Is the Science Glass Half Full, or Half Empty?

By Chris Mooney | January 20, 2010 1:35 pm

My latest blog post over at Science Progress is a reaction to the NSF’s new Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 report, and in particular, to its famous Chapter 7, which deals with science and the public.

In essence, the new Chapter 7 gives you the choice of whether to view the glass as half full, or half empty, when it comes to the U.S. public and its relationship to the world of science. I personally lean toward “half empty,” but here’s the pro/con breakdown:

On the positive side…the report consistently shows that Americans are not so scientifically benighted as one might think, at least in comparison with the rest of the world. We go to science museums more frequently. We claim a higher level of interest in “new scientific discoveries” than citizens in South Korea, China, and many parts of Europe. And in terms of sheer factual knowledge, we perform pretty much on par with Europe, and ahead of other countries like Japan, China, and Russia.

Through such international comparisons, the latest NSF report suggests that if your preferred standard for judging a nation’s engagement with science is to see how it stacks up next to other comparable (e.g., developed) countries, then the United States really doesn’t fare so poorly. Furthermore, NSF emphasizes that Americans profess to have very positive views about science. They overwhelmingly think science makes our lives better and that it deserves federal funding. And they have an apparently abiding trust in the leaders of the scientific community.

That’s the good side. But here’s the reason I still feel pretty negative in outlook:

As Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 itself admits, seeing how the country fares on science in comparison with other nations isn’t the only possible means of judgment. If one’s standard is more ambitious—emphasizing, in the latest report’s words, “what a technologically advanced society requires (either today or in the future) to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to better take advantage of science progress in their own lives”—then it is very hard to feel good about the current state of affairs in the United States.

For instance, just 13 percent of the public now claims to follow science and technology news “very closely,” and this number has been on a downward trend for the past decade, ending with the current low. So while Americans may profess great admiration for science in the abstract, they hardly feel compelled to pay it much attention.

Similarly, there has been little apparent improvement over time in Americans’ basic ability to answer factual questions about science correctly. Moreover, the vast majority of our citizens have scant familiarity with key emerging scientific fields that will dramatically shape the future, such as nanotechnology and biotechnology—and it is important to note that these are the only such fields that the NSF report focuses in on. Ask Americans about other coming scientific technologies or quandaries—say, geoengineering, or synthetic biology—and I imagine the responses would be even more dismal.

Anyway, there’s much more to the column, so check it out here–and decide for yourself whether, when it comes to science and the American public, you’re an optimist or pessimist.

Comments (5)

  1. report says:
    `For instance, just 13 percent of the public now claims to follow science and technology news “very closely,” and this number has been on a downward trend for the past decade’

    I would put myself in this category of people who don’t follow as closely as they used to.

    The reason is simple: The amount of scientific knowledge being produced with time is increasing fairly rapidly, and my interest level remains constant.

    So not being able to keep up is itself a sign of progress.

  2. Do not despair, Chris and Sheril.
    This situation is nearly as bad as you are subjetivizing it to be. Your dilemma is not nearly as problematical as that of Copernicus, or Galileo. Look at the rejection and persecution that those guys had to endure. At least you’ve got a blog, 21st-century style, so you can vent some steam– not like Gregor Mendel, who spent his whole life in obscurity pioneering the study of genetics and got what for it!? Nothing. It was twenty years before anyone even figured out the significance of his studies with peas. Then look what happened! We ended up with DNA and Watson and Crick and all that double helix runaround.
    And be thankful you have not suffered the fate of Antoine LeVoisier, who had his head chopped off by clueless revolutionaries!… just as his research in oxygen and chemistry was reaching critical mass.
    No, you’re doing great, and you’ve got so much more possibility for peer review and public recognition than those guys did. I mean look, your blog found me, a layman with a smattering of scientific knowledge and a streak of research curiosity who writes novels that purport to elucidate the scientific issues that challenge the human race to informed improvement or imminant destruction, one or the other (who knows which?)
    Seriously though, do a little statistical research to determine the percentage of people in America who are directly related in some professional way to scientific endeavor. That percentage should be your realistic target for evaluation of your hypothetical influence, not the entire population.
    OK, add 2% to that number if you want to—room for expansion. Broaden your horizons a little bit, but not too much. That’s what Galileo would have done.
    That’s the Glass half-Full and Glass Chimera

  3. Donald Smith

    It is clear the even at year 1, babies are able to start learning. There is one program that start kids learning to understand words at such young ages. At 3 yrs, the toddler is able to read just as well as some 3rd-4th graders (or even high-school students in some schools!).

    What we need is a program to take advantage of these early abilities for youngsters to be that “sponge” and take in the early basics such as reading, writing, learning basic science, etc. from appropriate TV and materials. This offers a true head start to start elementary school way ahead of competing countries.

    As a senior executive of a software firm, I have been surprised with the lack of knowledge that many college grads have.

  4. “We go to science museums more frequently. We claim a higher level of interest in “new scientific discoveries” than citizens in South Korea, China, and many parts of Europe.”

    I think creationists probably claim to have a high level of interest in science… and they visit museums… and are interested in new scientific discoveries. Anti-vaxxers probably claim to be interested in science, too, as do climate change deniers. Sadly, I don’t think any of them boost our level of science understanding.

    That sounds pretty pessimistic, doesn’t it? *sigh*

  5. Busiturtle

    Donald:3

    There already is a program to give toddlers a head start in education. It is called Head Start. A government certified study was recently released showing that for all the effort to give kids a head start there was no measurable increase in cognitive ability after the first grade.

    In other words, there is no head start in the knowledge business.

    This is actually good news and it confirms what many an American college student knows. Procrastination works. Or better said, why do something today that can be done tomorrow.

    The proof in the pudding will be this: Investor Jim Rogers loves to tout all the hours innumerable Asian kids put into study and music. In ten years will we see a flood of innovation, both scientific and artistic, coming out of Southeast Asia? I actually hope so but it will be interesting to see to what extent.

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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 Salon.com 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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