Posted by Matt Young on August 4, 2005 06:20 PM

I just got around to reading the May issue of Optics and Photonics News, and I found there an article, “Americans Love Science, but Don’t Know Much about It,” by Tom Price (http://www.osa-opn.org). Mr. Price notes that 90 % of Americans (as opposed to 45 % of Europeans) say they are interested in science and believe that science is a good thing, likely to make life better.

That was the good news.

Here’s the bad news. Price reports that significant fractions of Americans believe in astrology, clairvoyance, telepathy, and communication with the dead. Further, both Americans and Europeans took a 13-question science quiz in 2001. Americans got an average score of 8.2 out of 13 (63 %), and Europeans, 7.8 out of 13 (60 %). Price notes that those who agreed with the statement, “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith,” generally did poorly on the survey: Two thirds of those who scored 4 out of 13 (30 %) or less on the quiz agreed with the statement, whereas only about one quarter of those who scored 11 out of 13 (85 %) or more agreed.

I tracked the quiz to an NSF Web page, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” which was published in 2004 and you may find at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind04/c7/c7s2.htm#c7s2l2. This report tells nothing about the number or the demographic makeup of the respondents, but I made no attempt to trace the survey further.

Right below are the questions, along with the percentage of US respondents who answered the question correctly in parentheses. I took most of the parenthetical numbers off a bar graph, so they may be in error by an increment of 1 % or so. (The questions as given in Price’s article differ slightly from those given in the bar graph. I quote the bar graph.)

1. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun? (55)

2. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (75)

True or False

3. Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. (65)

4. The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (48)

5. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (53)

6. The continents on which we live have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (78)

7. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (51)

8. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (48)

9. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.(45)

10. It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (65)

11. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. (87)

12. All radioactivity is man-made. (76)

13. The center of the Earth is very hot. (80)

The authors of the NSF report note that the response to question 5 “may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science.” It would be easier to accept that contention if the percentage of correct responses to question 5 (and also 4) was an especially low outlier, but it is no lower than the responses to questions 7, 8, and 9. Although there is most likely positive feedback, I find it at least as easy to believe that lack of knowledge about science permits certain religious beliefs.

Still, the report notes, “In the United States, 53 percent of respondents answered ‘true’ to [question 5] in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before 2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered ‘true.’) The 2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought the United States more in line with other industrialized countries about the question of evolution.”

It is also encouraging that “the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered [question7] correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in 1992.”

I performed a small experiment of my own: I administered the test to one person, a high-school French teacher with no background in science beyond a college physics-and-chemistry course in 1961. She unhesitatingly got a score of 100 %. Now, it is true that she lives with me, is especially bright, and currently teaches in the design curriculum at an engineering school. She considered most of the questions to be trivial and was dismayed but not surprised when I told her that the median score on the test was around 63 %.

NSF may be encouraged by the survey, but I am not. Half the population (assuming an unbiased sample) do not accept evolution, do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and do not know that lasers are light sources. Barely more than half know that it takes the earth 1 year to go around the sun.

Here are the answers to the quiz:

1. 1 year; 2. Earth around Sun; 3. False; 4. False; 5. True; 6. True; 7. False; 8. True;
9. False; 10. True; 11. True; 12. False; 13. True