Ignorance–woeful and willful

What Is

The National Science Foundation (NSF) asked thousands of people in the US and in ten other countries a brief set of questions about basic science. Nine of the questions are true/false; one is A/B. Here they are:

1. The center of the Earth is very hot.

2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move.

3. Which is correct? A. The Earth goes around the Sun. or B. The Sun goes around the Earth.

4. All radioactivity is man made.

5. Electrons are smaller than atoms.

6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.

7. The universe began with a huge explosion.

8. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or girl.

9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.

10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Here are the answers:

  1. T
  2. T
  3. A
  4. F
  5. T
  6. F
  7. T
  8. T
  9. F
  10. T

The article that has all the explanations and comparisons is here: https://www.sciencealert.com/the-us-government-uses-10-simple-questions-to-test-the-public-s-knowledge-of-science

Here are some of the results:

  • Of the 11 countries in the survey, the US came in fifth. Canada was number one. Russia did the poorest.
  • Only 48 percent of Americans know that an electron is smaller than an atom. 
  • Half of Americans know that humans developed (evolved) from other animals.
  • 73 percent of Americans know that earth goes around the sun! Roll over in your graves, Copernicus and Galileo. 
  • Only 39 percent of Americans answered the question about the origin of the universe (the “Big Bang”) correctly.

One thing it is important to remember is that for each question there are only two options. A flipped coin would get half of the answers right. That means that on the question of the electron and the atom Americans do a little worse than a random guess. On the question of evolution, Americans do one percent better than blind chance. On the question of the origin of the universe, Americans do a lot worse than just guessing. 

These are all questions that are a matter of basic eduction—much of it at the elementary school level. These questions are not about quantum mechanics and general relativity. They do not ask anyone to actually produce an answer. 

Overall, the NSF gave the US a grade of D minus. 

So What?

In my two previous posts I explored the sudden and dramatic rise of college majors in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math). I also explored the reasons why women and people of color are underrepresented.

This study shows a flip side. Despite the increasing number of highly educated people with degrees in science and technology, the overall level of basic knowledge is stunningly low. 

At one level, the D minus level of ignorance is sad. It speaks to a scientific illiteracy that speaks to a woeful state of basic education. 

But it is worse than that. On questions like evolution and the origin of the universe, we are clearly seeing ignorance that is willful. We are seeing a rejection of well established science. We are witnessing a cultural phenomenon with far reaching and deeply troubling implications.