Junkfood Science: Fun science facts: What do people really know about science?

January 16, 2008

Fun science facts: What do people really know about science?

The new report “Science and Engineering Indicators 2008” has just been released. This is that biannual report by the National Science Foundation’s Division of Science Resources Statistics under the National Science Board that reveals the state of science education, research and development trends, health of the science and technology industry, and the understanding of science among children and adults in the United States. The chapter on public attitudes and understandings about science and health always offers interesting surprises about what people think.

Being a collection of surveys, the report cautioned readers that some of the information is “subject to numerous sources of error and should be treated with caution.” Remembering these are survey results can offer insights into some of the seeming inconsistencies in the findings. What people say and what they do, or are able to do, sometimes differ.

Interest in science

Most American adults said they enjoyed learning about new scientific discoveries. While they said they liked science, the National Science Foundation surveys gave “reason to doubt the strength and depth of American’s actual interest in science.”

The percentage of adults who said they closely followed science and technology news has been declining for the past decade, according to the report, down to 15% in 2006. Among the news closely followed by the public, science ranked after news of the weather (50%), crime, community, health, sports, government, Washington news, international affairs and religion.

The NSF report also said that only 12% of Americans said they closely followed entertainment news and only 12% follow consumer news. [Most Americans weren’t really watching all of the Anna Marie and Brittany news last year.]

The internet is where it’s at

The main source for information about science and technology among American adults overall is television, followed by the internet, then newspapers and magazines. But television has the corner of things only among those with high school educations or less, and the eldest citizens. The more educated, the less people turn to television and the more they turn to the internet. Those with bachelor degrees are 56% more likely to go online for such information as watch TV. Reliance on the internet drops somewhat among those with graduate and professional degrees and they’re the ones that read newspapers and magazines the most.

When we’re looking for information on specific science issues, though, everyone with at least a high school education turns to the internet more than any other form of media.

But we’re not a particularly skeptical bunch. Surveys on media literacy and our ability to think critically and determine the credibility of information we read and hear aren’t reassuring. The majority of internet users considered most or all online information to be accurate and reliable. Only about half said they had “ever” compared the information they found on the internet with sources like a science journal or encyclopedia, or had ever looked up the original source of information or the original study.

Science terms and concepts

While Americans say they generally like science, most of us don’t know much about it. There has been little change since 2001 in the percentage of adults who can correctly answer basic questions on science terms and concepts.

Some of the findings helped to explain why so many people can be taken in or scared by things that sound scientific but aren’t.

Two science questions showed the greatest drops in the numbers of adults who knew the correct answer in 2006: Thirty percent of adults thought all radioactivity was man-made and 57% couldn’t correctly answer the question about evolution.

More than half of adults (55%) believed that lasers work by focusing sound waves and more than two-thirds didn’t know about the big bang. Less than two-thirds knew that it’s the father’s gene that decides the gender of a baby.

One in three American adults believed the sun revolves around the Earth!

And 45% didn’t know how long it takes for the Earth to go around the sun (one year!) or that antibiotics don’t kill viruses.

Ladies gave the poorest showing when it came to science and technology questions, but outshone the men when it came to the health and biology questions.

If it’s any consolation, as bad as we are, the report found that “levels of factual knowledge of science in the United States are comparable with those in Europe and appear to be better than those in Japan, China or Russia.”

Scientific process

As the report’s scientists explained, understanding the scientific process can be more important than understanding science facts. People often encounter claims that something is known by science, but if they understand how real science creates and assesses evidence, they can apply critical thinking skills and scientific principles to sort out which claims are sound.

U.S. survey data indicates that many Americans cannot provide correct answers to basic questions about scientific facts and do not reason well about selected scientific issues,” the report said. It added, however, that residents of other countries, including highly developed ones, don’t perform much better when asked similar questions.

Three out of four Americans could not correctly answer basic questions about words and terms they heard in news stories about the results of research. Nearly two-thirds were unable to correctly answer basic questions about experiments and scientific inquiry (such as what a control group was). While those with college and advanced degrees scored higher on questions of scientific study, experimentation and the scientific process, they still had surprising gaps, with only just over half getting the questions right.

In believing something to be scientific, most people said they relied on the research process and that solid evidence was most important. They also viewed as important in making something scientific, researchers who’ve looked at all aspects and interpretations of the results, and results that had been replicated by other scientists.

On the other hand, people are easily swayed by appearances of credibility and authority. Most people believed that credentials and university affiliations make something scientific. This belief was held nearly as much among those with the highest levels of education as the least.

And 73% of adults were more likely to think something is scientific if it was consistent with what they think is common sense — which, the report notes, is “a belief system that is not a part of science.”


“An additional indicator of how well people apply scientific principles in real world contexts is how they assess pseudoscientific claims, which adopt the trappings of science to present knowledge claims that are not grounded in the systematic methodology and testing associated with science,” the report said.

How many Americans believe that astrology is (very or sort of) scientific?


Another 4% weren’t sure. Even among those with bachelor degrees and the most advanced graduate and professional degrees, nearly one in six believed astrology was scientific.

In this case, with age seems to come wisdom, as beliefs in astrology dropped as people grew older.

Trust in science

Ninety percent of Americans think that science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable. These same numbers also think science and technology will bring more opportunities for the next generation.

Most Americans (70%) think that the benefits of science outweigh the harmful results, whereas only 6% believe science harms more than it helps.

While it might seem Americans put their faith in science, according to the report, 55% also say they think we depend too much on science and not enough on faith. That’s higher than any other country in the world that the report examined.

But Americans trust the scientific and medical communities more than they do the courts, Congress, the federal government executive branch, school system, major companies and banks, organized religion, organized labor, the press or television. Only trust in military leaders ranks higher. Trust in leaders in medicine, however, has steadily dropped since the 1970s and today only 40% of Americans have confidence in people running medical institutions.

So, the NSF surveys found that Americans generally say they like and value science, even if they don’t always understand it or know how to apply it. But people are logging onto the internet in growing numbers and realizing that mainstream media isn’t a source for credible science and medical information.

Bookmark and Share