How Many of Us Can Name a Living Scientist?

By Chris Mooney | August 4, 2009 10:59 pm

From the Research!America New Voices blog, I find this incredible new statistic: 65 % of Americans cannot name a living scientist, and another 18 % try but get it wrong. That’s 83 percent of us in total who don’t know a living scientist by name.

And for the few who answer correctly, the leading choice is (no huge surprise here) Stephen Hawking. The top living American scientist to be named (by only 1%) is E.O. Wilson.

More details can be found here. All in all, it’s just another dismaying factoid about the Unscientific America we live in….

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Unscientific America

Comments (32)

  1. i know and have met Phil Plait in Kalamazoo

    what an awesome guy, he signed both my (his) books. i hope to see the both of you so i can get you guys to sign my (yours) 2

  2. Question: does this statistic mean naming somebody who is famous for doing science, or just someone who does science?

    Another question: who really is famous for doing science these days? Maybe instead of being un-scientific America, we’re actually post-scientific America; there’s so many people doing science these days that they aren’t as many “superstars” as it were, as there were before during the dawning of the nuclear age, the Space Age, the medical-breakthrough age…

    Third question: how many respondents from leaning to starboard named Richard Lindzen, John Christy, Roy Spencer, or Fred Singer? After all, they seem to keep quoting these guys as scientific authorities in one particular field.

    (Maybe the problem is that we can’t always tell the jokers from the superstars anymore, either.)

    And finally on this train of thought: we seem to be in a lull of actual scientists getting famous in the media (like Carl Sagan) or from writing books and columns in magazines (like Stephen Jay Gould).

    So, in parting, maybe this isn’t a symptom of unscientific America. Maybe it’s just because there aren’t a lot of name-able scientists right now.

    I think tomorrow I’ll try to post a list of the top 10 (or maybe 20) scientists I can name on my blog. But I like science; I’m kinda strange that way.

  3. The top living American scientist to be named (by only 1%) is E.O. Wilson.

    I think I would have named that cracker desecrator that you brought up in chapter 8 of your book. He’s quite famous around the interwebz, you know.

  4. Anthony

    This statistic doesn’t bother me. If more people were able to name a living scientist that might indicate a higher general interest in science, but it seems more important to me that folks can use skeptical reasoning skills and scientific problem solving for themselves.

  5. Albert Bakker

    Might this be an area where hardcore creationists might score better than average, mentioning the “infamous” professor Dawkins slightly more often?

    Upon looking at the new opinion poll at the “your congress your health” site there seems to be rather less cause for alarm though.

    For example, 92 % think research is important to the US economy in general and 71% see scientific research as a solution to rising costs in health care. 76% think education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics is very important for the US position in the world, 21% agree hesitatingly and only a tiny 3% are completely stupid.

    In a democracy those kind of numbers count as unanimous. I think it unlikely there would be much room for improvement if each and everyone had mentioned their favorite living American scientist before they finished their question and the names of their pets as well.

  6. Walker

    Maybe instead of being un-scientific America, we’re actually post-scientific America; there’s so many people doing science these days that they aren’t as many “superstars” as it were

    Depends on what you mean by “superstar”. Becoming an household name is really more about doing PR and writing popular books for the public than doing science. For example, many people believe that Ed Witten is a much better scientist than Stephen Hawking. However, he hasn’t written any popular science books, and so he is essentially unknown outside of the physics community.

  7. Walker, I think Chris’s whole point is that exact attitude. Scientists ignore the hand that feeds them.

  8. Hi there! My name’s Christie. Nice to meet you.

    There, now you all can name one American scientist :)

  9. Sarah

    As alarming as these statistics are, I’m interested in knowing what percentage of the American public would be able to name one female scientist (not including Marie Curie). I’m sure the small number would break my heart.

    (**I’m a bit shocked that most people would name Steven Hawking… I was expecting the pop culture answer to be Michio Kaku.)

  10. Sarah

    (Excuse my spelling error: Stephen Hawking)

  11. Peter Beattie

    Only one tiny problem here, I think: the linked poll does not contain this “incredible” statistic. Did you not check this before linking to that site, Chris?

  12. MadScientist

    If I name a whole bunch do I get a prize?

    How about we ask people to:
    1. name living mathematicians
    2. name living judges
    3. name living taxi drivers
    4. name living presidents (and ex-presidents)
    Oh, the list is too long.

  13. Physicalist

    Just to get a baseline: Do we know how many Americans can name a television newscaster? (Or substitute your preferred baseline category.)

  14. I’d like to know what percentage of the population knows their time tables or the rules for performing the basic arithmetic operations on signed numbers. If what my past experience tutoring teenagers in algebra is any indications, it might be more discouraging.

    It’s not just science, any serious, rigorous topic or area of life is not known and respected by too many people addled by the commercial, pop, media provided culture. You can’t compete with it in the few hours someone spends in school. If it’s not required of the media, they’ll fill peoples’ lives with make believe trash and their lives and behavior will mirror that. The free market in information is going to destroy the possibility of democracy, I firmly believe that is a limit that our constitution and our ideology is going to have to face if we are going to keep democracy. People who are uninformed about what’s real can’t govern themselves, they’ll be governed by who ever has control of the media.

  15. Physicalist, if you mean someone who broadcasts the news, other than Bill Moyers, you’d be hard pressed to find even one.

  16. Matt Penfold

    I like how Mooney is now admitting that he is making stuff up, or at least that he is repeating stuff he knows to be made up.

    I am assuming he knows that a factoid is a “A factoid is a spurious—unverified, incorrect, or fabricated—statement formed and asserted as a fact, but with no veracity” according to the OED.

  17. Peter Beattie

    And their alleged sample size is just 278? That doesn’t exactly sound like it was a professionally conducted poll. And what was the question they asked? What is their sample constructed to be representative of? Perhaps Chris can supply some information relevant to those questions. Would be much appreciated!

  18. —- And their alleged sample size is just 278? That doesn’t exactly sound like it was a professionally conducted poll. Peter Beattie

    One of the reasons I don’t take polling seriously. Though, for a lot of studies in the social and cognitive “sciences”, a sample far smaller in size would get extrapolated out to cover the entire species. And that the rules they’re selected under almost assure that that sample wouldn’t be a random sample of any population.

  19. cory

    Ogden Wolf has a good point: I know biologists, cancer researchers, paleontologists, archeologists, researchers who work at Carnegie Mellon, CWRU, astronomy professors…don’t they count? Isn’t it more important that my kids know ACTUAL people who work in REAL labs (and complain about media portrayals of scientists every time the news crews come in to report a cancer research “breakthrough”), than can name a famous scientist? Mommy’s friends work in labs, work with cells, microscopes, electrodes, plants, fossils, robotic arms–when they have a science question, I can encourage them to ask a real scientist. Because they are at the gym, the park, my gardening club, or a quick phone call away. Yes they recognize Stephen Hawking–I’d be upset if they didn’t. But it’s a good thing he’s not the only person they’ve heard of…I’m glad I can show them real grownups who they know and recognize and can ask question of, rather than only a science hero to worship from afar.

  20. Apparently this low level of public knowledge will improve sharply once we get some civil and religiously tolerant people practising science instead of the uncivil, intolerant lot we have now.

    Personally I put my faith in Xenu/Jesus/Allah and have little interest in scientists — or the science that they teach — that don’t respect my faith or who pretend there is any conflict between Scientology/Christianity/Islam and science.

  21. Al Gore, Nobel Prize *and* an Oscar Now suck it up and walk it off.

  22. gillt

    The percentage of the 278 people who did not name a living scientist is 82% not 83%.

    But that’s minor; there’ s seems to me a major design flaw in the experiment.

    All those who named deceased scientists should not be counted because their answers are outside the parameters of the experiment, thus their data cannot be interpreted. In other words, we cannot simply put them in the 82% category, quite simply because they may have misread the question.

    Who’s to say those who named Einstein don’t also know a living scientist?

    Of Americans who cannot name a living scientists, 65% seems to be the most reliable number, which isn’t all that bad.

  23. I’m glad the poll data has gotten this conversation going. We’ll be posting in response (and hopefully answering many/all of your questions) tomorrow over at New Voices.

  24. Before seeing this, I’d already posted some of my thoughts about scientific literacy. It seems apt here. Two parts to my article there. One is, I take some analogy between scientific literacy and physical fitness. Second is, neither I nor any of my commentators (in the previous open call for thoughts) ever mentioned “able to name a living scientist” as an attribute of scientific literacy. Now that it’s being mentioned as if it were important, I still don’t see it.

    I’ll bring my physical fitness analogy over here. I’ve little doubt that if the question were “Name a living athlete”, almost everybody would manage to do so. So, are we all in great shape? Is obesity on the decline in the US? Well, no. Spectating — being able to name ‘star’ people in the area — quite dramatically does not correspond to performance.

    Turn to the science side. In the early 1980s, I expect a large number of people — between Cosmos and Nuclear Winter — would have named Carl Sagan in such a poll. Fine, very well known scientist. Now, what good, exactly did this do for science? Was there a massive surge in science funding to areas he thought should be funded? No. Was policy changed in areas he thought, and had scientific basis for, should be changed? No. So, what, exactly was the good of having a household name scientist? — That isn’t a rhetorical question. If someone has concrete answers, by all means present them.

    In the mean time, a reality I’ll even less subtly than madscientist @12: Nobody becomes famous for doing science (at least not in the last 25 years). Coming to my own field(s), the most generally-known scientist is James Hansen. But he’s not known at all for his science. It’s for his 1988 testimony to congress being rewritten by the administration, or more recently for the muzzling at NASA, or his political activism. Not a bit for the many scientific contributions he has made. Or for a contra- example, Richard Lindzen is the best-known ‘skeptic’ who has some real background. But he’s known for being contrary, not for his real scientific contributions (which are in different areas).

    Maybe it’s better for there to be celebrity scientists. Some evidence in favor of the proposition would be nice.

  25. Anna K.

    Stephen Hawking has been a guest, more than once, on The Simpsons.

    I’m sure that’s the key to his fame.

  26. Peter Beattie

    » Heather:
    I’m glad the poll data has gotten this conversation going. We’ll be posting in response (and hopefully answering many/all of your questions) tomorrow over at New Voices.

    I guess we’re still waiting for that.

  27. gillt

    Yes, I would like to see the explanation for why they categorized people who named a dead scientist with those who cannot name a scientist at all, alive or dead.

  28. So, in parting, maybe this isn’t a symptom of unscientific America. Maybe it’s just because there aren’t a lot of name-able scientists right now.

    Well, don’t forget that the USA produced the biggest number of science Nobel prizes. And are still the country with the highest investments in research in the world. If science was a “normal” part of culture, one could think that, statistically, a high number of scientists should be known outside of specialized circles…

  29. Michael Kingsford Gray

    I imagine that every parent could name a living scientist:
    Their child.

  30. Thanks for your patience – the methodology information is now up over at New Voices for those of you who were interested:

  31. Since you’re not responding to questions in the comment section of your own website, I’ll post what you said here: “When we get the greenlight to share the rest of the polling data…”

    There is no addressing of the question about the “incredible new statistic” mentioned in this post. The incredibly misinterpreted statistic that is.

  32. I guess people are still commenting, so I wrote my off-the-cuff article about famous scientists I could think of:

    Darn… just thought of another one. Murray Gell-Mann (and he’s alive, unlike Feynman).


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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.


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