It shouldn’t come as a surprise to you that America isn’t the smartest nation. While this is due to a variety of factors, the obvious one is the lack of scientific education. It would be hard to argue that such an education is not valuable to either our economy or to our pursuits in general. An education in science, I firmly believe, is the most important education that you can have. What else could help you, and our species, if not learning about how the universe works?
Unfortunately, the numbers that we have on the subject are not great. Most Americans would fail a general science test, and many fewer know how to read a chart accurately. But most Americans don’t need this knowledge in their daily lives, so what’s the difference if they don’t know it, you may ask. Well, as we will see, this lack of general scientific knowledge has implications that extend far beyond not knowing how to read a pie chart.
Scientific knowledge is a vaccine, it inoculates you against pseudo-scientists and con men constantly vying for your credulity. And what happens when you aren’t inoculated with science? Then, as Carl Sagan would say, “You’re up for grabs”.
This is exactly what we will see: the less educated you are, the more likely you are to accept thoroughly pseudoscientific notions like astrology.
General Scientific Knowledge
The main source of data for this post comes from a report by the National Science Foundation (source below). To first assess the public’s understanding of science, they conducted many surveys over the years (the earliest being in 1992), asking respondents to answer 9 mostly true and false questions of general scientific knowledge. Here is a list of the 9 questions [you should know these]:
- The center of the Earth is very hot. (True)
- All radioactivity is man-made. (False)
- It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) Or (in 2008) It is the mother’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (False)
- Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False)
- Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)
- Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False)
- The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True)
- Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun)
- How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (1 year) (Asked only if respondent answered correctly that Earth goes around Sun.
While science education in this country seems to be on the wane, the report says that people’s general understanding of this scientific knowledge has increased little over time.
The main thrust of this post, and of the report, is that education is key to this critical understanding of the universe. As such, the report also outlines the factors that positively correlate with scientific knowledge:
Factual knowledge of science is positively related to people’s level of formal schooling, income level, and the number of science and math courses they have taken.[…] In the factual questions included in NSF surveys since 1979, which allow for the observation of trends over time (referred to as “trend factual questions” below), men score higher on the questions in the physical sciences and women score higher on those in the biological sciences.
The report also has a great message about the value of science:
Because science continually generates new knowledge that reshapes how people understand the world, scientific literacy requires lifelong learning so that citizens become familiar with terms, concepts, and facts that emerged after they completed their schooling.
But we do not really see that lifelong learning in the surveys. Americans don’t seem to grasp other important aspects of science, like probability, experimentation, and the scientific study. In 2008, 65% of Americans responded correctly to the two questions about probability, 38% to the questions testing the concept of experiment, and 22% to the questions testing the concept of scientific study.
Furthermore, the results from the 2008 show that only 77% of Americans can read a simple chart correctly and 66% understand the concept of “mean” in statistics.
So we have established that the general US population is not very scientifically literate. What’s the problem with that? For one, it diminishes critical thinking to a point where you think that a star, thousands of billions of miles away, has some interest in a hairless primate on a tiny blue speck.
Knowing What is Not Science
Of course I am speaking about astrology. The NSF presumably used this pseudoscience as an indicator for scientific literacy because the whole notion of your life being up to the stars is absolute nonsense, and not backed up by one iota of evidence. Clearly, those who have a good science education would reject such an idea. These are the results of NSF-funded surveys conducted in 2008. They speak pretty clearly to the value of an education.
US Respondents Who Do Not Have a High School Degree: Concerning Astrology
US Respondents Who Have a Bachelor’s Degree: Concerning Astrology
The comparison is astonishing. More education in science, and not necessarily with a science major, or with any classes in astronomy, leads to a dramatic reduction in the acceptance of pseudoscientific ideas.
As I stated at the beginning, I believe that the value of science and scientific literacy is priceless. It is how we find out about the universe, it is how we find the truth.
But what’s the harm if people choose to ignore such explanatory power in their own lives? As we can see from data above, this ignorance leads to more beliefs in pseudoscience, which leads to gigantic wastes of time, money, and effort that could be spent elsewhere. And the problem is not solely with astrology. Acceptance of a pseudoscientific mindset comes with a suite of irrational beliefs. What is stopping such a mind from wasting the same resources on psychic readings or homeopathic medicines, if this critical faculty is lost? Education is costly, but ignorance costs more.
Beyond concerns about your own time and money, scientific knowledge makes you a more effective citizen. Voting on stem cell research becomes a lot harder when you have no idea what a stem cell is. Could you possibly be holding up the progress of modern medicine with ignorance? Absolutely.
The real value of an education is not the diploma, or the job, or the pay raise. It is the wealth of knowledge that you accumulate, and the critical thinking you developed to get there. Science, as humanity’s most successful endeavor, can improve your life, but first you have to learn about it.
Charts: Culture of Science
Data: The National Science Foundation (all numbers for surveys contained therein)