Americans are becoming more scientifically literate, according to a new survey, but we still have a long way to go. Nevertheless, science literacy in the U.S. stacks up well against other countries.
Researchers at Michigan State University found that in less than 20 years, the scientifically literate portion of the U.S. population nearly tripled, from 10 percent to 28 percent. They define scientific literacy as having enough science background to understand a newspaper article on a science topic.
Twenty-eight percent may not sound very high, but Michigan State professor Jon Miller says it's high enough to place the United States at number two, behind Sweden. One reason for the strong showing, he suggests, is that American universities are not as specialized as those elsewhere. "The United States is the only country in the world that requires its college students to have a year of general education, which means a year of science," said Miller.
At many if not most American universities, first year students are required to take courses in science, history, and literature, before specializing in later years. Nick Allum of the University of Surrey in England says a British student in the arts would not normally be exposed to any unrelated subjects.
"Yeah, it's very unlikely indeed that they would have any science courses," Allum said. "It would be almost impossible, I would say. And that's not unusual. And in fact the specialization in Britain occurs much earlier, even at [age] 16, where you only study three or four subjects. It's possible to study only arts subjects from 16 onward."
Allum, and Miller before him, were among the researchers who addressed the question of scientific literacy at the recent meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco.
Another was Raymond Eve of the University of Texas, who described a survey he did several years ago, when there were plans to build the Superconducting Super Collider, a very expensive giant atom smasher, which was eventually cancelled.
"I did a survey of both college students and the public," Eve said, "and asked them were they in favor of funding it or not, but the interesting question was one that, down at the bottom said, what does the super collider do? And a very large percentage said, well, it knocks down missiles, doesn't it?"
Well, actually, no. The super collider had nothing to do with missile defense, except perhaps controversy and an astronomical price tag.
Scientists often cite the interest in astrology as a symptom of scientific illiteracy. As the late Carl Sagan used to point out, virtually every newspaper in the United States publishes a daily horoscope, but few if any have a daily astronomy column. What might be considered an alarming number of people claim that astrology is scientific, but as Nick Allum of the University of Surrey points out, they may be confusing astrology with astronomy. He conducted a survey in Europe and got very different results, depending on whether he asked about astrology or horoscopes. "And sure enough, we find only about 10 percent of people think horoscopes are very scientific - although that's rather a high proportion in some ways - compared with about 25-30 percent thinking the same about astrology."
Whatever the exact percentage, a lot of people put their faith in astrology, or at least have an interest in it and other pseudosciences. One scholar in the field, Susan Losh of Florida State University, suggests astrology's allure is that a horoscope offers answers to questions about life and love, questions that science doesn't even try to answer.
"I think what a lot of what we call pseudoscience speaks to things that science does not speak to: the meaning of life, the uncertainty of life," Losh explained. "So I really think that issues of, can I make it through life unscathed? What's going to happen to me next week? I mean, science doesn't tackle any of these things, but a lot of features of pseudoscience do."
Researchers say that among the weakest areas in Americans' understanding of science, are evolution and biology. Jon Miller from Michigan State, who we heard from earlier, says that may be because acceptance of science in those areas is more personal and more likely to conflict with deeply held religious or personal views. "It's very clear now that you cannot both accept modern genomics and think that Adam and Eve are your distant relatives." he said.
Miller's survey found that almost 30 percent of Americans are now scientifically literate. But, he said, we should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans can't understand the science stories in today's news.