47% of Americans need to be launched into a heliocentric orbit

By Phil Plait | March 13, 2009 8:16 pm

Sigh. I should be surprised by stuff like this, but the most damning thing about it is that I’m not surprised.

Only 53% of adult Americans know it takes the Earth a year to go around the Sun. The reason it’s not surprising to me is that that’s how many Americans couldn’t ask Oprah or Dr. Phil about it first.

This is the result of a survey done by the California Academy of Sciences. The other results aren’t a whole lot more encouraging. What slays me is that the vast majority of Americans think that science is important to their lives:

Despite this lack of knowledge, U.S. 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 U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%).

I guess that’s a start; at least people know it’s important. The thing is, they don’t act like it! Just knowing science is critical hardly matters if people don’t a) understand it, and b) vote about it.

And it’s not like this is new. I have a book called Worlds Apart (available as a free PDF from The First Amendment Center, and well worth reading if you’re as concerned about this as I am), loaded with studies that have pretty much the same results as this recent survey, except this book came out more than ten years ago. Nothing has changed, really, and I suspect nothing will for a long time. The system is broken, we’re not teaching our kids good science, and how to fix it is a mystery. I think a lot of what we’re doing is right — science is exciting, and a lot of outreach does a good job of showing that — but somewhere in our educational system the ball is being dropped. People have devoted their careers to studying this, and I wonder how much closer we are to a solution.

I honestly don’t know. I don’t mean to be bleak or anything here, but I know there are no quick solutions. But I’m not even sure we have a slow one. Obama has talked about overhauling the educational system, but I’ll believe that when I see it. The last overhaul — No Child Left Behind — is an unmitigated disaster, which was no surprise to those of us in the education field when it passed. I’d love to see that torn down first, but what to build in its place?

I wonder if there are people out there with the right ideas, something that we can implement to mitigate this. I suppose that’s a rhetorical question, but with surveys like this showing we’re not getting any better, it’s an increasingly important one.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Antiscience, Piece of mind, Science
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Comments (109)

  1. I read this on Fark earlier today. The worst part is it was a multiple choice question. It isn’t as if people were saying “366 days” or something.

    Their choices were a week, a year, a month, a day.

    The link in my name leads to an appropriate picture.

  2. Michelle

    The only way to fix it is to break the silliness of creationists, woowoo lovers and such superstitions. Unfortunately, when such things are rooted into your teachers, it’s hard to do.

    What we need are strong, unbending people in charge who will perhaps will themselves to weed out these useless, prehistoric (or 6000-years-ago-garden-of-eden-old by their standards) teachers from the public schools and slap them kids with the FACTS OF REALITY. And hopefully, hopefully, things will improve.

  3. @Michelle – while some teachers are guilty of teaching bad science, the bigger problem is in the home – kids go to school and get taught one thing, and then when they get home, they get taught something else by parents and/or by church.

  4. Max Fagin

    If I suggest that school vouchers might be the way to solve this problem, would I be shouted down?

  5. I’m reasonably sure they’re teaching heliocentrism in the schools. The problem seems to be that people pick up these facts in school and then promptly forget them again because they don’t consider them “important” in their daily lives. It’s the same reason people forget calculus, history, geography, etc once they graduate. Short of mandatory refresher courses to keep diplomas valid, there is no easy fix.

  6. Every child should spend at least a semester learning about all the “science” in their everyday lives…and then spend a week or so without any of it.

    I’m not just talking about cell phones, and ipods, and gameboys. I’m talking clean water, reliable power, fresh food, blended fabric clothing, zit medication, and on and on.

    In the sixth grade, every kid in my school had to go on a “conservation camp-out” (this was the 60s) where we learned about the environment and nature. Apart from being fun (saran wrap on the toilet bowls…woo hoo!), we actually learned a lot outside the safe, boring, classroom.

    I suggest something as dramatic for kids today. Hell, for their parents, too. One week without science. If that doesn’t knock some sense into them, then they’re too damned ignorant to bother with.

  7. Oh, and I forgot to say, “You kids get off my lawn!”

  8. The other two questions weren’t any better. Something like 57% knew that the earth’s surface is somewhere between 65-75% water, and somewhere around 59% answered that humans and dinosaurs cohabited the earth in the past. 21% of those asked got all three right. Pretty sad.

  9. Well, about “Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.” and “The approximately correct answer range for this question was defined as anything between 65% and 75%. Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%” I can’t help to wonder how many knew the really correct answer, which is 71%.

  10. Fizzle

    Is there a link to the study itself?

  11. Jesso

    This is exactly why I want to teach science. I want to show kids that science is AWESOME and hopefully do at least a little something to help “fix” statistics like these.

  12. Sundance

    Okay, firstly, what should the goal of science education be? To fill student’s heads with facts? Or to teach them to apply the scientific method?

    Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Being realistic, people probably can live perfectly fulfilling lives without knowing how the Solar System works (an ex-girlfriend-of-mine’s father actually believed, for most of his life, that the seasons changed because the Earth stopped in its orbit every six months and started going around the Sun in the opposite direction! That never stopped him from getting a job, marrying, buying a house, and raising a couple of kids). So maybe we shouldn’t get too upset if people don’t know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

    Of course people should know basic facts about the Universe, but what I think we should be more concerned about is the lack of understanding about how we (humans) figured out what we know. Without a solid understanding of that, people are likely to give just as much credence to superstitious mumbo-jumbo like water dowsing as they are to science, because it sounds no less ludicrous than saying, for example, that the atoms in your body were formed in an exploding star billions of years ago. Science education in school doesn’t teach people how to sort good information from bad. That’s one of the fundamental skills of a good scientist (Are there systematic errors in my data? Did I get this information from a reliable source?) Instead, it tends to be taught as just another body of “received wisdom”.

    I think there should be much more time given to theorising and model-building, trying to explain anything the students happen to be curious about. Get them to form their own theories, discuss them in class, invent their own experiments to test them, and critique each other’s experimental designs to find systematic errors. Then show them how real experiments are performed, so they can see the differences and similarities to what they were doing. Give them more confidence in their own abilities to sort sense from nonsense. Maybe teach science from a more historical perspective, so they can start from real-world observations that early scientists would have made, and that the students can also make. I once taught an optics course to undergrads that began with the ancient Greeks, and the question “Do we see because of something that comes out of our eyes and touches the objects around us, or something that comes into our eyes?” and ran through a series of straightforward observations and deductions that the students could all reproduce themselves (e.g. If vision worked because of something emitted from our eyes, we could see in darkened rooms. You can’t see around corners, the same way that you can hear around corners, so light must be particles, not waves. Wait a minute, you can form diffraction effects with light, so it must have some wavelike properties, etc.) and that seemed to be highly successful. And make thinking like a scientist seem more like a useful life skill. I suspect that a lot of people don’t know basic scientific facts because they’ve always been given the impression that science is hard, and they’re too dumb to understand it, so they give up on trying to find stuff out before they even begin.

  13. Andrew

    No one wants to fix the education system because it would be too expensive.

    Year round school. In my area high school has been reduced to 162 days a year. Less than 1 in 2 days is now spent in class with ridiculously long Summer and winter breaks. Is there any real surprise that in other countries where they go upwards of 200 days a year we are getting our asses kicked?

    Less students per classroom.

    Merit pay.

    Max Fagin mentioned vouchers. My only problem with vouchers is I do not like my tax money going to religious institutions. I have no problem with charter schools and people shopping around for alternative secular choices. I do not think the religious segregation and indoctrination is doing anyone any favors in places like Great Briton. If I remember correctly, it went pretty badly in Canada as well.

  14. kuhnigget and Sundance make some good points.

    We should be teaching understanding, not memorization. Who cares if the surface of earth is 70% or 71% covered with water. This is memorization. This has nothing to do with understanding. We need to teach them to figure things out for themselves. We need to be able to teach them to put what they learn into their own words.

    Multiple choice tests are only there to make it easy for the teacher. They do little to evaluate the understanding of the students. Multiple choice tests are also a big part of No Child Left Behind.

    We need to teach students to teach themselves. We need to teach students to be able to look at a statement, to figure out the likely sources of further information, to gather information, determine if it makes sense, and to be able to explain what is accurate about the statement, what is inaccurate, and what is unknown on the topic.

    How many schools do that?

  15. Amanda

    As a teacher, I agree that science education tends to be centered around rote memorization of trivia. While it seems like a basic fact that it takes a year for the earth to orbit the sun, it is memorization. It’s getting students to understand how discoveries like that are made that matters more.

    My students have been taught that being able to rattle off facts is better than actually struggling with a problem to try to solve it. They don’t want to put in the work. They treat all experiments as if I know all the answers and they’re just going through the motions because I’m making them. (I teach from a district-supplied kit… because science is tested, now, they have to be able to answer multiple choice questions. Multiple choice questions don’t really lend themselves to figuring things out or making new discoveries.

    A while back we had about three weeks between science kits when I could teach whatever I wanted. Third graders here learn about plants, so we did an experiment about plants. I let them choose something, and I wasn’t sure what the results would be. They loved it. They could tell I genuinely didn’t know what was going to happen, and were excited to test things. Collecting data was a bit monotonous, but they never seemed bored overall.

    Now we’re covering the science kit and they’re bored out of their minds, again. There are “experiments”, but they’re all predictable and observation-based (plant these seeds and watch what happens). That’s not an experiment – that’s like watching grass grow – literally! They need something to figure out and something to do!

    It’s my first year, so I’m still learning the curriculum. Next year I’ll deviate more from the kit (use the materials but not the lesson plans), and see if I have more success when it’s less about memorization and more about asking questions and discovering things.

    Science should not be boring.

  16. Other everyday science: food preservation, sewage treatment, heat and electricity piped to your home, why an egg solidifies when you cook it, etc. etc.

    OT astronomy note: Phil, did you know about these galaxy images from the raw SDSS data? “Images of selected RC3 galaxies

  17. LukeL

    This is the same reason why people cannot name the countries involved in WWII (even in England and Germany), don’t know the difference between the Constitution and Declaration of Independence etc. etc.

    We have gotten away from real learning and have this idea of self esteem in which no matter how little you know you are still the best person in the world and just as smart as anyone else. We need to stop this kind of crap and teach the basics and not be afraid to fail kids and hold them back a grade if they don’t know the subject matter.

    This has nothing to do with creationism or anything like that, it has to do with western cultural in general which puts greater importance on what Britney Spears is wearing to the Grammys vs what type of research will be going on during the next shuttle mission.

    Karl Marx had this idea that you make entertainment and sports the most important things in a person’s life so they don’t know what is going on in the real world and what their government is doing.

    Teachers could also make science more fun, I would have loved to see one of my science teachers throw a chunk of sodium into a beaker of water, or make hot ice, or take a chunk of gallium and melt it in their hand. But instead we read from a boring book.

  18. Big Al

    Our schools could be doing a better job of teaching many subjects, not just science, but it wouldn’t solve the problem. IMHO, the root of the problem is much closer to home. The “parents” don’t care, and they pass their clueless attitudes along to their offspring. The best schools in the world can’t remedy the problems caused by amoral, clueless dolts reproducing with abandon. Kids are taught by example that all choices in life are equally valid, there is no right and wrong. If you’re a loser in life, it’s because “the man” is keeping you down. There are no consequences for bad behavior… I could rant on and on, but then, I had to walk to school every day, uphill (both ways), etc, through the snow. I know, I’m just an old codger that doesn’t appreciate that we have to protect the darlings’ tender egos and puff up their self images, or whatever load of carp they’re spouting these days. End of rant. I feel better now.

  19. I think we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that even though facts are not getting memorized any easier, we are technically more adept as a nation than ten years ago. I bet if the question “where would go to find out how long it takes the earth to go around the sun” most would answer Google or Wikipedia.

    We may not be better at rote memorization, but we’re a hell of a lot better at knowing how to find information.

  20. Sarah

    Teachers k-12 do not typically practice their craft; science teachers don’t work in a lab, math teachers are not going to symposiums or working on their own theorems… how can we expect our children to discover a love or wonder of science (and all that it encompasses), when the adults surrounding them do not themselves have a fascination with the world around them?

  21. jay who?

    not surprised.

    science is no longer part of our culture any more and we rank “south” in math

    we reap the benefits but most of us are puzzled by everyday things.

    i guess this is how civilizations end, right?

  22. Rob

    I remember my jaw dropping when my old roomate couldn’t tell me how many stars were in our solar system. This is a staggering level of ignorance though, if accurate.

  23. @ Amanda:

    You go, girl! I (heart) good, motivated teachers! I wish I could get you more pay.

    @ Big Al:

    Darn straight parents have dropped the ball. Who me? Raise my kids? That’s not my job!
    Oh, and you kids stay off Big Al’s lawn, too!

    @ Shane P. B.:

    What good is finding information if you don’t have the ability to recognize good information from bad? It’s on the internet! It must be true! Or, how to take disparate bits of information and put them together into a coherent whole? I have to write my own paper? Why? When there are so many already done for me!

    Did I mention kids, lawns, getting off mine?

  24. Tyler Forster

    Dear Michelle,

    You appear to speak of creationists in strictly emotional terms. Saying that “The only way to fix it is to break the silliness of creationists”, is merely a subjective view, and has no scientifc merrit. I’m sorry if some creationist have hurt you in the past or whatever created for your resentment, but there is no room for personal feelings when it comes to the scientific realm of objective truths. I totally agree that we need “strong, unbending people” in the education system, but what they should be rooted in, is exactly what you said; facts of reality. The young earth theory is just as much as a theory as is the theory for that of an old earth. I am not arguing for one or the other, when it comes to the age of the earth. My only arguement comes in when dealing with how life came to be. I could write an extended essay on this issue and all those concerning the scienctic confirmations of the Christian faith, but I’ll leave that to the experts (I recommend “I don’t have enough faith to be an athiest”-by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek). I am only hear to say that scientists who believe in our creation, and that all that is created, was for a purpose, are not crazy loonies who managed to escape the asylum. They are dedicated scientists, some in the top of their field, and take joy in finding how compatible the belief in Christianity is with true science and logic. When you look at their work with discernment, you will find that their science backs up their belief, and they do not pick and choose facts that fit their religious presumptions.
    I hope this has made you think a little bit deeper, and perhaps made you question what you ultimately believe. I’ll tell you one thing. I would definitely not be a Christian if I had found any conflicts between the empirical evidence and my belief in Christ. I have often questioned what I believe, but to this point I have not found anyother religion or idea that makes anymore scientific and logical sense. If you have questions/concerns about this, please feel free to ask me. I look forward to hearing your opinion (with valid reasons backing it up) and any other ideas.

  25. hhEb09'1

    Here’s something funny. The article linked (http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090312115133.htm) says about the earth surface water question “Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%” but when you go to the calacademy.org website and take the quiz, it reports “71% of the Earth surface is covered by water.”

  26. Skepkid

    “I would have loved to see one of my science teachers throw a chunk of sodium into a beaker of water”-LukeL
    My chemistry teacher actually did this while we were talking about how groups in the periodic table have similar chemical reactions. she showed a video of potassium in water exploding then asked what would happen if she dropped a tab of sodium in a beaker, answer: big explosion and chunks of sodium drying on her ceiling that the janitors are afraid to clean. (she accidentally used a larger piece than she usually does.)

  27. McKinsey did a study of OECD nations to compare educational practices and offer recommendations based on what actually seems to work. Top performing countries hire the best teachers, get them to do their best, and intervene when students fall behind. Class size and teacher pay don’t seem to correlate with outcomes–countries with the highest teacher pay are not at the top of the list in performance. They have variations in how they work, but some things that seem to help:

    * provide significant teacher training, and encourage teachers to share lesson plans with each other.
    * be more selective about who gets to be a teacher, not less.
    * identify students who are falling behind and give them special attention.

    http://www.economist.com/world/international/displaystory.cfm?story_id=9989914

  28. Skepkid:

    Just as long as no one brings a spray bottle of water and uses it on the chunks…..

    J/P=?

  29. Dogmatic Copernians have not been able to convince the American public of the truth of the unproven hypothesis of heliocentricity. Galileo could not use heliocentricity to accurately predict the frequency or strength of the tides, and heliocentricity does not explain the origins of gravity or of the solar system. Students should be exposed to these weaknesses of heliocentricity theories along with the strengths, so as to encourage critical thinking about the full range of scientific theories regarding planetary motion.

    /Poe

  30. LukeL

    Rote learning is essential and you have to learn to make it fun. Back in 3rd grade we had a game called math baseball where the whole third grade was divided up into a bunch of teams that would face off against one another and eventually there would be a championship. It worked by have the teams form a line and face off against one another. The teacher would show a flash card and if the team on offense got it right they got one base, if on defense they got an out.

    To this day I credit that with me knowing mu multiplication tables. It amazes me how much basic math I use in higher math and science courses. Also there is no other way to memorize things like the Nobel Gases, Alkali Metals, Geological Periods etc. Without rote learning and it is these things which make advanced learning so much easier because you can instantly recall the basic stuff which aides in the more major and deeper things.

  31. IVAN3MAN

    Horus Kol:

    [W]hile some teachers are guilty of teaching bad science, the bigger problem is in the home – kids go to school and get taught one thing, and then when they get home, they get taught something else by parents and/or by church.

    Indeed, and one of the biggest culprits is that silly cow, Jeannie Fulbright, at jeanniefulbright.com/science.html who has written a series of ‘homeschooling’ books.

  32. I teach math and science. I attended 21 different public schools growing up in six different states, plus two colleges. I guarantee you: The average American student hears “the earth goes around the sun, and this takes a year” about 24,239,874 times. It is told to them, written in textbooks, demonstrated, drawn on blackboards, blah blah blah. This pervasive lack of understanding is not the schools’ fault, and I’m sick of hearing that it is. Vouchers will not stop this, merit pay will not stop this, symposiums will not stop this. Someone further up the page said it best: In order to have a job, marry, have kids, and make money in this society, you don’t need to know that the earth goes around the sun, nor do you even need to know that it is round. And you know what? It’s never been necessary.

    Sucks to admit it, but that’s how it goes. So what do we do? Well, we stop making 100 percent literacy of any kind or 100 percent of anything the goal. We do the best we can with the little scrap of the world we’ve been given, and make our peace with it.

  33. Mike

    I also picked up on the “exactly correct answer of 70%” . FACT and EDIT fail for Science Daily.

  34. Michael Gray

    The “solution” as to ‘what to do’ seems fairly easy to me:
    Copy the policies of those countries who are successful at educating their citizenry.

  35. bassmanpete

    Big Al, as one old codger to another, I couldn’t have ranted better myself.

    It was uphill to and from my school too! Did we go to the same one :)

  36. TJ

    If I were to ask most geeks (I are one) who died younger: Keats or Schubert? they’d shrug – or not react at all.

    These are facts. But they have no bearing on soldering SMC’s or calculating lunar nutations.

    Poor education pours facts into our heads with a funnel by the bushelfull and hopes they’ll stay there. But we forget facts that *have no bearing on our lives* … they just don’t come up much, and the memory space gets repurposed.

    I ‘spect most Americans once saw an orrary (or a video or a filmstrip or a cheesy textbook graphic of one), saw it and got it. But years go by. Rural folk need to know such things … but how many of us are rural?

    I don’t see any reason to get excited about how many people don’t know one particular fact. I’m with what Sundance said. I’ve spent a lifetime learning astronomy, and I’ve forgotten a LOT of quite basic things, because *they’re way back there behind me* .. they don’t come up very often. It’s more important that people understand how science works, how it’s done, than remembering stuff like the atomic number of carbon or the flight time of an unladen swallow.

  37. bad Jim

    An old quip: “The problem is that we consider knowing about science as nice, but not necessary, while knowing about sex is necessary, but not nice.”

    For whatever reason, we haven’t sold teenagers, whose job it is to learn, on the value of their job. Instead of regarding it as an opportunity, teens view high school as an arbitrary and irrelevant obstacle standing between them and the rest of their life. Camping trips, which I had in abundance during my adolescence, both with family and school, are excellent learning opportunities. Any sort of work opportunity which demonstrates the utility of knowledge could be valuable.

    One thing that might make a considerable difference would be elevating the status of teachers. Kids disrespect what teachers offer because teachers are poorly paid low status civil servants, perhaps because this used to be stereotyped as women’s work. This isn’t the case in other countries, and this may have something to do with the students’ perception of the value of education: education is considered valuable to the extent that educators are considered respectable.

  38. Sakura

    Why is this so shocking? I don’t really mind actually and I teach for a living. Our ancestors had no idea about these things and they did fine. It may seem like basic information to you, but what benefit has the knowledge for the average cobbler or tax-accountant? None.

    Are we not -and have we not for a long time been- living in a world where it suffices to notice THAT things work and not HOW they work? And to refer to what I just said: what’s the use of this knowledge to the average American? It doesn’t affect their life in any way if they knew in what direction the Sun travels around the earth, whether it rises in the West, the East, the North or the South. How many Americans would realise this depends on the hemisphere you are on? It is all relative to Greenwich, people! You Americans are the ignorant ones, thinking the Earth actually revolves around you!

    But all kidding aside: I meant what I said earlier (to a degree). Does it really matter that there are uneducated and educated people? Our joy is in our difference. I have found it stunning that 99% of all American adults could not identify Jewelweed or Touch-Me-Not if their life depended on it. And guess what? That could actually be the case! Please think about that: Could YOU?

    I don’t just mean you, Phil. I mean everybody and their high horse in the replies.

  39. Sakura

    I have a nice addendum concerning stupidity.

    I would like to see the results of the follow-up survey in which respondents are asked what percentage would get the question wrong, if 53% got it right?

    The question could even be multiple choice for all I care.

    Those results might shock you even more!

  40. MadScientist

    My orbit isn’t heliocentric, but it has a star in one focus – or should I say locus?

    I remember MAD parodies from years ago – some even predating my birth – the dumbing down of America (well, the USA anyway) has been a popular theme throughout Bill Gaines’ era and since Bill died I think the magazine was dumbed down as well; I miss the old gang of idiots. I’ve noticed a lot of this dumbing down over the years – shows on TV get worse and in fact for the most part only appeal to antisocial imbeciles (you have to be antisocial and an imbecile to be attracted to that rubbish). Even entertaining shows don’t really reflect reality and there is this rather bizarre condition where the general public end up believing too much of what they see on TV, not realizing that it’s all fictional and only has strings of gossamer connecting it to reality (think CSI). Public Television has gone down the toilet; I just don’t recognize PBS anymore. We need another public TV network – an educational network – something with substance which will get the audience thinking and doing things. Of course that is anathema to the status quo: sports and other mindless stuff (sports in moderation is fine, but if you think spectator sports has any great value to society you’ve been duped by the advertising machine).

    Too many people have a fatalistic attitude that has me howling and flailing my arms. My younger brother just said “Teaching doesn’t sound like such a bad profession if you don’t mind working with kids who don’t care to learn and parents who couldn’t care less”. People with an attitude like that have no business teaching. Unfortunately this decrepit attitude is all too common; as a fraction of the population there just aren’t that many people who genuinely care about education.

    So many people have this awful attitude which I used to think was endemic of third world nations, and that is that your children should not be better than you. In my younger years in the USA everyone I knew had the opposite attitude – the children had to be better or the parents were a failure. When I first came to Australia my dad asked me what I thought of the place and I said “if you take a third world country and bleach the monkeys white, you have Australia”; my evaluation has not changed in over 10 years and all my buddies from Europe and the USA agree with me. This notion of your children being forbidden to be better than you seems especially rampant in Australia except in the immigrant community (well, at least with the immigrant Asians, Europeans, Americans, and Canadians). If the USA is ever dumbed down to the level of Australia we’re screwed. (That’s not to say that there aren’t any exceptional Australians – of course there are – but there are far too few.)

  41. MadScientist

    @IVAN3MAN:

    Holy Bovine Excrement! (And that just happens to be a succinct review of the Jeannie Fulbright books.) I didn’t really need to learn that people could be that ignorant, revel in their ignorance, and make money from it too.

  42. QUASAR

    Only 47%? In some parts of the world, more than 90%!

  43. Phil, do you know much about opera or painting, fashion design or dog breeding? Probably not, even though you may find them important (OK, maybe not dog breeding). You are perfectly content to have this knowledge lie in a small subset of society and you’re comfortable voting for people who will decide whether to distribute some of your tax dollars among these pursuits.

    It’s the same for specific scientific knowledge in the general population. And that’s fine.

    As long as people in a democracy know something is important and have a vague, albeit ill-informed, sense that it should be supported, I’m happy. Thinking that we’re doomed unless at least a quarter of the adult population can recite Newton’s Three Laws, or something like that, is looking for trouble where none exists.

  44. I’m going to take a wild guess and say that 100% of the 47% also believe in Intelligent Design.

  45. wb4

    What percentage of people who take these surveys intentionally give wrong answers for a lark?

  46. James

    step one: teach kids how to tell the diference between evidence and a well argued case

    step two: give them google and a list of questions that might interest them (such as: which way does the water flow in the toilet bowl? What makes the mushroom cloud in a nuke? why does everyone hate the french?)

    step three: leave to simmer for twenty years and then look at the results

  47. Daffy

    James, teaching syntax might be worthwhile as well.

  48. holstefan

    @: looking for trouble where none exists.

    I have to disagree with your logic. Cultural intelligence (your examples) is clearly distinct from knowledge of the physical universe.

    Lack of a basic understanding of science is the primary reason that fruit fly research gets ridiculed, stem cell funding gets cut, and people like Galileo get arrested.

  49. James

    Like 1 in 5 engineers I have mild dyslexia. I also like to put my argument as simply and unambiguously as possible.

    an interesting case: a recent study mentioned in New Scientist showed that kids that used textspeak the most also scored highest in traditional verbal skill tests. It did not address cause and effect, but it would suggest that the idea that text was killing the next generation’s language skills is wrong.

  50. James

    BTW, I’ve reread my post and apart from my failure to capitalise and my use of ‘bullet point’ format, is there anything else wrong?

  51. Daffy

    Didn’t mean to offend, James. I just dislike the current “e-trend” of not using punctuation. Especially in a thread about education! Nothing to do with dyslexia…but clearly I touched a nerve and I sincerely apologize.

    I still dislike eliminating punctuation, though. It’s like trying to read Middle English manuscripts.

  52. Diego

    Have we considered the possibility that 47% of the population correctly identified that the Earth’s revolution period was 365.25 days instead of exactly 365? The 53% majority simplified things but rounding off the fractional day isn’t too great an infraction.

  53. So maybe we shouldn’t get too upset if people don’t know how long it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun.

    Sundance is wrong, She explains it by raising a total strawman — her father did not know why we have seasons, but he had a job, raised kids etc., it’s just not that important to know why we have seasons. She then suggests it is more important to teach kids how to acquire knowledge, rather than teaching them the basic set of human knowledge. This approach is why, I believe, we have so many stupid people. Lots of science curricula teach exactly how Sundance suggests, with the end product being that kids lack even the most fundamental and obvious aspects of human knowledge. Teaching process without teaching specifics is a losers’ game. You end up with nothing.

  54. Phil, do you know much about opera or painting, fashion design or dog breeding?

    Sorry, Dave B. There is a fundamental difference between “dog breeding” and knowing that you live on a planet which orbits a sun and what we call a year is the time it takes for Earth to go around the sun once. Your comparison is idiotic. Under your model, there is actually no need for any education whatsoever because you it’s impossible to learn everything. Your argument is exactly like “Sundance’s” — because people can live a productive life thinking the Earth is flat, there’s no need to teach children that the Earth is not flat. And now that calculators are cheap, there’s no need to teach kids math. Why not just not teach anything?

  55. Cmaj7, a math and science teacher, writes: “So what do we do? Well, we stop making 100 percent literacy of any kind or 100 percent of anything the goal. We do the best we can with the little scrap of the world we’ve been given, and make our peace with it.”

    Great attitude for a teacher. Let’s keep those goals really low. So now even 100 percent literacy is asking too much. This is exactly the attitude that gets us where we are today: teachers themselves saying that knowledge is beside the point. Great example to set for the kids. It’s okay to be dumb because improvement is impossible !!!!

    Wow.

  56. We should be teaching understanding, not memorization. Who cares if the surface of earth is 70% or 71% covered with water. This is memorization. This has nothing to do with understanding.

    Wrong. There are basic facts that you have to memorize. You say memorize like it’s a bad thing, or it’s hard. How do kids learn to write and spell? Memorization. Knowing the Earth is mostly ocean is about as basic a fact as the Earth is the third planet from the Sun or that rain comes from evaporation or that the Sun is a star.

  57. @ Jesso–very good points. There are two excellent books that I will soon be reviewing. They both have the same goal, giving people the tools and savvy to understand when one might be encountering suspicious scientific claims and how can you tell quality research from junk science, etc.

    Note: I am going to talk about two books OTHER than the marvelous one written by Phil. I still love his, I’ve read it a few times (dissecting his style) and if he puts it on audio, read by himself, I will most certainly listen to it and maybe even blast it down the hall and out my car window…oh, you rap and hard rock blasting cars don’t intimidate me! Just listen to how the world will end! :-)

    The first is Bad Science by Ben Goldacre. His work focuses more on health issues as he has an MD. He helps us understand how a good study is set up and how many times health claims are made erroneously either innocently or on purpose (to take our money)…and it is humorous. The other is called Lies, Damned Lies and Science by Sherry Seethaler. Her book is phenomenal! It is the most well thought out book on understanding how science is done and presented to the public without overwhelming us with unnecessary information. I would love to see her book turned into a video instructional series, that’s how important this work is.

    I always say, it’s a good thing our bodies continue to work even if we are ignorant of how they work. Of course, how to fix something that goes wrong is another thing.

    We have students come to the University ranked at the top of the class in high school, having earned easy As from their non-rigorous training. When they get to our courses in science and encounter their first failing grade, they have a hard time dealing with life. Worst of it will be the parents that call and say they will be having their lawyer call (geez). There is still room for memorization and asking the kids to do a little hard work every now and again….it’s good mental exercise for later in life. Memorization is not ALL there is, but it helps lay a foundation until critical thinking skills fall into place, then you have more tools to work with.

    One course I teach is histology. Memorization galore. No two ways around it. I let the students know early on that I can stand in front of them and be funny and gentle spirited but this does not change the subject matter one iota and they are responsible for putting that all in their heads in a way they understand.

  58. Dug

    Is Daffy confusing Punctuation with Syntax? Sure, James’ punctuation is not very “tight” but I see no sign of syntactical errors.

    I’m more concerned with Andrew’s comment: “I do not think the religious segregation and indoctrination is doing anyone any favors in places like Great Briton.”

    Ignoring the misspelling and speaking as a teacher in Scotland (part of Britain!) I can confirm there is little religious segregation – some church schools, some from other faiths, but the majority are a complete mix, depending on the local catchment area. Similarly, there is little indoctrination: probably some church schools push a particular faith-based line, but most of them will be open-minded.

    Creationism is not taught, though some religious schools will no doubt have a bias that way.

    Generally – and I’m trying not to be dogmatic here – I believe the Brits are less religiously fervent than much of America, if we can judge by the Press.

  59. James

    No offence taken or thought to be intended. And you are quite right; a friend once commented about the use of l33t and generally careless spelling on forums where serious things were being discussed:- “If you were going to speak in pubic, would you wear ragged clothes?”

    Conversely, constructing an eloquent, well structured argument takes me considerable time (enought to result in a server time-out sometimes), and experience has shown that it seems to be my longer, more carefully argued cases that get out-of-context-quoted and then straw-man abused.

    Finaly, we come back to the message of my first post:- What is the most important thing to teach a ‘citizen’?

    Or to put it another way, if you could only teach someone one thing, what would that be?

    My idea was that critical thinking lies at the heart of education, more important than language, history or science. Without the ability to dicriminate between fact and propaganda, all the rest is rote-learning.

    Much of what we learn at school is ‘untrue’ (for a certain value of ‘untrue’) but only in the later years of school do we start to learn that. Only those of us lucky enough to go to University are taught (as opposed to learning the hard way) how much is untrue. Much of what is said in media is untrue, and most, if not all, of what politicians say is untrue (because swing voters “can’t handle the truth”).

    Therefore it is my position that the single most important thing a publicly funded education system could teach is critical thinking. In other words, the scientific method in it’s simplest form.

    Obviously, I don’t plan to run for office. :-)

  60. Wow, Doug. Don’t want to assume, here, but I’m guessing the last time you were in a classroom as an adult, you stayed for maybe five minutes.

    I’ve never said teachers shouldn’t do the absolute best job they can (read the last sentence of my post again). What I have said is that this wailing and gnashing of teeth isn’t going to fix anything. It would be one thing if we had a specific goal as a society for teaching specific skills (the post-Sputnik freakout comes to mind). But as a society, we long ago tossed collective goals out the window in favor of buying the best SUV and getting a good table at Chili’s. There’s a vague sense that we want kids to be smarter or more informed. But there’s no focus, no sense of purpose, and no sense that this country is going to change. Stop expecting teachers to provide 100 percent of that. We have enough to do as it is raising everyone’s kids from 8 to 3 every day, while you whine about the job we’re doing.

  61. Radwaste

    Doug Watts asks, “Why not just not teach anything?”

    This is half of the start of basic analysis. The other half is expressed by asking, “Why not teach everything?”

    Of course, the answer lies in the middle, with determining what to teach remaining a school system’s biggest problem.

    Well, aside from what to do with disruptive students. Peer pressure is a big deal. People focus on dropouts who made it big, not on the huge number who study hard and continue to learn. One of my peeves are people who say they “are done with school”. Yeah, knowing things is such a nuisance.

  62. Alan French

    Shane P. Brady wrote, in part,…
    “We may not be better at rote memorization, but we’re a hell of a lot better at knowing how to find information.”

    I disagree. I spend a lot of time on various astronomy forums, and many people obviously either don’t know where to find information or have become too lazy to look anything up. The same basic questions get asked over and over again. Many people obviously haven’t bothered to learn even the basics, and find it simpler to just ask someone for information that is readily available on the web or in a book.

    Actually, for background information, I find books far superior. They are generally subject to some editorial control and concern for accuracy. Many web sites do not have such controls, and information on the web can be somewhat dangerous for folks without at least a basic understanding of the subject.

    Clear skies, Alan

  63. James

    Alan French Says:
    “Actually, for background information, I find books far superior. They are generally subject to some editorial control and concern for accuracy. Many web sites do not have such controls, and information on the web can be somewhat dangerous for folks without at least a basic understanding of the subject.”

    Editorial control is so that the book is not unreadable meanderings.

    Concern for accuracy is about ensuring you don’t get sued.

    Just look at the procession of books claiming the moon landings were a hoax, that Princes Di was assasinated, that the Holocaust was a fake. Sure ‘some’ books contain good information, but if you already know how to tell the difference then you are beyond the scope of this discussion. This is about ‘blank-slate’ education, and you can’t ban people from reading the ‘bad’ information.

  64. @Alan French I agree about the books. You can’t write a book and be lazy about it. Web sites are meant to be swallowed in 3 minute chunks.

    I think everyone can be taught science, but you can’t learn it in five minutes.

    I find books superior to TV for science as well. Science TV shows provide a lot of “wow” and “cool” but do nothing to foster the attention span or concentration level needed to learn science and definitely not to DO science. These short segments of things, web or tv, unfortunately, instead of being what we hope they would be, a teaser to want you to delve more deeply into a subject, often pass to some people as all the knowledge you need. Our brains are capable of challenges and will rise to meet it.

    It is abundantly clear that each person learns differently, but we all have to try different styles at a younger age to see what type of learning we are good at and then capitalize on it, but also give our brains the flexibility to try a subject in a different way should it be needed. Memorization, critical thinking, hands on fine and gross motor methods are all required. Older people should try new technology, younger people should read a 200 page book once in a while.

  65. Oded

    I’m scared that there is a real, dark truth, that a very serious majority of humans, in the most honest sense, do not enjoy learning or thinking. It is not a matter of education, or phobia, or some other problem in their growing up, it is simply their human nature, in disliking understanding hard things, or knowing more than they need to. In which case, no matter how many projects or attempts or other kinds of outreach is made, it is actually a doomed battle for a very serious majority.

    It is only a speculation, and I hope very much that I am wrong, but I see no obvious reason why it can’t be right. Different brains truly are wired differently and behave differently, and just because we geeks find great pleasure in learning and exploring and knowing the world around us, it does not follow that all humans do.

  66. @ oded:

    just because we geeks find great pleasure in learning and exploring and knowing the world around us, it does not follow that all humans do.

    I think that is correct.

    All my evidence is anecdotal, but I’ve seen far too many cases that seem to support that view – from kindergarten through 10+ years at a big corporation – wherein people willingly and happily take the easy “it’s too hard to think differently” route.

    Face it, human history is driven by maybe 10% of the population, for better or for worse. The top 10% thugs muck things up, all too frequently on a global scale, and the top 10% intelligent thinkers and doers straighten things out, make the discoveries that keep us going (keep us able to keep going. The other 90% in both categories just muddle on through.

    Teaching science, and getting kids excited about the process of discovery and what it can lead to, is a way to fatten that top tier of doers a bit. Maybe from 10 to 15%, or even 20. Hell, 12% would be great. FSM knows, the “thug” category isn’t going anywhere but up.

  67. People don’t stop learning just because they’re out of the classroom. You learn every day. Think about the last time you got stopped for speeding. What did you learn? I bet it was something. When was the last time you burned your hand or went shopping? Did you have a hard time remembering how to figure out how much to pay? Did you stop learning how to read new things?

    Kids come into the world ready to learn — the science classroom can foster that interest or kill it. Same in any topic, actually. Societal attitudes toward any subject can foster interest or kill it. Look at our society — it sucks off the teat of technology, but doesn’t want to acknowledge that there’s a teat there that needs to be nourished.

  68. Cmaj7: “But as a society, we long ago tossed collective goals out the window in favor of buying the best SUV and getting a good table at Chili’s.”

    I don’t see how this observation (which is not true) has any relevance to this topic; nor do I see how it supports your conclusion that we should “abandon a goal of 100 percent literacy or 100 percent anything.”

    In fact, I would say the observation, if it were true, is a direct consequence of doing what you recommended above: “We do the best we can with the little scrap of the world we’ve been given, and make our peace with it.”

    That is exactly the attitude of people who “tossed out collective goals out the window in favor of buying the best SUV and getting a good table at Chili’s.”

    I have been in numerous classrooms since I was an adult, and I have a niece and a nephew who are now 12 and 14 respectively. I am not saying anything about teachers. I am questioning your statement that:

    In order to have a job, marry, have kids, and make money in this society, you don’t need to know that the earth goes around the sun, nor do you even need to know that it is round. And you know what? It’s never been necessary.

    If you really believe that, then why are you even a teacher?

    And if your students know or intuit that you believe what you said above, why should they even bother paying attention in your math or science class? According to you, it’s all a bunch of useless information that they don’t need to know.

    Again, I am simply reacting to exactly what you said above.

    Thx.

  69. Greg in Austin

    My two cents: Most people just don’t use, or realize they use, science everyday. They have to know how to put gas in the car, but they don’t have to know how the gas came out of the ground, how it was refined, or even how it makes the engine work. They just think it costs a lot.

    500 years ago, people needed to know more about the sun and earth in order to plant crops and survive. Now that we can go to the grocery store 24 hours a day, nobody learns how science is used to grow the food, keep track of the inventory, or handle their credit card.

    One thing we can do is encourage the younger folks to learn more about science everyday.

    8)

  70. >Under your model, there is actually no need for any education whatsoever because you it’s impossible to learn everything.

    What I meant to convey is that there is no need for a large percentage of the population to know science to the level that readers of this blog consider minimal, as long as those people realize that society should support science. (FYI, I’m spent almost 20 years writing a popular-science column for the local newspaper, morphing it into a blog three years ago, so I’m a big fan of science literacy – but I’ve come to accept that science literacy escapes most people, and we can live with that.)

    Ignorance that we live on a planet going around the sun is OK, no matter how appalling it seems, as long as this ignorance doesn’t equate to “nobody else needs to learn about this topic”. Happily, the survey indicates that it doesn’t equate to this opinion, that most people feel “I don’t want to know about science, but you can go ahead.” That’s perfectly fine.

    Science should be taught extensively in school, of course, so that science-lovers can discover the topic.

  71. ccpetersen wrote: “You learn every day. Think about the last time you got stopped for speeding. What did you learn? ”
    Well, in my case I learned it pays to have one of those Fraternal Order of Police stickers on my back window.

  72. just because we geeks find great pleasure in learning and exploring and knowing the world around us, it does not follow that all humans do.

    You are wrong. All children from all cultures are innately and equally curious about learning and exploring and knowing about the world around us. Knowledge acquisition by human children is as biologically hard-wired into us as language acquisition.

    Adults are a totally different story. But we’re not talking about adults here.

  73. @ncc1701 I learned that having screaming kids in the car works well, too. Better still is one that throws up.

  74. You can’t get people to retain information about things they don’t care about. Most of these people know more about fishing or football (or any other non-science subject) than we’ll ever know because they care. So, the question is not how to teach science or how to get people to retain information. The question is how to get them to care. I wish I had the answer to that one.

  75. @ Dough Watts:

    You are wrong. All children from all cultures are innately and equally curious about learning and exploring and knowing about the world around us. Knowledge acquisition by human children is as biologically hard-wired into us as language acquisition.

    I think it is safe to say that is the case at birth and through infancy, but that natural curiosity is all too easily quashed by indifferent, even antagonistic parenting and “teaching.”

    Curiosity quickly becomes apathy after it’s been swatted down beneath the “don’t stand out” or “Why? Because I said so!” mentality.

    That’s why good teachers (including parents) should be cherished, while bad teachers (ditto) should be run out of town on a rail.

  76. Colby

    This is horrible, but I’ve seen it myself. I grew up going to schools where they taught you that the world is 6000 years old, and that there are fossils at the top of plateaus because the flood put them there; yet even I have been shocked by how little people who had access to teaching of real science know about that science.

  77. Daffy

    James,

    Very interesting post! I guess I would pick language first. Since we all think in words, the better one’s language skills, the more effectively one can think. After that I would pick scientific method…including the importance of challenging one’s own preconceptions!

    Good god, I am sounding pretentious today.

  78. James

    Dough Watts Says:
    “You are wrong. All children from all cultures are innately and equally curious about learning and exploring and knowing about the world around us. Knowledge acquisition by human children is as biologically hard-wired into us as language acquisition.”

    I remember many of my classmates at school hated and dispised learning, and mocked and abused the portion of the class that did enjoy it.

  79. Alfredo Louro

    I don’t think the problem is so much ignorance about science, but ignorance about nature. Science is just the mechanism we have for learning about nature. Wouldn’t it be interesting to center the elementary science curriculum around nature, rather than separate scientific disciplines?

    I also disagree that the little multiple-choice test presented here is about “scientific literacy”. Literacy means knowing how to read. So scientific literacy means having the basic tools necessary to understand science. It doesn’t mean knowing certain isolated facts that someone feels “everyone should know”.

  80. James

    @ Daffy:

    I think primarily in images, then secondly in language. Getting the two hemispheres to talk to each other is a major challenge, I have to wind the spatial half of my brain down to engage the verbal half.

    I am told (I have no evidence to hand) that this is very common in the sciences and in engineering in particular.

    Of course language, maths, history, art etcettera are important and could not be abandoned, but I was thinking in terms of my ‘If you can teach them one thing only’ metaphor.

  81. J Earley

    I’ll weigh in here. I teach High School Astronomy and Physics. I have enthusiastic and accomplished students, most of the time. I do not feel constrained by the No Child Left requirements to ‘teach to the test’ or dumb down my curricula. In fact, I have added courses this year to allow for Science Inquiry and an extra dose of wave and beginning quantum physics. The problem is that most of the students in my school do not take these courses. The math requirements scare off many students.
    I am happy with my students, but they are a minority. ‘Atheist Science geeks’ describe a large number of them, and very few are women. Bummer.
    Oregon, where I teach, has just increased the requirements for math and science in school. Three years of math, starting with algebra, and three years of science, two of which must be lab courses are now required for graduation. This may be a good start to getting the kids into the habit of thinking scientifically about the world. Slowly, we make progress!
    I also teach an introductory science course that all 9th graders have to take. I cover Plate Tectonics and evolution, in the form of the fossil record, and catch flak from the creationists. I suppose that science teachers are in some sense the front line of trying to get the public to start thinking, and accepting the idea of an evidence-based view of the world. We discuss this almost every day, and I emphasize that science is just a tool that we use because it works. I think that the other teachers in my school also try to do a good job, but in a few cases they are afraid of the public, despite strong state rules regarding what we are supposed to teach.
    There have been some very good comments here on this topic. Now, if you want to help, lobby your State Departments of Education to put in tougher science standards, and come out to help fight the Jindals of the world. Speak out against the anti-science forces, and support local educators when they are attacked. School board meetings are local, boring politics, but they mater to your kids, and to your community.
    Thanks,
    J. Earley

  82. Lyr

    <>

    Isn’t this the policy they’ve been using in DC for the past few decades? 😉

  83. Sundance

    @Doug Watts

    You misunderstand my points. As someone else has said already, the fact that the Earth goes around the Sun once a year is repeated a million times in school. But people _forget_ these facts because they don’t need to know them in order to live happy fulfilling lives. Therefore, asking questions about knowledge of basic scientific facts doesn’t tell us what’s being taught in schools, it tells us what people don’t retain, because they don’t use that knowledge after leaving school. If the goal of education is to make people remember arbitrary facts years after they’ve left school, then by all means, let’s be upset. But if the goal of education is to equip people with the mental skills needed to live happy, healthy, successful lives, and contribute to the growth of human knowledge, then maybe surveys such as the one Phil quoted are not the best way to test whether education has been successful.

    In my experience your claim that science classes teach process rather than specifics is untrue. Science classes focus on rote memorisation of the names of parts of flowers, or the order of the planets in the Solar System, but spend precious little time explaining how this information was gleaned by practicing scientists. How many science classes teach _how_ the distances of the various planets from the Sun were deduced? Most science classes teach that the Earth has an inner and outer core, a crust, and a mantle, but how many teach that the location and density of these layers were deduced by studying how fast seismic vibrations propogate from one place to another? How many school science classes teach students what a straw-man argument is, or an ad hominem argument, or Occam’s razor, or the danger of arguments from authority?

    I, personally, am concerned that science education does not teach the basic fact that science is a way of figuring things out, not just a body of unquestionable received wisdom. And if people understand that the methods of science are applicable not just to studying planets and atoms, but also to determining whether the government is making decisions based on good evidence or bad (was the evidence that Iraq had WMDs sound or not?), or why your car isn’t working (Is the battery flat? Is something wrong with the starter-motor? etc.) they will see science as more real, and more relevant to their lives. And hence more interesting.

    In short, I think science education should be less about teaching people rote facts, handed down from “on high” by authority figures, and more about getting people into the habit of asking “How do they know that?” whenever they learn something new. This would, if I’m right, have two important effects. Firstly, it would enable people to understand the difference between stuff that sounds crazy but is based on solid evidence (e.g. the Universe is expanding) and stuff that sounds reasonable but which is not supported by good evidence (e.g. vaccines cause autism), which would have real, tangible effects in improving their lives (they’d be less likely to get taken in by snake-oil salesmen for a start). Secondly, the more interesting and relevant people find science, the more likely they are to remember basic scientific facts (like how long it takes the Earth to go around the Sun).

    “And now that calculators are cheap, there’s no need to teach kids math. Why not just not teach anything?”

    Wow Doug, so now who’s making Straw Man arguments? Of course science education should teach basic facts, like the fact that the Earth is not flat. Duh! Nobody’s saying it shouldn’t. But I do think that the balance of facts vs. methods needs to be reassessed. Kids are very very good at remembering stuff, like the names of every single DragonballZ character, because they find it interesting. People don’t retain facts about science because they don’t find them interesting or relevant to their lives. The obvious solution is to make it relevant. I’ve described my preferred means of doing so above.

    Something else that could be tried would be to get more “guest teachers” coming into classrooms. Since most science teachers aren’t involved in research, allow kids to nominate some area of science that they find interesting (I’ll bet dinosaurs would be popular!), and get a postdoc or grad student from a local university, who’s actually doing research in that field to visit for a week or two. They could teach the class, answer questions, run them through practical examples of the problem-solving that is involved in research, and tell the class about some of the outstanding unsolved questions in their field. That would make science come alive as a real activity, and tailor the class content to the things kids are curious about.

    Also, BTW, the example I used was not my father, but the father of an ex-girlfriend. And I’m a “he”, not a “she”.

  84. slw

    Multiple choice tests are really really horrible. Either you make the choices close enough to eachother that you need to simply memorize all the facts from class or they are so disconnected from eachother that you don’t need to know anything at all. I don’t think I have ever failed any multiple choice test, including subjects that I know absolutely nothing about. They are convenient for teachers, sure, since the grading can be fully automated pretty much.
    Normal tests where you are given an actual problem to solve are far more interesting, I know of at least a few cases where someone was given a perfect score despite their answer being way off. Their solution showed they have a deeper understanding of the subject than some of the other students despite the mistakes they made.

  85. I have freely offered my services to teachers at public schools throughout the years, but many do not have the time to allow this or worse, I’ve seen some so afraid of looking bad at not knowing science, they do not want someone who does coming in the classroom. That was a revelation.

    NSF grants usually have some requirement on the part of the researcher to propose science outreach, so the impetus is there to share more widely their work.

  86. jenkins

    In my opinion the first step to finding any common ground is for everyone to realize that we cannot fix this overnight. From all the comments here and from debates and discussions I’ve had with many people over the years I’ve come to the conclusion that on a grand scale we are not willing to do the hard work and make the hard decisions to stop our society from decaying into decadence. Now, before you jump all over me, I am typing this on my new laptop, on my broadband connection, in my well climate controlled home, sipping some rather nice wine. I am quite fond of the wonderful luxuries that I have available to me, but a major difference between myself and some acquaintances of mine is that I understand how most of these luxuries came to me. I’m about to go into a “get off my lawn” rant, but young people today (once again, on a grand scale) don’t have a clue where their “toys” came from. I don’t blame the kids, and I don’t place the blame at either Parents or Teachers for the simple fact that those two groups are not the only two players in this game. I’m probably going to sound like a socialist or communist to some of you (most people don’t know the difference) but our entire society needs to make this a priority. The education of our young should be right up there with feeding and clothing them. And when I say education, I mean REAL education, not the sad excuse of a public education I had. In my 12 years in public school, I had exactly 3 teachers who ever challenged me. Education is not something to be spoon fed. For anyone to truly learn they have to learn for themselves. My teachers relied too heavily on text books to “teach us”. Text books are resources, tools. Having a child read a portion of a text book will give them information, but that information is raw, unfertilized. Young minds need to be challenged to learn. Give them the tools but don’t stop there, push them. We have become so afraid to push our kids. We tell every one of them that they are “special” and that they are “the best”. While encouragement is most certainly a good thing, what we fail to do is be honest with them. We often forget to also tell them that they need to work harder. That yes, that school project was good, but what if you tried “this”, pushed “this” a little further. Many kids will push beyond the requirements of a school project, and when they do that, we (the adult population) should push just a little harder. Most humans, when presented with a challenge will rise to the occasion, especially while they are young, strong, and unaware of limitations.

    And now i’m off to have my coffee. And to tap Wikipedia for info on where that coffee came from 😉

  87. Alan French

    James says, in part,
    “Just look at the procession of books claiming the moon landings were a hoax, that Princes Di was assasinated, that the Holocaust was a fake. Sure ’some’ books contain good information, but if you already know how to tell the difference then you are beyond the scope of this discussion. This is about ‘blank-slate’ education, and you can’t ban people from reading the ‘bad’ information.”

    Those books are a bit out of the realm I was thinking about. There are many fine books introducing people to telescopes and amateur astronomy, or almost any variety of hobby or basic science. Most reasonably intelligent people can seek out and find such books, even without a basic background on the topic in question.

    Clear skies, Alan

  88. José

    Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%” but when you go to the calacademy.org website and take the quiz, it reports “71% of the Earth surface is covered by water.”

    The true answer depends on how much the giant tortoise the earth rests upon is sloshing about. If he’s sleeping, the oceans only cover about 69 percent of the earth. During a session with his lady tortoise, that number can go as high as 82 percent.

  89. Daffy

    James:

    Interesting point. Although I do think in words most of the time, when I am involved with music (I am a professional musician) I do tend to think of scales, modes, etc. as visual patterns.

    The human brain is definitely weird!

  90. @ Jenkins:

    12:16 PM and you’re sipping wine? Wow. I want to live in your house.

  91. Oded

    Dough Watts Says:
    “You are wrong. All children from all cultures are innately and equally curious about learning and exploring and knowing about the world around us. Knowledge acquisition by human children is as biologically hard-wired into us as language acquisition.”

    Well, I am not so confident about this. In fact, I am fairly confident, that in the way you phrased it, that you are wrong. Only because of that word “equally”. It is a hard, but true, fact of life, that simply not all humans are equal. If you have trouble accepting this, remember that the universe owns you nothing, and there is no reason for this not to be true. Different humans, are equipped with differently wired brains, which were created by different genes. Not all baby brains are equal, and not all humans are *equally* innately curious. Of this I am fairly confident.

    The thing I am not sure about, and which I am more scared to accept as true, is that MOST humans are not innately curious, or at least very little. It is only speculative and anecdotal, which is why I hesitate to take it as true, beside its scare potential.

    On a more optimistic note, it is very possible that most human brains ARE innately curious, and my poor anecdotal evidence truly is an upbringing and culture problem. Perhaps truly curiosity is very universal and widespread in humanity. I am not ruling this out, but I am not ruling out the above option either.

    On another note – none of this really changes the correct course of action, which should still be discussed. Even if it were true, I would never suggest to just give up, throw our hands and say humanity is doomed. But, unfortunately, it does affect the expected success…

  92. @ Oded:

    I think you are not far from the unpleasant truth.

    Time was, a kid who wasn’t a “bookworm” could continue his education in a trade school. Unfortunately, such schools are not as common as they once were, while at the same time every student is bombarded with the message that they must go to college or their life will be one of poverty and regret.

    Well, sorry, but not everyone is cut out for college, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with earning a living in the trades. Criminy, the one auto mechanic I trust knows more about internal combustion engines and what makes them tick than any of the mechanical engineers I know (several). He’s getting close to retirement age and I’m worried about finding a replacement.

    So any solution to our education crisis has got to include trade schools, and a shift away from the idiotic idea that everyone is the same and everyone must study calculus and advanced science.

    Let those with aptitude for any field pursue that field, and let the others alone to follow their pursuits….including astronomy.

    Wow, really ranting now. :O

  93. Different humans, are equipped with differently wired brains, which were created by different genes. Not all baby brains are equal, and not all humans are *equally* innately curious. Of this I am fairly confident.

    Umm … science has proven all of the above totally false.

    Thanks for playing.

  94. José

    @Doug Watts

    Umm … science has proven all of the above totally false.

    No it hasn’t. We might not be able to see clearly what impact nature vs nurture plays on the direction an individuals brain develops, but the notion that all children are innately and equally curious has certainly not been proven. In fact, I think it would be fairly easy to disprove.

    Now, we can’t show that children from culture A are innately more curious than children from culture B, but we could probably measure a difference between two individual children both raised in culture A.

  95. @ Doug and José:

    I suspect you find it difficult to quantify, let alone measure “curiosity.” Certainly it has been proven that the human brain is hardwired for rapid language acquisition during infancy (in fact, Discover magazine had a pretty decent series of articles on that a couple years ago), but it would be speciousness to assume that translated into overall curiosity about everything.

    Anyone who has raised rugrats or watched relatives raise their various spawn can see first hand the differences among babies, even across single families. The whole nature/nurture debate complicates the issue even further.

    I think it’s moot anyway. Whether or not infants are equal doesn’t matter. The issue with regards to public education should be whether they are given equal opportunity to learn and excel in the fields that best suit them. As I said above, not everyone is cut out to be a scientist, just as not everyone is cut out to be a mechanic, or carpenter, or a lifter of heavy objects.

    To continue trying to force kids into educational paths that are clearly not right for them is harmful, both to the kids and to society at large.

  96. James

    José’s right, Doug’s wrong.

    Brains are wired differently in different people, and no-one has ever presented evidence to the contrary. Instead we have a wealth of date showing that people have implicit skills that vary from person to person.

    Thanks for playing Doug 😉

    @ kuhnigget: I could not agree more. Going to university, while a wonderful social experience that I think everyone should get the chance to enjoy, was the worst thing I could have done in ‘academic’ terms. I would have done much better at a trade college, but my grades were ‘too good’ for that kind of course.

  97. @MadScientist: We need another Carl Sagan!

  98. People don’t retain facts about science because they don’t find them interesting or relevant to their lives. The obvious solution is to make it relevant.

    Well put, Sundance.

    I think what you’re up against is that a lot of adults believe that the real lesson children need to take in is to stick at unpleasant things even though they’re unpleasant. Anything that makes learning fun, or calls natural incentives into play, is thereby automatically suspect. Because, you know, how will they hold down dull rote jobs unless they’ve learnt in school that life is a dull rote thing? Because, you know, that was my experience of life and I’m damned if young people today are going to enjoy it if I didn’t. /sarcasm.

    On the broader topic, I’m with those who point out that it’s no good getting children to learn better if adults forget. They presumably forget because there’s no penalty for doing so.

    How can adults be incentivised to learn, or at least not to forget what they’ve learned?

  99. @ vague:

    They presumably forget because there’s no penalty for doing so.

    Some of us forget because our brains are slowly deteriorating and we can’t remember any damn thing! (If you find the keys to my garage, would you please tell me.)

    Seriously, forgetting “facts” is not the critical issue. Forgetting how to obtain those facts…now that is a problem. If someone doesn’t know how to think through a problem, or how to find out the information he needs, or doesn’t even know that problems can be solved or that there are good sources of valid information, than that is a major dilemma.

    Like it or not, not every scientific fact is relevant to the ordinary fellow’s life. Likewise, not every historical fact is relevant. (Remembering the name of the fellow who ran from Marathon to Athens to announce victory over the Persians will not affect my day to day living one iota.)

    What is relevant, however, is the scientific process of discovery. Knowing how to use your brain to observe, hypothesize, and test, is absolutely relevant to anyone’s life. It can be applied to fixing a lawnmower, figuring out how to work the microwave, taking care of an ingrown toenail, figuring out why it’s a waste of money to buy an ear candle for your cat….

    That’s why science instruction in the earliest levels must first and foremost be about the process, and the power of that process, and the thrill of that process, and how bloody miserable we’d all be without it!

  100. Meteor

    There are numerous studies showing a positive correlation between the level of national scientific literacy and the level of national religiosity. Those nations with the lowest level of scientific proficiency had the highest levels of religiosity.

  101. As appalling as that 47% figure is, it’s misleading; the true figure is considerably worse!!!!
    Think about it… The question was presented as a multiple choice, with four answers. So out of whatever proportion of people didn’t know the correct answer, one in four would have picked it by random guessing. So if x% KNEW the answer, and y% didn’t, then ( x + y/4 )% would actually GIVE the correct answer, and ( 3y/4 )% would give a wrong answer.
    So the actual proportion who didn’t know was not 47%, but 47 x 4/3, or 63%!!!!

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