science.”

If you want to try answering some of the questions asked in the survey here is a sample:

  • How long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun?
  • Roughly what percentage of the Earth's surface that is covered with water?
  • True or false, early humans and dinosaurs roamed the Earth together?

More questions are available on the CAS web site. The survey was conducted by telephone within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the California Academy of Sciences between December 17 and December 21, 2008 among 1,002 adults over the age of 18. The survey found that knowledge about some key scientific issues is very low. For example, despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues in coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet's water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn't even hazard a guess.

People are starting to realize that innovation and industry depend on scientific innovation and engineering skills. No amount of “stimulus” spending is going to transform a sea of ignorance into a booming economic recovery. We touched on this in the first chapter of The Resilient Earth.

If we are befuddled by everyday technology, imagine the confusion surrounding modern science... Most people struggle with science during their basic schooling and gladly abandon it to others upon graduating. For a while, this approach seemed to work: what did accountants, businessmen and lawyers need to know about science? But science has infiltrated every aspect of human existence. More and more, business means science and technology. As a result, judges and lawyers are faced with increasingly complex cases rooted in technology. Major criminal cases are decided by DNA evidence, and fingerprints seem so old-fashioned. Governments struggle to keep pace with scientific development, wrestling with the rights of frozen embryos, human cloning, genetically engineered crops, network neutrality and email spam. Science and technology cannot be avoided or ignored—our world is built on them.

One of the main reasons we wrote TRE was to try and focus the public's mind on scientific topics, subjects that have an immediate impact on the world we live in. Questions about climate change and renewable energy are constantly on the evening news but few people know the details of the science behind the stories. Instead we place our trust in the news media, who are at least as scientifically ignorant as the general populace, perhaps more so.

In December of 2008, CNN, the Cable News Network, announced that it would cut its entire science, technology, and environment news staff, including Miles O'Brian its chief technology and environment correspondent. The move was passed off as part of a reorganization to consolidate science and environmental reporting functions, unrelated to the current economic downturn. “It’s disheartening,” said Christy George, who is president of the Society of Environmental Journalists. “There is going to be a lot to cover in science, technology, and environment,” George pointed out, “and it’s not going to be enough to just cover the politics of it to keep people informed.”

CNN is not the only television network that has been slashing science jobs. According to The Washington Post, “NBC Universal made the first of potentially several rounds of staffing cuts at The Weather Channel, axing the entire staff of the 'Forecast Earth' environmental program during the middle of NBC’s ‘Green Week,’ as well as several on-camera meteorologists.” Gannett has eliminated roughly 1,800 jobs at newspapers around the country last year, though it’s unclear which beats were most affected. Aviation Week and Space Technology magazine recently closed its bureau in Cape Canaveral, Florida, where NASA launches its rockets and shuttles. Keith Cowing, who runs, says that he is simply shocked “that at a time when science and technology should be on everybody’s lips, this expertise is suddenly not in demand.”

Stanford scientist and climate-specialist Stephen Schneider has criticized media organizations for the quality of reporting on climate change and other scientific issues. “Business managers of media organizations,” he said, “you are screwing up your responsibility by firing science and environment reporters who are frankly the only ones competent to do this."

"Science is not politics. You can't just get two opposing viewpoints and think you've done due diligence. You've got to cover the multiple views and the relative credibility of each view," said Schneider. I couldn't agree more, but news outlets would rather cover car chases, Hollywood personalities and scandal ridden, spin doctoring politicians. As Richard Dawkins once complained: “Science journalism is too important to be left to journalists.”

If science just doesn't draw an audience, how can we get more science in front of the public? Scientists publish papers all of the time but is seems only other scientists are reading them. According to a study that was presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in the fall of 2005: “During the target years of 1990-1992 and 1998-2000 there were over 5,300 accredited scientific journals in print. However, in those same years, less than 0.0005% of the papers published in those journals gained any attention from mainstream news media and mainstream audiences.” I would wager that things have not improved over the past decade.

Illustration: Michael Witte

Perhaps we could get celebrities to push science, or famous retired politicians? All I can say to that idea is look how well Al Gore has worked out. He has freighted a generation of children with visions of an ecological Armageddon, coerced governments around the world to waste billions of dollars on poorly done research, and enraged many serious scientists with his pseudo-scientific climate catastrophism. Add a dash of Hollywood activism from the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Nicole Richie and Mary-Kate Olsen for the true air-head view on science. Aren't these crusading celebrities helping to make the world a greener place? A 2006 UCLA study found that the TV and film business is one of the Los Angeles area's top producers of air pollutants and carbon emissions, mostly due to transportation. Tom Cruise's annual fuel bill is reportedly $1 million. As Mother Jones put it: “green guilt has no place in Hollywood beyond stroking celebrity egos.”

Perhaps the answer lies closer to home, perhaps we should point the finger of blame at ourselves. In an age when fewer American students are finishing bachelor’s degrees in science, technology, engineering, or mathematics maybe we should try telling our children that these subjects are important. Instead of paying rapt attention to sports stars, music videos and Oprah's book of the month (at least Oprah's listeners know how to read) let's find some time to celebrate the lives of scientists. Let's insist that the science portrayed on TV and in the movies carry a seal of authenticity or, better yet, a parental warning—how about BS18: the science portrayed in this feature is crap, no one under the age of 18 admitted without adult supervision.

The answers to the questions above?

  • It takes one year for Earth to complete its orbit around the Sun. Only 53% of adults answered correctly.
  • Only 59% of adults knew that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • How much of Earth's surface is covered in water? The correct answer is 70% but anything between 65% and 75% was acceptable. Only 47% of adults answered within that range.

In all, only 21% of the participants answered these three questions correctly. Some would say that this isn't really an accurate test of the public's scientific acumen since it primarily asks the participants to recall facts from memory. Science is much more complicated than memorizing a lot facts and figures. This is a fair observation, but it does not weaken the central point of the survey—Americans are woefully ignorant of all things scientific. Do you want to be smarter when it comes to science? Then buy The Resilient Earth and read about the wonders of nature as seen through the eyes of science.