For the last science column of the semester, I would like to discuss the scientific literacy of the American public. In his last television interview, the late and beloved astronomer Carl Sagan lamented, “We’ve arranged a society based on science and technology in which nobody understands anything about science and technology.” I’m pretty sure this interview took place before I was born, but I think its words are no less true today than they were two decades ago.
In the fall of 2014, the Pew Research Center conducted a short multiple-choice survey of over 3,000 adults in the United States that measured knowledge of basic scientific facts and ability to interpret data. The questions were about things like whether the core or the crust of Earth is hotter, and how light bends in a lens. Look up “Pew Science Knowledge Quiz” and take it. It’s only 12 questions to see how you compare to other American adults.
Individuals’ performance on the quiz varied greatly from question to question. On one question, 86 percent of respondents answered correctly and on another, only 34 percent answered correctly. Not surprisingly, people with more education performed better than those without. However, even among individuals with graduate level education, the average score was still 75 percent.
These results are not unique. There is an even more often cited statistic from a National Science Foundation survey that reported that one in four Americans does not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.
Though many have questioned the legitimacy of this particular finding, it is still shocking enough to force us to reconsider the public understanding of science in this country. Without science, we are blind to most of the workings of the universe. It’s all too big or too small or too fast or just plain undetectable by our senses. Science provides us with a way to look at the universe outside of ourselves, helping contextualize our existence.
People who are not scientifically literate are left in the dark. A recent example of this is the discovery of gravitational waves. To a layperson, this discovery may seem banal or irrelevant, but to those of us who can understand the gravity of this finding (sorry, I had to), this represents a huge triumph and provides more confirmation of one of the weirdest theories about our universe—Einstein’s general relativity.
And yet, despite the sheer awesomeness of scientific discovery, there are always people who say, “Great, how does this apply to my life?” To these people who cannot appreciate science and the natural world, whether for lack of literacy or willful disregard of the scientific process and its findings, all I can say is that you’re missing out. Scientific literacy is applicable to daily life.
The ability to interpret data and to criticize conclusions based on evidence are hallmark skills of a good scientist. I’m going to guess that those of us who have seen a TV commercial for diet plans have applied these skills. We are presented with the claim (call it a hypothesis) that a certain diet product can help you lose weight. I suspect the first question that comes to mind is whether this claim is true. The rest of the commercial provides evidence that the plan is effective, and our task as consumers is to evaluate this evidence and decide whether it’s worth believing, especially when we will get ripped off if we’re wrong.
If you pay closer attention to these ads you may even notice phrases like “clinically proven” or my favorite, “scientifically proven.” Someone without scientific literacy is not able to see these claims for what they are and is easy prey for someone looking to capitalize on their ignorance. At the very least, a basic grasp of good science is a form of self-defense against hoaxes and scams.
A proper understanding of scientific principles can also prevent you from being one of those people who sees an eye-catching science headline and then trusts a journalist’s faulty representation of an actual finding. I once spoke to someone who cited some silly online article about the fundamental nature of time to support their metaphysical position that déjà vu is when the future communicates with the present. After looking up the original scientific article in a physics journal, it quickly became clear this was not the conclusion of any scientist, but rather a miscommunication by a journalist.
It is my view that the ability to fully appreciate the utter grandeur of the natural world is reason enough to acquire scientific literacy. Even if you’re not interested in science for its own sake, a foundational understanding of science and evidence-based reasoning is an invaluable tool in our world that, as Carl Sagan noted, is based on science and technology.