Americans score low on science savvy
May 1, 2002 9:24 PM   Subscribe

Americans score low on science savvy Few Americans understand the scientific process and many believe in mysterious psychic powers and may be quick to accept phony science reports, according to a national survey There was a nice link today about logical fallacies. It looks like we need help in science as well. The National Science Foundation report it is based on is Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding I found the section on Science Fiction and Pseudoscience particularly interesting.
posted by onegoodmove (27 comments total)
 
Most of those questions they used as examples seem more like "this is how the average American's opinions differ from the opinions of scientists." Belief in the unproven does not by necessity conflict with belief that proof is important for understanding, nor does it strongly imply continued belief in the face of opposing evidence.
posted by Nothing at 10:07 PM on May 1, 2002


however, how a laser works is proven. Half of that test seems to be questions that science has been unable to fully disprove anyway.

and regarding "the scientific process," whoever wrote that article has no clue what the scientific process is because he used the term far out of both its context and its definition. Most M.D.s don't understand scientific process; however, the paths of M.D.s and Ph.D.s are merging and becoming increasingly irrelevant. I hate journalists: they always misinterpret the data (they are poor scientists).
posted by wantwit at 10:14 PM on May 1, 2002


But 43 percent say they still read the astrology charts at least occasionally in the newspaper.

That would include myself. I would also have probably responded in the negative to the proposition that the universe began with a big "explosion".

Many of the best scientists keep open minds about apparently prevalent but unexplained phenomenon. There is usually something there even if that something is a pyschological feature of our mind rather than some new physical principle.
posted by vacapinta at 10:35 PM on May 1, 2002


I felt especially bad about my science aptitude once. Then I went to a university. Now I feel worse. Is there a science about feeling good about things? Perhaps we could invent one. That would be just one more science I feel uncertain about.
posted by greyscale at 10:50 PM on May 1, 2002


Good, someone posted this so I can make my pedantic comment:

CNN, in their version of the same story, claimed in a sidebar that "the earth rotates around the sun" -- ah, and, look, they've changed it to the more accurate "revolves". Everyone knows the earth rotates about its axis.

Ah, delicious irony.

[I wish they hadn't fixed it. You'll just have to trust me.]
posted by gohlkus at 10:50 PM on May 1, 2002


It's no surprise that people in a country mostly founded by puritans and other oppressed religious minorities are, on the whole, ignorant of or agressive towards a scientific community that frequently tells them the majority of what their parents told them is wrong.

The number of people who believe that they have been, purely by chance, born into The [Society/Culture/Religion/Family] That Is Right is quite stunning.
posted by krisjohn at 11:34 PM on May 1, 2002


> 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that some people
> possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception

That can't be right, can it? More than half are that gullible? Now I see how those 'psychic hotline' things can make so much money.
posted by pracowity at 11:37 PM on May 1, 2002


60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that some people possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception
That can't be right, can it? More than half are that gullible?
Yes then no.
posted by holloway at 12:01 AM on May 2, 2002


A survey of 1,574 adults found that 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that some people possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception, a premise that is generally discarded as unproven by most scientists.

I find this statement really odd. Science is not about discarding unproven premises, only about discarding premises that have been proven false. Otherwise, a scientist is supposed to reserve judgment until enough evidence has been gathered to prove or disprove a premise. On the other hand, if a particular premise, such as the idea of people possessing psychic powers, is potentially outside the scope of what science can prove or disprove, then I don't see why anyone should be thought of as unscientific or poorly educated for believing or disbelieving such a promise
posted by epimorph at 12:16 AM on May 2, 2002


There's this little thing called occam's razor, epimorph...
posted by ook at 12:24 AM on May 2, 2002


Grrr, that should have been premise, not promise...

There's this little thing called occam's razor, epimorph...

There is also a little thing called knowing when to apply Occam's Razor. My point is that certain statements about the world seem to be outside the scope of science and thus should not play a part in evaluating someone's science education. For example, the premise that God exists is unproven by science, and Occam's Razor seems to tell us that it is false. However, we would hardly call Newton ignorant of the scientific process or a bad scientist because he believed in God. Same thing with believing that some people have psychic powers…
posted by epimorph at 12:40 AM on May 2, 2002


I think there's a little too much of an assumption that anyone who doesn't completely buy into a mechanistic scientific cosmology is ignorant of science. Having an opinion on anamolous phenomenon that goes against the current official consensus is really no different than having a religious view. I think the probability of the Raelians drawing UFOs down from the skies via cloning is very low, but at the same time if, say, ganzfeld tests prove clairvoyance then my worldview isn't exactly going to shatter.

The NSF and groups like CSICOP have an interest in blurring the line between an ignorance of the commonly accepted scientific facts like the earth revolving around the sun and beliefs in bigfoot, extrasensory perception, etc. I believe these are two very seperate subjects and its disingenuous to mix them as to prove the idiocy of your average american.

When I took astronomy we didn't have a test with questions like "How did Hubble discover that the universe is expanding" along with "Please disprove the UFO phenomenon and explain cult mentality."
posted by skallas at 12:55 AM on May 2, 2002


Newton's belief in God shows that he was able to ignore his scientific training and instinct -- or was unable to ignore his unscientific training and instinct -- when other pressures (base inner desire combined with societal conditioning and expectations) were strong enough. When it was focused on questions that didn't threaten to disturb his universe, Newton had an extremely scientific mind, but he was not scientific -- not rational -- when he weighed the evidence for and against the existence of the three-headed Christian deity.

> I believe these are two very seperate subjects and its
> disingenuous to mix them

There is a difference between the two classes of questions you cite.

We can prove -- can actually step off the earth and measure, if need be -- that the earth is spherical, is revolving around the sun, is rotating on its axis, etc. Anyone who goes against such measurements is as nuts as someone who believes you are an elephant.

We cannot disprove the existence -- prove the negation -- of bigfoot or ESP or UFOs to the satisfaction of true believers. They always dodge and retreat but never give up: OK, I admit that bigfoot isn't here, but how do you know he's not there, or over there, or under that rock? OK, maybe I couldn't guess the cards this time, but this environment isn't right, there are too many negative vibrations, the stars are not aligned properly, ad infinitum.

But given the armies of people who have devoted many lifetimes to studying ESP and searching for bigfoot and going after other claims of this sort, and the dearth of evidence that they have produced, it would be remarkable if they were correct and their theories were anything but delusions or hoaxes.

Real science could tackle these subjects -- a billion dollars to investigate a wide variety of ESP claims and show the world that, say, ESP exists in some rare, weak, useless form -- but the unlikelihood of ESP combined with the many more pressing needs for research in this world make most scientists uneager to devote time and money to debunking stage magicians.

And ESP believers and bigfoot chasers would never accept a negative result (logic and science are great if they support their ideas but are too limited if they don't), so such research is pointless from their point of view.

As for UFOs: Drake's formula is fairly convincing to me -- I'm convinced that, out of all the places in the universe, etc., there almost certainly is some other intelligent life somewhere -- but that does not address the odds that they have visited Dora McCracken of Virginia, subjected her to sexual experimentation, and implanted an invisible probe into her brain. I can reasonably assume that the universe is big enough for more than one intelligent form of life without having to accept the hokey stories of people who see lights and dream of ET.

As for God, see ESP.
posted by pracowity at 2:00 AM on May 2, 2002


The problem of course is that if one lacks such basic understanding as "the Earth revolves around the Sun" then one is also poorly equipped to assess more involved or controversial assertions such as "UFOs are Martian spacecraft."* Everything builds on something else.

As MeFi has documented repeatedly, certain Americans are intent on undermining kids' basic science education. (link, link, link, link)

*Or an example of greater relevance to life in the trailer park, if you don't understand basic math then you're an easy victim for lotteries and other such exploitations.
posted by Hieronymous Coward at 2:09 AM on May 2, 2002


We cannot disprove the existence -- prove the negation -- of bigfoot or ESP or UFOs to the satisfaction of true believers.

actually, it's pretty darned difficult to disprove the existence of anything (double negative propositions aside), believer or not. we can prove that the probability of something existing approaches zero so closely as to make no difference, but that is not the same as proving that such a thing does not exist.
posted by juv3nal at 3:07 AM on May 2, 2002


> actually, it's pretty darned difficult to disprove the
> existence of anything (double negative propositions
> aside), believer or not.

It depends on the scope of your assertion. You can disprove, to any rational person's satisfaction, the assertion that there's a moose in your beer bottle: define moose, define your beer bottle, look in beer bottle, see no moose, consider the assertion disproved.

Trouble comes when you expand the scope of the assertion and throw in intangibles, things that are supposed to be beyond logic and physics. It's logically impossible to disprove (by logic) the existence of things that are supposed to be outside logic and physics. (But that doesn't mean they exist.)

Anyway, I meant to say that rational people will accept that there are no leprechauns without demanding to see 100 percent mathematical proof -- which would be an unreasonable, impossible demand -- while people who hold irrational beliefs (or, as charlatans, insist on defending irrational positions that they don't really believe in) will continue to hold (or defend without holding) these beliefs even when the odds are hugely against the beliefs being true.
posted by pracowity at 4:18 AM on May 2, 2002


Belief in God, I think, may safely be put outside the purview of science, at least if you accept God as a being "outside" or "greater than" the physical universe, who can only be known by faith and not physical evidence. I suspect a large percentage of religious people and scientists would agree with that statement. Most believers in ESP, Bigfoot or UFOs, on the other hand, do think that their beliefs can be or are validated by the physical evidence. They just have a misapprehension of what the bulk of the physical evidence actually points to.

This article does indirectly relate to one of my pet peeves regarding science education and belief in pseudo-science. (This is my pet peeve, Fluffy. Isn't he sooo cute?) For the most part, so-called "science" classes are not actually classes in science. They are presentations of collections of "facts" that must be accepted on authority and regurgitated for the test. (At the pre-college level, these "facts" are often out-dated compared to current knowledge.) The important consideration of how we came to know these facts and how we test them for future refinement, is given extemely short shrift. Critical thinking to understand the strengths and limitations and implications of a theory is about non-existent, at least prior to upper-level college classes. It's not surprising then, that so many people believe in pseudo-science. All they know is one group of people claim to be authorities and claim one thing - another group of people claim to be authorities and claim another thing. Without critical thinking skills and and understanding of how science actually works, how can they distinguish?
posted by tdismukes at 6:19 AM on May 2, 2002


krisjohn: It's no surprise that people in a country mostly founded by puritans and other oppressed religious minorities are, on the whole, ignorant of or agressive towards a scientific community...

This brings up an interesting point. I would like to see the same poll administered to samples from different cultures (looked for one wihtout luck). While this poll points out some issues in the USA, it would be wrong to interpret the results as indicating that the USA has some monopoly on backwards notions. For instance, I have been extremely surprised at the stock many Europeans put into old wive's tales and what I would call "voodoo mumbo jumbo."
posted by syzygy at 6:23 AM on May 2, 2002


> Belief in God, I think, may safely be put outside the
> purview of science...

But many people suppose that their god has physical effects here on Earth. There may be some good physical science (and some simple thought experiments) that can be applied to this, certain tests that indicate characteristics of the supposed deity.
• Does prayer work? If it doesn't have a discernable effect, then perhaps it does not work, perhaps because there is no god, perhaps because the god doesn't care. If it does work, perhaps it is evidence that there is a god, perhaps it is the result of placebo effect. Try to define tests to narrow things down. Assume that good god would not kill innocent people just to fudge the evidence and stay in hiding.
• Do proportionally more good things happen to believers? Do proportionally more bad things happen to nonbelievers? If not, then maybe the deity, assuming there is one, doesn't care whether you believe or even whether you live or die.
• Is there a cumulative effect in praring for a believer, or does it only matter that the praying person is religion, or only that the prayed-for person is religious?
• If prayer works, can you pray against someone? Can a bad guy pray for protection from good guys?
• Are believers better (morally) than non-believers? How do the crime rates compare from one religion to another? Can it be attributed to an unknown force, or is it just a social effect?
• What are the effects of holy water on various things? Is it still effective if you use it to make Kool-Aid?
• Are priests morally superior to the man on the street? Are Popes better than average priests? If not, does that say anything about their religion and the god behind it? If the effectiveness of the church depends in large part on its reputation and size, would the god behind the church let its representatives be evil fucks to little children?

I haven't spent much time on this list, so I'm sure there are silly things on it and good things left off, but I'm fairly confident that gods and belief can be tested for things many believers claim about them.
posted by pracowity at 7:05 AM on May 2, 2002


pracowity: most of the things on your list can't be tested scientifically, as far as I can see. Some examples: Define "good things" and "bad things" without being subjective or vague. What criteria could be used to test whether prayer "works" (define "works"), and describe how it could be proven that the prayer is the one and only thing that could have caused the effects you're looking for (the study(ies) that have been done on prayer are deeply flawed in part because of this one thing). Define "morally better" without being subjective or vague. Describe how you can exclude factors other than religion when attempting to look at crime rates in different religions. See what I mean? I, too, wish there was some way to scientifically test such things, but thus far it doesn't seem too likely.
posted by biscotti at 7:36 AM on May 2, 2002


pracowity - You're correct, of course, that many religious people are still making testable claims for their diety's effects on the physical world. In fact, that used to be the universal norm, but years of science and observation have forced a considerable retreat from that approach by the religious mainstream. Still, what's testable by science is specific claims for those Godly effects (such as the healing power of prayer) rather than the existence of God in general. More importantly, I think that for many religious people, the belief through faith comes first and is not dependent on what they think the physical evidence shows. I was contrasting this with believers in Bigfoot, whose belief is based on what they think the evidence shows. (I've never heard a Bigfoot believer say "Bigfoot exists beyond space and time, you just have to believe in him though faith.")
posted by tdismukes at 7:45 AM on May 2, 2002


essay in the NYT a few days ago: Odds Are Stacked When Science Tries to Debate Pseudoscience
posted by gwint at 8:12 AM on May 2, 2002


> Define "good things" and "bad things" without being
> subjective or vague.

All else being roughly equal, is someone who believes in a particular religion or is prayed for by a person of a particular religion (or both) more or less likely to die young of a nasty disease? To lose family in an accident? To be murdered?

People aren't bits and bytes, but these things are fairly measureable.

> What criteria could be used to test whether
> prayer "works" (define "works"),

Well, check out this story:

But in the last few months, the MacNutts' little Christian Healing Ministries has been mentioned in Newsweek, The New York Times Magazine and the Washington Post.

They're getting all this attention because the 13 staff members and the volunteers in the nondescript building on West 67th Street in North Jacksonville are part of a controversial experiment: a study that intends to scientifically prove the healing power of prayer.

The study was conducted over the last two years by Dale Matthews, an associate professor and internist at Georgetown University School of Medicine. With funding from the Templeton Foundation, which has funded other health and spirituality research projects, he matched about 40 rheumatoid arthritis patients in Clearwater with prayer teams from Christian Healing Ministries.


More here and here.
posted by pracowity at 8:31 AM on May 2, 2002


If psychics are good enough for the CIA, they're good enough for me.

(not really, but I thought it was a good link)
posted by boltman at 8:33 AM on May 2, 2002


pracowity: The Matthews study was of 40 patients, hardly a representative sample, and I'm confused about the other links, the first "here" link points out the fact that the Matthews study wasn't performed by unbiased people, and that many of the criteria they used to gauge the efficacy of prayer were subjective (not to mention that I don't know if the differences they noticed in the objective data are statistically significant or not). The second is from a religious person who is clearly biased in favour of prayer being effective, and even he doesn't say that there is any definite scientific proof as of yet (aside from talking about the Matthews study) .

"In 2001, Mayo Clinic researchers have found no significant effect of intercessory prayer (prayer by one or more persons on behalf of another) on the medical outcomes of more than 750 patients who were followed for 6 months after discharge from in hospital coronary care unit. The patients were randomized within 24 hours of discharge into a prayed-for group and a control group. The prayer involved at least one session per week for 26 weeks by five randomly assigned individual or group intercessors [14]." from here. See also here, and here. I haven't seen anything to convince me that there is any way to scientifically test the efficacy of prayer, and of the studies done to date, the only ones I've seen whose methodology and interpretation appeared sound showed that prayer made no difference.
posted by biscotti at 9:10 AM on May 2, 2002


All else being roughly equal, is someone who believes in a particular religion or is prayed for by a person of a particular religion (or both) more or less likely to die young of a nasty disease? To lose family in an accident? To be murdered?

but i mean that's just the whole deal with religion, right? what i mean is: if you believe in a higher power, then dying is not necessarily a bad thing since you get to go to heaven/rejoin with the cosmic oneness etc.
posted by juv3nal at 2:15 PM on May 2, 2002


> of the studies done to date, the only ones I've seen
> whose methodology and interpretation appeared sound
> showed that prayer made no difference.

I'm not saying I think they proved prayer works -- religion is the biggest pile of horse bollocks on earth, and I would be shocked and amazed (I suspect that everyone would, even the supposed believers) if prayer were shown to really work. But I think you can test the simple claims about prayer. So, apparently, do Mayo Clinic researchers. You will keep getting negative results because prayer cannot work, but it's good science considering the vast numbers of people who believe it does work.

> but i mean that's just the whole deal with religion, right?

Yes, I know, dying is good, squatting at the right hand of god, etc. And no matter what facts you present, they retreat from them: they make a claim, you refute the claim, so they change the claim, or say, of course, that "God works in mysterious ways," which means that their god tortures children and we are not worthy to question his motives.

But I like to keep them on the retreat. Religion is safe otherwise. You get more monkeys thinking, for example, that it's better to pray for your dying kid than to take it to the hospital.
posted by pracowity at 3:02 AM on May 3, 2002


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