As a science teacher, sometimes I feel a bit heartbroken when I see ridiculously inaccurate statements thrown around by otherwise intelligent and educated people, even my own friends and family. I can get pretty worked up. Drives my wife crazy. I’m the guy that yells at the radio in the car when the morning DJ makes an ignorant comment about climate change and CO2 being good because it’s plant food (By the way, it doesn’t work like that. It’s way more complicated.).
Facebook doesn’t help. I once got into a three-day “exchange” with a friend of a friend about something called chemtrails. If you don’t know what these are, good. Some people believe that jet airplane contrails (condensation trails), the thin white exhaust plumes that form as the hot, moist exhaust from the jet engines cools in the atmosphere, are actually part of a secret government conspiracy to spray mind control chemicals into the air over major population centers in an attempt to keep us all docile and compliant. Typical conspiracy theory stuff. I just couldn’t leave it alone.
He would say something about how the trails would start and stop and how that must mean that the chemical cartridge was being swapped out for a new one. I explained about air masses and relative humidity. His girlfriend chimed in with something about how there are more trails over Michigan because “they’re spraying the lakes.” I suggested looking at a map of the major commercial flight paths. He asked me to explain why there were elevated levels of aluminum in lakes. I don’t know, maybe because aluminum is the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust? My point is that every suspicious thing he claimed as evidence for this massive government mind control conspiracy was easily explained with a basic understanding of some simple science. I kind of felt sorry for the guy. His lack of understanding made some pretty common things seem mysterious and confusing to him. He fell victim to one of the classic logical fallacies, the argument from personal incredulity. This essentially says “I can’t explain this or understand it, so it must not be true or it can only be explained by mysterious force X.”
This worries me. I know it’s a cliché, but we are, in fact, living in a more complicated world. The political decisions that we (and soon, my students) are required to make are becoming ever more complex and reliant on a scientifically literate population. Human population is increasing rapidly and large portions of it are beginning to make the demographic transition to developed, modern lifestyles. The human footprint is increasing and scientific issues dominate the public policy scene. You’ve heard of them; climate change, stem cell research, alternative energy, green energy, conventional energy, energy security, nuclear energy, nuclear waste, nuclear proliferation, viral pandemics, vaccinations. You get it. It’s a lot and those are complicated things.
In 2009 the California Academy of Science commissioned a national survey to test adult science knowledge. Some heartbreaking highlights are,
- Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
- Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not exist at the same time.
- Less than 1% of adults know that only 3% of Earth’s water is fresh. (That’s scary, considering how important this resource is.)
Jon D. Miller, of the U of M Institute for Social Research, has been studying American scientific literacy since the 1980s. His research reveals some improvements. Not much, but some. In 1988 only 10% of U.S. adults had the basic scientific knowledge to understand the Tuesday Science section of the New York Times, compared to 28% in 2008. There’s some hope yet. However, when you look at the results more closely, it’s clear that more improvement is needed. For instance, in 2008 only 25% of respondents could give a correct definition of a molecule. Of course, that’s up from 13% in 1999, so…
The thing that gives me hope, like a ship on the horizon sighted from a lifeboat, is a surprising revelation gleaned from Miller’s work and echoed in a 2013 poll by Smithsonian magazine and the Pew Research Center– Americans are getting the message and are concerned. The dismal results show unsurprising similarities to Miller’s findings about science content knowledge. But, like a beacon from that ship, they also support Miller’s findings that U.S. adults favor more focus on math and science in schools. When asked the question “What one subject should K-12 schools emphasize more than they do now?” 45% of respondents mention some aspect of science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) subjects. Interestingly, we also underestimate how we match up to other developed nations. According to the poll, 44% of people believe that U.S. 15-year-olds rank at the bottom in science knowledge compared to other developed nations. You can take pride in the fact that you’re squarely… in the middle.
It’s true that we’re facing complicated scientific issues and that Americans aren’t terribly well informed about some of them. But knowing that we’re getting the message, things are slowly improving, and at least someone is interested in fixing the problem eases the strain on my poor heart and gives me more optimism. Twenty or thirty years from now, what issues will we be faced with? It’s hard to predict, but they certainly won’t be any less sciencey.