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Scientific literacy.
July 13, 2009 5:44 PM   Subscribe

Americans like science. But they think much less highly of American scientists than American scientists themselves do. Most scientists also rate media coverage of science as only fair or poor. Yet public knowledge of some scientific facts is .... not that bad (Section 7). A Pew Research Report reveals all.
posted by binturong (38 comments total) 7 users marked this as a favorite

 
Only 6% of American scientists are Republican? Why am I not shocked?
posted by octothorpe at 5:49 PM on July 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


more like pew pew research report amirite

But seriously, I'd like to hear of a group that the public loves more than the group itself does. Kindergarten teachers? Nuns?

Oh jebus, 84% say the military are a positive effect but only 31% say artists. Kill me now. Unartistically.
posted by DU at 5:58 PM on July 13, 2009



"contribute a lot to America's well being" - Members of the military. 84% wow. More than for teachers 77%, scientists 70%, medical doctors 69%....Are we living under some threat I am unaware of?
posted by notreally at 5:59 PM on July 13, 2009


I wonder about the poll questions on stem cells and CO2's relation to global warming, since those are somewhat politically charged. It'd be interesting to know what percentage were right, what percentage believed the opposite because of their political view (thinking everyone else has been mislead by the media), and how many people just didn't know, although I wouldn't know how to word that question without leading the person.

It'd be nice to see more polls on what scientific facts people understand. For example, a lot of people are afraid of the microwave. I'd like to know how many people think microwaved food still releases microwave radiation, how many people think that microwaved water has a different structure than water boiled on a stove, and so on.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:04 PM on July 13, 2009


Wow, according to Section 7, Democrats are dumber about science than Republicans or independents. I can't make sense of that.
posted by scrowdid at 6:04 PM on July 13, 2009


Oh wait, I just made sense of it. Money pays for more learnin'.
posted by scrowdid at 6:05 PM on July 13, 2009


These are very basic questions, according to the data you can also say that only 10% of respondents where able to answer all of these grade school questions correctly. I am hardly a scientist, by any stretch of the imagination, yet found these pretty trivial.

Indeed if 60% accuracy in answering is considered a passing grade ~66% of Americans passed the test... the really really simple test.


Now, ask about evolution!
posted by edgeways at 6:06 PM on July 13, 2009


But seriously, I'd like to hear of a group that the public loves more than the group itself does. Kindergarten teachers? Nuns?

I think the survey question is how scientists and the public view American scientists compared to scientists in other countries.
posted by inara at 6:10 PM on July 13, 2009


Wow, according to Section 7, Democrats are dumber about science than Republicans or independents. I can't make sense of that.

Democrats do best among the most and least educated.

Makes sense to me. The help the poor and otherwise disadvantaged and "when people think, the vote Democrat" as the Big Dog said.
posted by DU at 6:16 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


I think the survey question is how scientists and the public view American scientists compared to scientists in other countries.

No; it's about how they view "U.S. scientific achievements" relative to scientific achievements in other countries. It's a subtle distinction, but I think it's important that it involves an evaluation of historic accomplishments and systemic realities rather than scientists-vs-scientists.
posted by mr_roboto at 6:18 PM on July 13, 2009


I wonder about the poll questions on stem cells and CO2's relation to global warming, since those are somewhat politically charged. It'd be interesting to know what percentage were right, what percentage believed the opposite because of their political view (thinking everyone else has been mislead by the media), and how many people just didn't know, although I wouldn't know how to word that question without leading the person.

The Topline Questionnaire link gives all of the exact questions asked and responses [pdf]. One reason why I love the Pew research centers is that they make all of this available for inspection.
posted by DiscourseMarker at 6:23 PM on July 13, 2009


Less than a third of the public believe in evolution. Not sure if that demonstrates improving scientific literacy.
posted by bystander at 6:23 PM on July 13, 2009


how many people think that microwaved water has a different structure than water boiled on a stove, and so on.

Well, looking around I discovered that microwaves can superheat water causing it to possibly 'explode' into a boiling state when touched. I remember hearing about some other differences as well in physics class but I can't find any verification (namely that microwaves only add translational, rather then rotational kinetic energy to the molecules)
posted by delmoi at 6:28 PM on July 13, 2009


Are we living under some threat I am unaware of?

Your neighbors.
posted by prak at 6:35 PM on July 13, 2009


Hmm, no it looks like I was wrong. microwaves do inpart rotational kenetic energy to molecules, in fact actually work by rotating water molecules, which then knock against other molecules thus adding translational energy as well. (I'm quite sure a physics teacher or TA told me that they only had translational kinetic energy in class though. They must have been wrong. I also had a science teacher tell me that glass flowed like a liquid and that was why in old buildings the window tiles were thicker at the bottom. *sigh*)
posted by delmoi at 6:40 PM on July 13, 2009


Perhaps they are afraid of microwaves leaking out of the appliance.
posted by digsrus at 6:50 PM on July 13, 2009


Less than a third of the public believe in evolution. Not sure if that demonstrates improving scientific literacy.

Looking at the full questionnaire, it's actually slightly more complicated. First they asked
Which comes closer to your view?
Humans and other living things have evolved over time (61%) [OR]
Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time (31%)
Don’t know/Refused (8%)
They followed up by asking the 61% who believed in *some* evolution whether they believed in evolution through natural selection (32%) or the statement "A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today" (22%)
posted by DiscourseMarker at 7:04 PM on July 13, 2009


how many people think that microwaved water has a different structure than water boiled on a stove, and so on

...that tea made in a microwave is different than from a kettle.
posted by smackfu at 7:15 PM on July 13, 2009


Are we living under some threat I am unaware of?

Yes, we are. America is constantly being attacked from all sides. You just don't notice it because of our stellar military.
posted by !Jim at 7:36 PM on July 13, 2009 [1 favorite]


...that tea made in a microwave is different than from a kettle.

Huh?

Put a teabag/tea-egg in a glass of cold water and heat that up in the microwave vs. boiling water in the microwave and adding that to a mug with a teabag/tea-egg - of course there'll be a different.

There'll probably be a difference too between scenario 1 and boiling a mug of cold water with a teabag/tea-egg in it.

OTOH, ISO 3103: Standarized Method for Brewing Tea.
posted by porpoise at 7:49 PM on July 13, 2009


I would characterize those questions as more general knowledge than science* and media coverage of science as piss-poor. Including this article in fact. Questions about science should involve things like: what is the scientific method? or questions about interpreting common statistics, like the mean versus the average. Otherwise it is just regurgitating commonly accepted facts, which does not indicate any kind of scientific literacy.

*disclaimer, I am a scientist.
posted by fshgrl at 8:11 PM on July 13, 2009 [5 favorites]


Including this article in fact. Questions about science should involve things like: what is the scientific method? or questions about interpreting common statistics, like the mean versus the average. Otherwise it is just regurgitating commonly accepted facts, which does not indicate any kind of scientific literacy.

I am but a lowly liberal arts major, but the first sentence under the subject heading "What the Public Knows About Science," is "To gauge the public’s familiarity with basic scientific concepts as well as science topics that have been in the news..." which would seem to indicate that the quiz was intended to discover whether or not people were familiar with recently discovered, commonly accepted facts.
posted by Diablevert at 8:39 PM on July 13, 2009


That's my point. None of those answers requires any familiarity with science whatsoever, Basically it's a bunch of pub trivia questions about stuff that has been reported in the media to the point that everyone should be familiar with it. "Knowledge of science" implies knowledge of the scientific method, how theories are developed, tested and proven or disproven.

Additionally, even if a fact is established by scientific observation, it is just a fact. It's not a special "science fact".
posted by fshgrl at 9:12 PM on July 13, 2009 [3 favorites]


The differences in opinions about government 'vs' business is probably as much a measure of the political leanings of scientists as anything, as most scientists lean left.

And I agree that most of those questions barely went above the interesting trivia level.
posted by kjs4 at 9:44 PM on July 13, 2009


These are very basic questions, according to the data you can also say that only 10% of respondents where able to answer all of these grade school questions correctly. I am hardly a scientist, by any stretch of the imagination, yet found these pretty trivial.

Indeed if 60% accuracy in answering is considered a passing grade ~66% of Americans passed the test... the really really simple test.


Yes, I definitely interpreted the results differently than they did. That quiz was extremely easy and yet the results were fairly poor, especially the "textbook" true or false questions. Here are some of the results:

90%: Which over-the-counter drug do doctors recommend that people take to help prevent heart attacks?

Antacids
Cortisone
Aspirin

Not surprising that this was the one most answered correctly. Heart disease is a very common illness so a lot of people have personal experience with this, plus there are plenty of Bayer commercials on TV constantly talking about how great aspirin is. Also, the other choices aren't very compelling.

77%: Which of the following may cause a tsunami?

A very warm ocean current
A large school of fish
A melting glacier
An earthquake under the ocean

Considering how easy the choices are (a school of fish, really?) I would think more people would get this one. National news stories about tsunamis often mention earthquakes as a cause, too. Part of this issue is that tsunamis are more of a regional natural disaster so the US citizens surveyed would have less personal experience with them.

65%: What gas do most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise?

Hydrogen
Helium
Carbon dioxide
Radon


Although this question is the only one to qualify itself with "most scientists believe", I wonder if some people refused to answer it correctly due to their climate change views. Regardless, anyone with even a basic understanding of issues around climate change should know this one. Also, it might have helped if they put CO2 in parenthesis after carbon dioxide, since a lot of discussions around the issue use the formula rather than the full name.

52%: How are stem cells different from other cells?

They can develop into many different types of cells
They are found only in bone marrow
They are found only in plants


This is a good one to keep in mind the next time there's a poll about embryonic stem cell research, considering that apparently only 52% of the population knows that stem cells can even come from embyos.

46%: Lasers work by focusing sound waves:

True
False


Although 46% might be decent for a 4-choice question, it's actually worse than if nobody knew the answer and just guessed for a true/false. Sound waves, really? I guess movie sound effects might be partially to blame, but have the 54% that got this one wrong ever noticed that real life lasers like laser pointers or CD players don't make any laser noises?
posted by burnmp3s at 9:48 PM on July 13, 2009


"That's my point. None of those answers requires any familiarity with science whatsoever, Basically it's a bunch of pub trivia questions about stuff that has been reported in the media to the point that everyone should be familiar with it. "Knowledge of science" implies knowledge of the scientific method, how theories are developed, tested and proven or disproven.

If I know that Mario Batali is a famous chef, that "to season" something means to sprinkle it with salt and pepper, and that a localvore is someone who tries to eat food grown in the area where they live, then I know some basic cooking related concepts and topics that have been in the news. I am conversant in the current cultural conversation about cooking. It doesn't mean I could cook you a basic marinara sauce. Or Kraft Dinner.

You seem to be saying that the quiz is stupid because it does not test whether people understand how science works. But that's not the point of the survey; this is being run by the Pew Center for People and the Press, after all. The point is to test whether people are paying attention to recent scientific developments and their attitudes toward science as a field of endeavor. Whether or not scientists have the audience's attention, and whether or not they like the play.
posted by Diablevert at 9:49 PM on July 13, 2009


Only the stem cell one is even remotely "recent" and that's not exactly breaking news. Besides the idea that "science" is a bunch of yes or no answers about what is "true" is or a play that people find entertaining or, worse, something they "believe in" is rubbish.

Ask people to name three or four prominent researchers or whether evolution is a theory or a hypothesis and you might get a more meaningful result. ie- they haven't a clue.

The human race is lucky that many of it's brightest and best are willing to put themselves through the cutthroat soul destroying hell of graduate school and entry level research jobs for no more reward than a lower middle class income and the odd expenses paid conference in Santa Barbara.
posted by fshgrl at 10:41 PM on July 13, 2009 [4 favorites]


The human race is lucky that many of it's brightest and best are willing to put themselves through the cutthroat soul destroying hell of graduate school and entry level research jobs for no more reward than a lower middle class income and the odd expenses paid conference in Santa Barbara.

Ah. I see.
posted by Diablevert at 11:25 PM on July 13, 2009


The human race is lucky that many of it's brightest and best are willing to put themselves through the cutthroat soul destroying hell of graduate school and entry level research jobs for no more reward than a lower middle class income and the odd expenses paid conference in Santa Barbara.

I really liked grad school!
posted by mr_roboto at 11:32 PM on July 13, 2009


Well so did I, but it does break a lot of people's spirits, not to mention marriages and bank accounts. Most of my friends graduated then immediately quit research.
posted by fshgrl at 12:15 AM on July 14, 2009


but have the 54% that got this one wrong ever noticed that real life lasers like laser pointers or CD players don't make any laser noises?

They may have in the mind the lasers on ships in Star Trek and suchlike, which make totally awesome POW POW sounds as they arc through the cold vacuum of space.
posted by permafrost at 6:24 AM on July 14, 2009


I would characterize those questions as more general knowledge than science* and media coverage of science as piss-poor. Including this article in fact.

Exactly. Take, for instance, the question about Pluto "no longer being considered a planet." I was at the conference where Pluto was "demoted," and I still cringe a little when I think of people equating this sort of trivium with scientific literacy. Pluto didn't change, of course: what did was our knowledge of how many objects there are like it, and how those differ from the other planets in our solar system. Those discoveries were interesting, to those of us who care about this sort of thing, partly because of the debate they stirred about how "planets" are formed, how common different types of planets are, and what ultimately defines a planet as something other than a star or an asteroid or whatever. But the decision to name Pluto a "dwarf planet" instead of a planet -- what? is "dwarf" just an adjective? or is "dwarf planet" its own noun, like "planetino" or something? -- is, independent of all that context, just not a big deal. And if people get the idea that "meaningless labeling" is equivalent to "Science!," well, to me that's way worse than the possible detrimental effects of not knowing about the latest debates in astronomical nomenclature.

I also thought some of the questions about funding, "most significant discovery," etc were a little silly. Apparently 49% of "Scientists" receive funding from the National Institute of Health! And 21% of "Scientists" think that "regulations on animal research" is a "serious obstacle" to high-quality scientific research! To me, this suggests that roughly 49% of their sample consisted of biologists (I am sure as hell not getting any funding from the NIH anytime soon) -- which is interesting, I guess, but also makes the question about "obstacles to research" a little tricky to interpret. Some of the things that biologists apparently view as major obstacles ("implementation of human subjects rules") aren't even on the radar of those of us in the physical sciences.

Oh, and you can read more about the great planet debate here.
posted by chalkbored at 9:35 AM on July 14, 2009


77%: Which of the following may cause a tsunami?

OTOH, people seem to know what a tsunami is now. For decades, it would be "tsunami, popularly known as a tidal wave".
posted by smackfu at 10:13 AM on July 14, 2009


I thought Tsunami was the company that produced the arcade classic known as Crime Fighters.
posted by jeremy b at 10:18 AM on July 14, 2009


Apparently 49% of "Scientists" receive funding from the National Institute of Health! And 21% of "Scientists" think that "regulations on animal research" is a "serious obstacle" to high-quality scientific research! To me, this suggests that roughly 49% of their sample consisted of biologists...

Well...

In my experience, in a big university, close to 100% of the medical school faculty across all departments (physiology, biophysics, pharmacy and pharmacology, the various medical specialties, sometimes biochemistry, etc.) will be pursuing primarily NIH funding. In traditional biology departments (i.e. biology departments outside of medical schools; those that teach undergrad biology and are typically part of a school of arts and sciences), this number drops off somewhat, since people are doing botany or microbiology or really fundamental stuff without clear health implications. On the other hand, you pick up a bunch of chemists who have NIH funding, and a whole slew of engineers (particularly in biomedical and chemical engineering, but a good number in electrical and mechanical, too).

I don't think it's at all surprising that 50% of scientists are NIH-funded. It is by far the largest science funding agency in the country. And just take a look at any of the prominent cross-disciplinary journals (PNAS, Science, Nature). You'll see that about 50% of the work published there can be broadly classified as bioscience-related.

What's with the scare quotes around "Scientists"?
posted by mr_roboto at 10:23 AM on July 14, 2009


What's with the scare quotes around "Scientists"?

I wanted to suggest only that "Scientist" is, in some contexts, so broad a classification as to be almost meaningless; that I, a physicist and astronomer, have approximately as much in common -- in terms of my skills, methods of inquiry, and even potential funding sources -- with an economist as I do with a biologist, and yet those two groups might issue substantially different answers to many of the questions asked in this survey; that the answers to these questions are, because of this broad lumping-together, difficult to interpret, because they sort of conflate (for instance) "different funding options available to any one scientist" with "different types of scientists included in this survey, each of which has largely distinct sources of funding"; that this ambiguity might then extend to some of the other questions as well (maybe, possibly, conceivably).

This was, admittedly, an awful lot to ask from some quotation marks. Sorry.

(In particular, I didn't mean to imply that it was really surprising that ~50% of their respondents get funding from the NIH; just that this hints at the rather broad brush being used here, because there are whole departments -- physics, math, etc -- whose members would be called "scientists" but for whom NIH funding is never going to be an option. This doesn't invalidate anything in this survey -- I'm just curious about how this stuff would've broken down among subgroups of scientists, divided by discipline.)
posted by chalkbored at 1:12 PM on July 14, 2009


delmoi: "Hmm, no it looks like I was wrong. microwaves do inpart rotational kenetic energy to molecules, in fact actually work by rotating water molecules, which then knock against other molecules thus adding translational energy as well. (I'm quite sure a physics teacher or TA told me that they only had translational kinetic energy in class though. They must have been wrong. I also had a science teacher tell me that glass flowed like a liquid and that was why in old buildings the window tiles were thicker at the bottom. *sigh*)"

Wait, the thing about glass being an amorphous flowing solid isn't true? Damn.
posted by Mr. Gunn at 9:11 PM on July 14, 2009


Why don’t Americans understand science better? Start with the scientists.
posted by homunculus at 8:34 AM on July 26, 2009


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