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Dismal Science

Saturday, July 11, 2009 at 12:08 AM EDT

Yesterday’s New York Times has a story about the results of a recent poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press concerning the perception and knowledge of science, among both scientists and the general public. The main portion of the survey involved about 2,000 members of the public, and about 2,500 scientists selected from the membership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which cooperated in the study. The AAAS issued a press release on the results. The results, although not surprising if one has followed previous research in this area, are nonetheless somewhat disturbing in what they say about the position of science and scientists in the US today:

When it comes to climate change, the teaching of evolution and the state of the nation’s research enterprise, there is a large gap between what scientists think and the views of ordinary Americans, a new survey has found.

Members of the general public do seem to have a positive view of science and scientists; 84% of the participants in the public survey said that science has a mostly positive effect on society. Asked which professions contributed “a lot” to the well-being of society, 70% listed science; the only professions with higher scores were members of the military (84%) and teachers (77%). In contrast, only 40% thought that clergy contributes a lot. with lawyers (23%) and business executives (21%) bringing up the rear. (Politicians were not included. You can draw your own conclusions there.)

When scientists are asked about the relative standing of American science compared to the rest of the world, 49% say it is the best in the world, and 45% say it is above average; but the corresponding figures for the public sample are 17% and 47%. I have previously talked a bit here about what seems to be the low level of scientific knowledge of the average American (as displayed in news reports, for example), and this appears to be a view shared by many scientists. When asked to identify major obstacles for science in the US, 85% of the scientists surveyed identified “Public does not know very much about science” as a major problem, and 76% said that “News does not distinguish between well-founded findings and those that are not.”

The public ignorance of science is reflected in the answers to some specific questions on science. Evolution is a hardy perennial among these questions: 31% of the public respondents believe that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time, but only 2% of scientists agree. Among the scientists sampled, 84% believe that global warming is occurring and is caused by human activity (principally the burning of fossil fuels); only 49% of the public participants agreed, and 11% didn’t accept that any climate change was occurring. Most disturbing of all is that about a third of the public respondents believe there is serious scientific controversy about both these issues.

If we turn to issues less tinged with politics, the public has taken notice of some scientific conclusions that are related to their healrh and well-being (although only 54% of the respondents know that antibiotics are effective only against bacteria and not viruses):

Americans are knowledgeable about basic scientific facts that affect their health and their daily lives, but they are less able to answer questions about other science topics. For example, 91% know that aspirin is an over-the- counter drug recommended to prevent heart attacks—but fewer than half (46%) know that electrons are smaller than atoms.

As I said earlier, I don’t find these results all that surprising. Having been trained as a scientist, and having done some teaching and tutoring in the physical sciences, I am not very impressed with the average level of science education that I’ve encountered, particularly at the secondary-school level. There seems to be a lot of emphasis on learning a collection of facts, but not nearly enough on what science really is. In my view, the most important aspect of learning about science is that it involves learning a new way to think: one that is more consciously directed, and that is focused on natural phenomena and verifiable evidence. As Richard Feynman, the physicist and Nobel Prize winner put it:

Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

The complete report of the survey is available on the Pew Web site; there is also a downloadable [PDF] version. There is also an on-line version of the science quiz that was part of the survey.