Tuesday, July 14, 2009

More Science Surveys

The Pew Institute has a new poll regarding scientific literacy and acceptance.

In general, it's more of the same things we've seen before:

Americans like science.
But they don't understand it.
People with more education understand it more.
People with more religious tendencies understand it less.
The media doesn't help.

However, there's some things that surprised me:

The majority of non-scientists feel government funding is “essential” to research. Granted, it's not a whopping huge majority (only 60%) but at least there's more people out there that realize this than don't. Why? The poll shows the majority of people think that scientific funding pays off in the long run. As can probably be expected, Democrats felt this more strongly (80%) than Republicans (68%).

Another somewhat surprising finding was that the most knowledgeable demographic was the 30-49 age bracket. Out of 12 questions, this bracket averaged 8.5 correct; A full question better than my own demographic (18-29) and notably better than the 50-64 bracket which only got 7.8 questions right on average. Was there something better about that group's education? Or is this just a demographic that tends to stay better informed? Amusingly, the only question my age group did do the best on was the “which of the following is no longer considered a planet?” question. I suspect it may have something to do with the “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet” Facebook group.

One question I've never seen before on these polls asked scientists why they chose their career. I was pleased to see that 86% of scientists answered that solving intellectually challenging problems was very important to them. Only 4% said the money was important.

Not only does the general public not know about the science itself, but this poll also showed they were pretty deaf to the oppression of science under the Bush administration. More than half (55%) of scientists heard “a lot” about it, but only 10% of the public was aware. Among those that did hear, 77% of scientists felt it was true, compared to 28% of the public. As expected, 77% of scientists felt this occurred more frequently under Bush than other administrations while only 28% of the non-scientists.

Of course, what would a poll on science be without the evolution question: Among scientists, 87% say they “think that humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes”. What about the other 13%? Sorry creationists. Almost all the rest are theistic evolutionsts. Only 2% actually believed humans were created in their present form (compared to 31% of the public). Happily, the younger generation seems to be more accepting of evolution. A total of 61% accept evolution (including theistic evolution). This falls about 5% per 20 year age group.

Disbelief in global warming, rejection of animal research and stem cells, fear of nuclear energy, and vaccines are also starkly highlighted as being far less supported by the general public than scientists. Fortunately, a strong majority (69%) of the public still feels vaccinations should be mandatory. I'd be curious to see if/how this has changed over time.

However, the public still remains positive about science, rating scientists as the #3 contributors to the well-being of society (behind the military and teachers). Humorously enough, that ranks us well above clergy and journalists (42% of those attending religious services say their clergy brought up science or scientific findings although the majority said that these references were neutral). As such, I find it very ironic that so many Americans get their science from clergy members and journalists.

But what are scientists trying to do to fix this? Sadly, it looks like it's not much:

While 87% often to occasionally talk with non-scientists (which I presume could also include their spouses or friends) about science, other means are far less common. Only 3% of scientists talked with reporters often (20% occasionally) and 2% blogged (5% occasionally). I'd like to see an break down of the frequency on the journalists by age. I'm willing to bet younger scientists are more willing to talk to reporters but quickly become disillusioned by having their work mangled.

However, one of the things I found the most disappointed wasn't in the poll itself. It was in the commentary. The commentator had this to say:
respondents did far worse on more complex science questions. Only slightly more than half of all public respondents (54%) knew that antibiotics do not kill viruses along with bacteria, and fewer (46%) understood that electrons are smaller than atoms.
I was disappointed enough when a poll showed that nearly half of Americans didn't know how long it took the Earth to orbit the Sun and nearly 20% though the Sun orbited the Earth. Those are pretty basic questions. But then again, so is knowing the parts of an atom. It's not even high school material. And here we have the CEO of the AAAS calling them complex?!

What happened to our standards? If junior high material is can be considered "complex" it's no wonder we're doing so poorly.

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