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Science and Engineering Indicators 2006

The new NSF report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2006 has been released. Below are the results of the "Scientific Understanding" section. While there has been some improvement, the results are still depressing. The numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

  United States (2004) China (2001) South Korea (2004) Japan (2001) Malaysia (200) EU-25 (2005) Russia (2003)
Lasers work by focusing sound waves (False) 42 16 31 28 34 47 24
It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl (True) 62 39 59 25 46 64 22
All radioactivity is man-made (False) 73 46 48 56 33 59 35
The center of the Earth is very hot (True) 78 39 87 77 74 86 86
The universe began with a huge explosion (True) 35 17 67 63 41 NA 35
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria (False) 54 18 30 23 21 46 18
Electrons are smaller than atoms (True) 45 24 46 30 42 46 44
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around the Sun) 71 59 86 NA 81 66 NA
Human beings are developed from earlier species of animals (True) 44 70 64 78 61 70 44
The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move (True) 77 45 87 83 62 87 40

I'm still shocked that nearly 1 in 4 people in the U.S. don't know that the Earth orbits the Sun, and not vice versa. That alone speaks volumes of the ignorance of society.

Concerning the low results on the Big Bang question and the human evolution question, when I first saw them, I thought that religion was probably having as much influence as scientific knowledge. Well, after reading a little more of the report, I found out that was indeed the case.

U.S. responses to questions about evolution and the big bang appear to reflect more than unfamiliarity with basic elements of science. The 2004 Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes administered two different versions of these questions to different groups of respondents. Some were asked questions that tested knowledge about the natural world ("human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and "the universe began with a big explosion"). Others were asked questions that tested knowledge about what a scientific theory asserts or a group of scientists believes ("according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and "according to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion"). Respondents were much more likely to answer correctly if the question was framed as about scientific theories or beliefs rather than as about the natural world. When the question about evolution was prefaced by "according to the theory of evolution," 74% marked true; only 44% marked true when it was not. Similarly, 62% agreed with the prefaced question about the big bang, but only 35% agreed when the prefatory phrase was omitted. These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas, even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas.

One nit, I think the "big bang" question was a bit misleading. I think I would have gotten it wrong, myself. Good introductions to understanding the big bang can be found on Scientific American and Talk Origins. Basically, it wasn't really an explosion in the conventional sense of matter travelling rapidly away from a central point outward into already existing space, it was the rapid expansion of space itself, with no central reference. Maybe you can still call that an explosion, but I think the semantics would have tripped me up on that particular question (but then again, maybe not, if I had thought long enough to realize that they just wanted to know whether or not people knew anything at all about the Big Bang theory).

All in all, though, science education has a long way to go.


Your blog is such interesting stuff KaylaX

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