'Flunking Basic Science?'

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | March 16, 2009 9:26 am

science literacy.pngIn our forthcoming book, Unscientific America, Chris and I mention those national surveys where regularly, a large percentage of U.S. citizens fail to correctly answer basic science questions that they supposedly learned in school. 

Last Friday, the latest results were released from the most recent quiz by the California Academy of Sciences and Harris Interactive.  (See how you do answering test questions here).

From Science Daily:

Despite its importance to economic growth, environmental protection, and global health and energy issues, scientific literacy is currently low among American adults. According to the national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences:

* 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.

Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the 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. Additionally, 40% of U.S. adults say they are “not at all knowledgeable” about sustainability.

But, wait a second… Before rushing to attack the American education system, first consider:  What do such quizzes actually reveal?  Is it fair to use the results as evidence of scientific illiteracy?  Furthermore, what does that term really mean?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Education, Media and Science

Comments (29)

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  1. Paul

    The results of these quizzes always leave me uneasy. “Illiteracy” is not it. I’m not sure they show anything.

  2. Jonsi

    I wouldn’t expect people to know the freshwater question, but what is important is what they tell you when they reveal the answer:

  3. Why would most adults today have learned about sustainability during their schooling? I take it as heartening that most adults say they’re “not at all knowledgeable” about sustainability because it shows that they’re aware of their shortcomings and may actually seek to rectify it.

    Honestly, the three questions asked were rather pointless. I’m not sure this poll tells us anything at all … other than it was a dumb poll.

  4. veri

    Maybe the problem is that these quizzes makes news every time.

  5. I think your questions are good ones. I’m not sure what this poll reveals specifically. It’s a typical quickie bite sized media piece, intended to grab attention and then move on to something else grabby. But the question of American education in general and education in science is an important one. But that issue needs to be addressed within the broader context of education funding.

  6. Pierce R. Butler

    Does the blatant sexism of the posted cartoon provide a clue to these trick questions?

  7. I’d say No, asking specific factual questions doesn’t test “scientific illiteracy” — just as I’d say that asking “what is a gerund” is NOT a good test of English literacy.

    I think “scientific literacy” means the ability to understand the scientific method (generate testable hypotheses, devise experiments or seek evidence that will confirm or deny a hypothesis, etc) and the ability to use critical thinking skills to judge “scientific” claims.

    It is easier to test knowledge of facts, but I don’t think it would be terribly hard to devise a test of real scientific literacy. I predict the results would be even more depressing than the fact-based quiz, though…

  8. Pierce wrote:
    Does the blatant sexism of the posted cartoon provide a clue to these trick questions?As much as I’m sensitive to this issue, I don’t think it’s sexist.This cartoon, from the Atlas of Science Literacy, Volume 2, published by Project 2061, the science-education reform initiative of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, illustrates the challenges that teachers face as they try to help students achieve science literacy. The cartoon was created by the late Andrew (Chick) Ahlgren (1936-2006), who brought map making and cartoons like this one to Project 2061, and helped to change thinking about science learning and teaching. Atlas 2 and its companion volume were jointly released by AAAS and the National Science Teachers Association to provide teachers with a grade-by-grade guide to science learning from kindergarten through 12th grade.

  9. Mark F.

    So I took the quiz. Got 5/6 right. I missed the fresh water question. I knew it was a low percentage, but I didn’t know it was down at 3%. You learn something new every day.

  10. The water question is actually one of the best questions on the list. It tests at some level how skilled people are at estimation which is an important ability if people want to have any understanding of science or surrounding skills. If you don’t know the number but you know what a globe looks like you can get close to the correct number (Just naive thinking about the globe would probably get you between about 60 and 85 percent or so).

    Moreover, we can’t expect people to apply the scientific method or critical thinking if they don’t have the basic facts underlying how much of the universe is set up. I would however be very curious as to how could a proxy these sorts of questions are for questions more directly about the scientific method and related issues.

  11. The question is about “scientific temper” and not about “literacy” per se. The question is about science as a way of thinking and a way for rational investigation of the world, not about knowing scientific facts per se. The problem with this country is that many people don’t have an understanding of scientific temper as a valuable way to live their lives. They “believe” in the fruits of science, but not in science itself.

    Let me ask you a simple question. Man is on boat with 500 pounds of rock with him in a very large swimming pool. He tosses the rocks off the boat into the water. Would the level of water in the pool
    A. Rise
    B. Fall
    C. Remain the same

    Does this problem test the “scientific literacy” of us educated adults?

  12. What really depresses me is not that adults are unable to answer these questions but that more than 40% of them don’t believe in evolution. To me that is a much bigger and more pernicious and concerning evidence of scientific illiteracy. That is what we should be spending a lot of time on.

  13. vanderleun

    What the conclusions about this survey really reveal is how full of themselves “scientists” have become.

    I take comfort in the ancient observation that following close on the heels of hubris is nemesis.

  14. Jason R

    I think the only thing those survey’s really show is how well a person can recall the things he learned x amount of years ago.

    I’ve learned a ton of things a long time ago, that I can’t recall off of the top of my head. But I can certainly google it if I need to recall it.

  15. Scientific Reasoning will prove itself or not as we try to figure out how to survive the twin impending crises of water scarcity and climate disruption.

    That that survive will understand evolution.

  16. Jason R, these are basic facts about the set-up of the universe around us. If people can’t recall them then it demonstrates a deep lack of caring about the world around them. Moreover, most of these questions are questions where one can easily noodle out the answer even if you don’t know it. I already mentioned how to do this with the water question but let’s look at some of the others:

    *how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.

    Well, let’s think. The apparent rotation of the sun around the earth (if you consider the Earth fixed) is 24 hours. But that’s because the Earth is rotating around its own axis. So what other times to do I know about? Hmm, months, don’t those have something vaguely to do with the lunar cycle. Oh right, the moon goes through its phases in a slightly under 30 day period. Ok, that’s because of the moon’s rotation around the Earth. That’s not what we’re looking for. Ok, what’s the next unit of time I know? A year. What does a year represent? It represents going through all four seasons. What causes seasons? Ah. Now we’ve got it.

    *did humans live the same time as dinosaurs?

    Again, the knowledge level needed is minimal. Humans are a few million years old. Dinosaurs are ten of millions of years old. So that’s a nope. And to double check, I vaguely remember cave paintings and such of ancient humans hunting mammoths. I don’t remember anything about them hunting dinosaurs.

    Moreover, the study in question directly dealt with questions that are necessary for having minimal understanding of serious policy issues like the percentage of earth’s water that is fresh water.

    Dismissing these sort of basic facts about the world around you as stuff you’ve simply forgot is as appalling as if an US citizen can’t remember which President was around for the Civil War. And the ability to function as an educated adult taking part in the democratic process is about as hampered.

  17. rb

    yeah the fresh water question is stupid. I knew it was low, and thought it was lower than 3%

  18. David Marjanović, OM

    The results of these quizzes always leave me uneasy. “Illiteracy” is not it. I’m not sure they show anything.

    They show ignorance. Lack of knowledge.

  19. The level of the questions is clearly different. Not knowing the percentage of freshwater on the planet’s surface is infinitely more excusable than not knowing that humans and dinosaurs did not cohabit. What percentage of your body by weight is blood by the way? Random questions meander meaninglessly.

  20. As a former English major and a woman, I’m proud to say I got 6/6 questions right! It was pretty basic stuff; it’s the sort of thing we should know by about 5th grade.

  21. abb3w

    Lamentably, I can’t find state-by-state distributions for such literacy. However, with only 1000 respondents, the breakdown for the current sample would be meaningless.

  22. The funny detail about these quizzes is that the “right” answers are slightly wrong. I.e. the earth needs one year, 20 Minutes and 24 seconds to go around the sun (I had to look up the exact value and just knew that “one year” is wrong), and humans did (and do) walk with dinosaurs for the simple reason that dinosaurs (some theropodes) are still around. The first problem is harmless (“one year” is the closest of the given choices), the second is not (IMHO).

  23. For me, the volume of an icicle is the UPPER has his volume in water. If the glacier melts: the level of the sea GOES DOWN (and not the opposite!).
    It is frightening to read the opposite every day in the press.
    The similar for ” Half as cold ”


  24. @humorix:
    The behavior of the sea level depends on more factors. If the ice sits on the ground (near the coast) and melts, the sea level goes up. Melting of floating ice of the same composition as the water does not cause a change in the sea level. It also goes up if freshwater ice floating on saltwater melts (generally: if the molten liquid has a lower density than the sea water).

  25. Lycosid

    Ask them a question where they have to use logic to solve a problem. 10% will get it right. Everything about our culture pushes people away from science.

  26. @ Ralf Muschall

    As the party submerged by an iceberg is more spacious than the emergent party, if the glacier melts the holes of air fill with water. Therefore: level goes down.
    On the contrary, when I read that the level of the sea could go up to 70 metres!!!
    it is stupidity come from GIEC very there

  27. @humorix
    A floating iceberg (made of the same water as it floats in) displaces as much water as it weighs, thus after melting it exactly fills the hole which his submerged part made into the water (no matter how much air and intermolecular spaces are inside the iceberg – the volume consumed by these corresponds exactly to the part sticking out of the sea). The situation changes if there are different sort of water (imagine the extreme case of an iceberg floating on mercury, making almost no dent but leaving a nonzero film of water after melting, thus raising the level).

  28. MadScientist

    I followed the link – the linked test is really more Science Trivia than any assessment of scientific (reasoning) ability. I thought about 4% of surface water was ‘fresh’ – boohoo – it’s less than 3% – I flunked. A better test of people’s grasp of reasoning would be to present information and allow the person to assess a number of statements based on the information.

    Making up good poll questions to establish any fact requires great skill.


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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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