18 December 2005

Science Skids

I approach published statistics with a grain of salt, particularly where run-of-the-mill media polls are concerned. The pitfalls of errant extrapolation should be obvious: a given issue or situation might appear dramatically worse than in actuality. Even armed with ample amounts of sodium chloride, however, it's quite clear that our society faces some alarming territory ahead unless we significantly improve the quality of science education in the United States.

As reported recently in the New York Times (Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much):

"Over the last three decades, Dr. Miller has regularly surveyed his fellow citizens for clients as diverse as the National Science Foundation, European government agencies and the Lance Armstrong Foundation. People who track Americans' attitudes toward science routinely cite his deep knowledge and long track record.

'I think we should pay attention to him,' said Eugenie Scott, director of the National Center for Science Education, who cites Dr. Miller's work in her efforts to advance the cause of evolution in the classroom. 'We ignore public understanding of science at our peril.'

Rolf F. Lehming, who directs the science foundation's surveys on understanding of science, calls him 'absolutely authoritative.'

Dr. Miller's data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century."

My jaw dropped to the desk after reading the above, bolded finding. I can't help but wonder what Galileo Galilei would think.

With my first paragraph's caveats fresh in mind, let's examine some similarly disturbing results from the court of public opinion. Spend some time reviewing the results compiled here by PollingReport.com. Pay special attention to the first section detailing the public's views on the origin of human life.

A number of political pundits have taken pot shots at the current administration and its supporters, insinuating that the fringe right-wing constituents account for the vast majority of these pressing educational woes. While I certainly appreciate that sentiment, in all fairness the numbers illustrate rather clearly the prevalent and worrisome nature of these problems. They transcend political affiliations, plaguing American society in general.

Sciences aren't the only subjects on the slide. I can't help but recall the results offered by the 2002 Roper National Geographic Survey:

"Among young Americans’ startling knowledge gaps, the study found that:
  • nearly 30 percent of those surveyed could not find the Pacific Ocean, the world’s largest body of water;
  • more than half—56 percent—were unable to locate India, home to 17 percent of people on Earth; and
  • only 19 percent could name four countries that officially acknowledge having nuclear weapons.
  • Several perhaps interrelated factors affected performance—educational experience (including taking a geography course), international travel and language skills, a varied diet of news sources, and Internet use. Americans who reported that they accessed the Internet within the last 30 days scored 65 percent higher than those who did not."

No wonder we've had a battle on our hands to keep evolution in biology curricula. Unfortunate numbers of Americans possess very little knowledge of the wonderful world surrounding them or the scientific knowledge required to truly appreciate its beauty and the diversity of life within.

Recognizing these issues is a matter of simplicity; addressing and rectifying them other matters entirely. I truly hope this can be accomplished for our benefit, that of the rest of the world, and the generations to follow. For the time being, it sure resembles quite a hill to climb.



Anonymous Fidelio said...

Excellent and well said sir. I look forward to reading more.


10:40 PM CST  
Anonymous Loon said...

It's heartening, though, that internet use seems to increase understanding and knowledge. There are two reasons. First is that internet access is spreading, so more people will be better informed. Second is that a poll of internet users skews to the young, so the people who are the future (just ask Whitney Houston) are better informed.

At least, assuming the internet has good info out there.

12:52 AM CST  
Blogger Wolverine said...

Indeed -- all the more reason the web needs more reason.

1:00 AM CST  

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