Science Literacy: A Worldwide Look

By Carl Zimmer | June 11, 2012 11:40 am

I was skimming through the new Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation when I came across this very interesting table. Whenever I see reports about science literacy in the United States, the reports are very parochial, with no comparison to other counties. Here is a table of scores on similar tests given around the world. We Americans do relatively well on a lot of the questions (although that sometimes means we’re about as bad as most other countries). The one big exception is when Americans are asked about the origin of the universe and of our species.


CATEGORIZED UNDER: General, Teaching

Comments (17)

  1. IanR

    The sun does go around the earth if your frame of reference is the earth.

  2. mo

    The test makers think the big bang was a huge explosion? WTH?

  3. Amy

    Interesting (and rather sobering) results. But the second bio question seems slightly misleading… it’s not a single gene, but the whole chromosome, involved.

  4. The enthalpy of the universe is quite high – like an explosion.

    I’m not fond of the way the question is worded.

  5. NickMatzke

    Yeah even asking the question correctly can be difficult. If I was asked if humans developed from earlier species, I would say, well, they evolved, developed means something different.

    Interpretation is also difficult. If 27% say the Sun goes around the Earth, does that mean that this is the sincere belief of 27% of the population, or that 54% were randomly guessing do to ignorance or the confusing nature of the question?

  6. Amusingly, the report itself is wrong (or, if one is very generous, misleading) on the question about the earth going round the sun.

    In the modern theory of gravity (general relativity) the two points of view (earth goes round the sun, or the sun goes round the earth) are on an equal footing, and there’s no reason of principle to prefer one over the other.

    It’s only in Newtonian gravity that you can reasonably make the statement that the earth goes round the sun. Even then, it requires some careful thought to make the statement really defensible.

    Admittedly, I doubt this is what most people who got this “wrong” were thinking. Still, I think the authors of the report might want to work on their scientific literacy a bit…

  7. Aimee

    Then there’s also the problem of when data was collected for the different nations. 2010 for the US vs. 2001 for Japan? How is it fair to compare that? That’s a pretty big time difference, and I imagine a lot would have changed globally in nine years.

  8. One thing that is particularly interesting to me is that there was a high rate of correct responses regarding the tectonic plate motion question (80%), while the question related to human origins drew a very low rate of correct response from the U.S. population. This is especially intriguing because the tectonics question specified multi-million year timescales (as it should). The disconnect between the two sets of answers suggests, to me, that it isn’t really deep time concepts that present the primary barrier to the objective understanding of biological evolution in the United States. Different cultural barriers are presumably at work – probably something more to do with a cultural emphasis on purpose and goals that makes purpose-free origin explanations unpalatable to much of the population.

  9. Two things curious to me:

    1. The last evolution response from the US
    2. With binary responses, the number wrong was drastically less than random (50% correct, 50% incorrect). This suggests MISinformation rather than not knowing.

    If somebody has the time, could you do a non-parametric rank test on these (which groups were best overall, in physical science, and in biological science)?


  10. Paul

    I’m disappointed at the lack of heavy boots.

  11. Alex P.

    I am most concerned with the biological questions about antibiotics and genetic modification, ignorance on these topics has a substantial effect on society. No wonder people constantly ask doctors for antibiotics when they have the common cold or refuse to eat GM foods… they just really don’t get it.

  12. Bill

    I agree that these sorts of questions are problematic if one is trying to assess science literacy. Part of the problem is coming to grips with what scientific literacy actually means. Paul’s reference to the story about heavy boots is a great example of the difference between scientific knowledge and understanding (follow his link). These sorts of questions generally test the recall of specific facts or explanations that people may or may not have been exposed to during their education. Moreover, these tests only partially probe scientific understanding in the sense of being able to apply the principles, concepts and reasoning that support the facts in question. While those that understand science will answer these sorts of questions correctly, a correct answer does not necessarily imply that those that answer correctly understand the principles that lead to the correct answer.

    Most people develop many misconceptions concerning how things actually work. In addition to the heavy boots story, another classic example is the study of Harvard graduates’ ability to provide a coherent explanation about why there are seasons and why the moon has different phases (see the link at the bottom). People develop these misconceptions throughout their education and life. They are the greatest impediment for people to develop an understanding and understanding of scientific principles. It is very difficult to overcome misconceptions even when people can recognize that their understanding as incorrect. I sometimes joke that our brains don’t have a good NOT function. It’s necessary that one is exposed to the correct reasoning and understanding at the same time over and over again.

    In this context, I can understand why people accept plate tectonics but not the big bang or evolution. While all of these require dealing with long time scales along with a working understanding of physics and biology, only plate tectonics has clear and understandable consequences in our daily lives: earthquakes and volcanoes. It doesn’t take scientific training to understand the concept of the build up of potential energy and its sudden release causing movement of the earth’s crust. People experience such things in their daily lives, e.g., a stick bends before it catastrophically breaks. Moreover, most people have seen pictures of offset roads and fences following an earthquake and can make the causal link between plate movement and earthquakes. In contrast, most of the principles of biology, evolution and cosmology have no easily observed consequences in their daily lives. It’s then easy for people to dismiss our current understanding in favor of their own explanation.

  13. A Palazzo

    Sadly, quite a few of these questions were true false, with less than 50% of respondents getting the answer right (less than chance!)

  14. W Sides

    “Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)” Electrons are a component of the atom. It is a bit like asking if salt is smaller than saltwater. More correctly would be “Electrons are smaller then the nucleus of an atom.”


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

About Carl Zimmer

Carl Zimmer writes about science regularly for The New York Times and magazines such as DISCOVER, which also hosts his blog, The LoomHe is the author of 12 books, the most recent of which is Science Ink: Tattoos of the Science Obsessed.


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