NSF's 2014 Science & Engineering Indicators

Sometimes the Sun Goes 'Round the Moon

Chapter 7 of the NSF's recently released Science & Engineering Indicators report for 2014 has been making its rounds because of some figures that, when taken out of context, sound pretty horrifying.

The whole report is really fascinating, but I thought it'd be helpful to just repost some of the information in Table 7-8 which contains the questions that were used to assess global scientific literacy.  These are the questions:

U.S.A. (2012)China (2010)EU (2005)India (2004)Japan (2011)Malaysia (2008)Russia (2003)South Korea (2004)
True or false: The center of the Earth is very hot.
True or false: The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move.
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
True or false: All radioactivity is man-made.
True or false: Electrons are smaller than atoms.
True or false: Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
True or false: The universe began with a huge explosion.
True or false: It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
(Note: China and Europe were asked if it was the "mother's gene" instead of "father's gene."
True or false: Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
True or false: Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

Yes, it would appear that 26% of Americans do not know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, but it sounds like that question was pretty confusing given that at least 10% of every country's population couldn't answer it correctly.  By comparison, 16% of Americans aren't sold on the idea that man has ever been on the moon.

The executive summary of the report also highlights that responses were dramatically affected by choice of words--24% more people felt that "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" when that statement was preceded by "according to the theory of evolution."  Similarly, 21% more respondents felt that "the universe began with a huge explosion" when qualified with "according to astronomers."

Statistics and public polls are a strange thing, but I suppose these wacky statistics are what catch news readers' attentions.  Ultimately, the report states that "[l]evels of factual knowledge in the United States are comparable to those in Europe," and it follows that Americans aren't necessarily dumb; there is just a dearth of comprehensive scientific literacy worldwide.

Engaging the Public

I think the report has far more interesting (and positive!) findings that can actually make a difference in understanding national trends in scientific literacy.  The section on Science & Technology Information Sources (page 7-15) has a ton of useful information:
  • About half of Americans visit a zoo or aquarium each year.  This figure bumps up to around 60% if one includes natural history museums.  This surprised me in a good way, and it really highlights the societal value of investing in zoos, aquariums, and museums to engage the public in science.
  • Between 50%-60% of Americans visit a public library every year as well.  Given that the quality of information in libraries tends to be significantly higher than the quality of information available on the internet (especially when it comes to issues in science, e.g., global climate change), I'm glad libraries are still seeing widespread use.
  • 42% of Americans cite the Internet as their primary source of information about science and technology, and about two thirds of this 42% clarified that "the Internet" meant principally online newspapers.  This is good news, as people aren't overwhelmingly turning to crackpot websites.
  • However, 63% of Americans said they turn to the Internet first when looking for information on an issue in science and technology.  This is an important figure that emphasizes why legitimate science needs to have a presence on the Internet.  I'd even go so far as to say it emphasizes the need to have legitimate scientists contributing to places like Wikipedia, which is where people often land on a Google search.
  • I was heartened to read that "The news media was the least trusted source [of science and technology information] in both the United States and Europe."  Rather, people trust professional medical associations, universities, and science museums for information about science and technology.

Public Perception of Science

How the public perceives science and scientists is just as important as providing reliable avenues for the public to get information about science and technology, and I'm often (yes, often) struck by how out-of-touch scientists are with the public, and how unaware the public (seventh graders included) is of how science really works.

  • It's little surprise that public confidence in science increases with education--only 55% of people without a high-school education feel that science does more good than harm, but 89% of people with bachelor's degrees and 92% of people with graduate degrees believe it.  I want to know what 8% of graduate degree holders actually believe this...perhaps very cynical scientists.
  • Unfortunately, roughly 41% of Americans believe that "we believe too often in science, and not enough in feelings and faith."  The good news is that, internationally, this places the U.S. right in the middle of responses.
  • Only 38% of Americans feel that the government is spending too little on scientific research.  The overall trend is positive, but it looks like we're coming out of post-recession sentiment that tax dollars are better spent elsewhere:
  • While 38% doesn't sound bad, when stacked up against other areas of federal spending, it loses out to sentiment about under-funding education, assistance to the poor, healthcare, developing alternative energy (except this in itself is science and technology...), and environmental protection.  From the report, "[s]upport for increased spending on scientific research (38%) is roughly comparable to that for spending on improving mass transportation (38%)".  It still beats out funding parks and recreation, national defense, and space exploration (whose increased funding only got the sympathy of 22% of Americans)
The report also surveyed how well the public felt they understood what scientists and engineers do day-to-day.  I find this particularly fascinating, as I went through graduate school with the strong feeling that my family (who are generally well educated people) had absolutely no idea what I was doing.  As it turns out, 35% of Americans feel they have a good or excellent understanding of what scientists do, and about the same percentage (roughly 33%) admit to having a poor understanding at best.  Given the previous figure that 26% of Americans think the Sun revolves around Earth, I'm not sure what this means.

So What?

There's a ton more insightful information in the entire report (and this is all only from Chapter 7!), and I recommend that my fellow scientists look it over.  

As one final summary statistic, the overwhelming majority (>85%) of the American public agreed with the following statements that scientists are
  • "helping to solve challenging problems" (95%)
  • "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity" (88%)
  • "work on things that will make life better for the average person" (86%)
I find this very humbling, and I think it sets the bar as far as what us scientists need to give back to the public.  The finding that 26% of Americans aren't confident in the idea that the Earth revolves around the Sun is grim, but how does that reflect back upon scientists?  I would wager that the people comprising that 26% haven't had a conversation with a scientifically inclined person about the Sun and the sky and the cosmos.  And that's not necessarily their fault.