Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Harris Poll: Americans Flunk Basic Science

Science Daily has an article on a poll conducted by Harris Interactive on behalf of the California Academy of Sciences found some startling things:
  • 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.
  • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water.*
  • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.
The results were based on a poll of 1002 adults in December of 2008. The story continues:
"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."
The amazing thing is that, with regard to the second bullet point, many Americans believe dinosaurs and humans walked the earth at the same time because they were taught that. Beyond that, how would you not know there were 365 days in a year???? Amazing. Hat tip to LGF.

4 comments:

  1. "There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education," said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington.

    If Dr. Farrington is serious, his statement smacks of hyperventilation; if he's not serious then it smacks of opportunism.

    There is such a thing as rational ignorance. Personally having the knowledge of the three facts above are utterly inconsequential to 99.9% of the world's population. Imagine conducting a poll in which you asked people the function of spark plugs, transmissions and radiators. The scores would be abysmal. But it would be erroneous to conclude that we were in for havoc on the highways until the populace was educated in basic auto mechanics.

    Now if they couldn't identify the function of the brake pedal, steering wheel and turn signal, then we'd be in for it!

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  2. AMW, I probably laughed for five minutes at your response. You are certainly correct about what exactly was tested. However, I think that what he is hyperventilating about is, on one level reasonable: that the poll results are suggestive of a pattern of the general lack of science education in the populace.

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  3. I think that what he is hyperventilating about is, on one level reasonable: that the poll results are suggestive of a pattern of the general lack of science education in the populace.

    Ah, I think the difference between disciplines is showing. As an economist, I am totally comfortable with people knowing very little outside of their very specific area of expertise. That's division of labor, and it's what allows people like you and Dr. Farrington to know so much about your respective disciplines.

    The body of knowledge necessary to the functioning of a complex society is absolutely vast. The only way to make use of it all is to divide and conquer, and this necessarily means people will be grossly ignorant in the majority of areas.

    That's the lense through which I see the world. So when I hear that the majority of people are ignorant about this or that, my response is usually twofold. First, who am I to scoff? What I don't know about the world would fill, well, the world. And second, so what? As long as somebody is an expert he can contract with the rest of us and we'll get along just fine.

    Interestingly enough, where that sort of thinking breaks down is when there is some sort of collective decision to be made, and everybody has a voice. Then the ignorance of one's peers matters greatly, and you end up with things like the LSEA and such. That's one more reason why I love markets and hate politics.

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  4. Your point is very good. I am also ignorant in many, many things and try not to overstep my bounds. You are also correct, however, about the school boards and legislators who overstep their bounds and meddle in science education. Collective decisions have to be made about what the best science is and how to teach it to the tiny tots. Having a dentist who is the leader of a state school board opine that he doesn't like evolution and thinks it ought not to be taught when he can't even spot evolution on a map is a serious problem. If he had received a better education in science, he might think twice before coming forth with his idiotic proposals.

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