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Cultural ignorance and scientific illiteracy

by Donald Prothero, Aug 14 2013


An educated citizenry is the only safe repository for democratic values.
— Thomas Jefferson

My previous post on “Shark Week” ended up on a thread about American science literacy, so I thought I’d follow up on this topic, which is the subject of the last chapter of my new book Reality Check: How Science Deniers Threaten our Future. We’ve heard a lot about the abysmal ignorance of Americans, especially their lack of knowledge of their own culture as well as any culture outside the U.S. This video is particularly hilarious and appalling. Apparently, Americans don’t even know a triangle has 3 sides, or who Tony Blair is, or that Australia is not North Korea.

For many years, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno  produced short comedy segments called “Jay Walking.” Jay and his small camera crew would stroll the streets of Hollywood or Universal Citywalk or Burbank, and ask “the man on the street” simple questions about current events, culture, history, government, science, and so on. Invariably the interviewees would respond with astounding demonstrations of their ignorance of basic facts about the world, most of which they should have learned in high school or much earlier. They ranged from people thinking Abraham Lincoln was the first president, to not knowing the color of the White House or where the Panama Canal is located. Their ignorant responses reminds one of the famous Groucho Marx gag, “Who is buried in Grant’s Tomb?” The displays of misinformation and lack of knowledge were so appalling they made the both the TV viewer and the studio audience laugh with scorn (and a bit of uncomfortable self-recognition). Of course, the Jay and the camera crew taped plenty of people that DID know the correct answers, and they edited out all but the funniest displays of ignorance. In fact, my wife and I witnessed Jay and his crew taping at segment at the Americana on Brand in Glendale, Calfornia, in early 2011. Very little of what we heard (mostly non-entertaining responses) ended up on the show that night.

      Even though “Jay Walking” is entertainment and not a scientific poll, many rigorous studies confirm the general ignorance and lack of cultural knowledge of the American public, despite the fact that 85% of Americans complete high school (up from only 25% in 1940), and almost 30% get a college education. A recent poll was conducted by the American Revolution Center of 1001 US adults. Over 89% were confident they could pass it, but 83% actually failed. They found that:

“• More Americans could identify Michael Jackson as the composer of “Beat It” and “Billie Jean” than could identify the Bill of Rights as a body of amendments to the Constitution.

• More than 50 percent of respondents attributed the quote “From each according to his ability to each according to his needs” to either Thomas Paine, George Washington or President Obama. The quote is from Karl Marx, author of “The Communist Manifesto.”

• More than a third did not know the century in which the American Revolution took place, and half of respondents believed than either the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation or the War of 1812 occurred before the American Revolution.

• With a political movement now claiming the mantle of the Revolutionary-era Tea Party, more than half of respondents misidentified the outcome of the 18th-century agitation as a repeal of taxes, rather than as a key mobilization of popular resistance to British colonial rule.

• A third mistakenly believed that the Bill of Rights does not guarantee a right to a trial by jury, while 40 percent mistakenly thought that it did secure the right to vote.

• More than half misidentified the system of government established in the Constitution as a direct democracy, rather than a republic-a question that must be answered correctly by immigrants qualifying for U.S. citizenship.”

Another survey found that over 80% of Americans could not name a single Supreme Court justice, and some of the people they named (Sandra Day O’Connor, David Souter) had left the Court. In 2011, Newsweek gave 1000 Americans the standard test that immigrants must pass to earn the U.S. citizenship. Over 38% of native-born Americans failed a simple test about American history and civics that they were all taught in 8th grade and again in high school. Among the questions: 29% couldn’t name the Vice-President (and Joe Biden hasn’t really been hiding in the shadows like some VPs); 73% couldn’t explain why we fought the Cold War; 44% could not define the Bill of Rights; 6% couldn’t even identify Independence Day on the calendar. Even more alarming was the general level of ignorance about world events compared to just about any other developed nation, which scored far higher than US citizens. For example, Europeans were far more literate about the world: 68% of Danes, 75% of Brits, 76% of Finns could identify the Taliban, but only 58% of Americans can—even though we’re fighting them right now in Afghanistan (and the other nations aren’t). Maybe a century ago, such ignorance of the outside world and isolationism might have not been a problem, but now the U.S. is the sole remaining military superpower in the world, and we’re constantly facing threats from not only the wars Bush dragged us into (Iraq, Afghanistan) but just about nearly every other conflict (e.g., Libya in 2011).

Other polls show that American ignorance of their own government and its processes leads to all sorts of myths that politicians can manipulate. A 2010 World Public Opinion survey found that most voters have no clue what the Federal government actually spends money on. We hear one party constantly raising the cry of “cut Federal spending” but nearly all the Federal budget is tied up in categories (servicing our debts, military expenses in the time of war, plus Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare) that no politician dares to touch (the same poll said that 81% opposed cuts to Medicare, 78% opposed cuts to Social Security, and 70% opposed cuts to Medicaid). Instead, politicians attack budget categories like NPR or the NEA or Planned Parenthood that are a miniscule fraction of 1% of the total Federal budget. The poll showed that Americans wanted to cut foreign aid and spending, from 27% to 13% they thought it represented; it is actually less than 1% of the Federal budget. A study done by Stanford professor James Fishkin showed that people, when polled about the issues blind and then given the facts of the situation, tended to make rational choices on budget issues. The problem, is he sees it, is not that Americans are stupid about budgetary issues, but simply ignorant or misinformed, so that they are easily misled by politicians.

Such news stories pop up every few months, further underlining not only the general factual ignorance of Americans, especially their lack of curiosity about the world around them. The reporters telling these stories typically wring their hands in shame and shock that “more people know who (name a pop star or actor) is than (important political figure, like Speaker of the House or Supreme Court Justice)”. The general American ignorance of political and important cultural matters is indeed appalling. It explains why much of the current political debate about “obeying the Constitution” (which Teabaggers claim to believe in) is followed by false and ignorant statements about the Constitution (such as claiming that the Constitution eliminated slavery, or that the Founding Fathers tried to establish a Christian nation) or by cries for actions that are blatantly unconstitutional (such as their frequent attempts to eliminate the separation of church and state).

If the general ignorance of Americans is not shocking enough, their ignorance of science is even more staggering. Study after study over the years shows a virtually unchanging and an abysmally poor understanding of how the world really works. These include such howlers as:

• Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun
• Only 59% of adults know that dinosaurs and humans never co-existed (the “Flinstones model of prehistory”)
• Only 47% of adults can guess correctly the percentage of the Earth’s surface covered by water
• Only 21% of adults answered all three of these questions correctly
• And a surprisingly large number of American adults still think the sun revolves around the earth! This is not just the crackpot fanatics from the “Galileo was wrong” site but people who think this out of pure ignorance. No one knows how many American adults even think the earth is flat, but it’s probably a lot more than just the crazies who are part of the Flat Earth creationist movement.

There are shockingly large numbers of adults do not know which is larger, an electron or an atom. Most adults cannot give simple definitions of concepts like the cell, the molecule, or DNA. Only about 33% of adults agree with the notion that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice, and only 38% of adults recognize that humans have almost 98% of their genes in common with chimpanzees. Only 35% think the Big Bang describes the early history of our universe. Carl Sagan (1996) estimated that 95% of American adults were scientifically illiterate. Sagan was thinking of a far higher level of science literacy than these simple middle-school level science knowledge questions we have just mentioned, and judging from numbers we have just cited, he is not far off.

If American adults are so appallingly illiterate in science, what about teenagers who are still supposed to be taking science classes in school? Sadly, the numbers are just as depressing. Most kids of high school age know about the same amount of science or less than adults who haven’t sat in a high-school science class for years. According to a study by Jon Miller of Northwestern University (an expert on science literacy who has studied it for years), U.S. high school students are “below average and below most European countries” on virtually every academic achievement test administered in the past 30 years. Miller found that exposure to a college science course, on the other hand, made significant improvements on science literacy, but only as measured against a baseline of almost total ignorance. Currently, scholars are studying the concept of “civic science literacy”, which is more than just knowledge of science facts, but understanding science well enough to apply to their everyday lives. Here again, the results are equally depressing. Although the numbers are slowly rising, Miller (in a 2007 study) found that the “civic science literacy” of Americans was still less than 30%. As Miller put it, “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times”.

Another way to frame the question is to ask how we stack up against other countries. Study after study has shown that the U.S. is near the bottom of industrialized nations in science literacy. One recent study found that among 15-year-olds, the U.S. ranked 29th among the nations of the world. At the top of the list was Finland, followed by a number of other northern European countries (the other Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, the UK, plus developed or developing Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China). Nearly every other ranking in recent years gives similar results, although the exact order of the Top 10 countries might be shuffled a bit—but the U.S. always comes out near the bottom along with countries like Turkey and Cyprus that have a fraction of our wealth and our spending on education. That alone is a mark of disgrace for our society—that we can spend so much money per child, and yet end up with such miserable results, and nearly every other industrialized country does far better than we do. What does that say for our future economic well being when we’re near the bottom on crucial things like understanding science?

Even the PISA (Program for International Scientific Assessment) reports, which focus on overall science literacy rather than factual knowledge, rank the U.S. 15-year-olds 14th in the world in overall science literacy in 2010, identical to their rank in 2000. A close look at the questions in the PISA results shows that they tend to exclude a lot of material that might be influenced by creationist beliefs, which as I have argued before, is one place where the American literacy rate differs radically from most other developed nations in Europe and Asia, as well as Canada. The PISA results (15th place) aren’t as depressing as the other results (29th place), but still nothing to brag about, and clearly not as high as they should be given our national wealth and compulsory education.  Another point apparent in the PISA results is the breakdown by racial and ethnic groups, with whites doing better than Latinos and African-Americans. This is not surprising, given how the quality of education in any subject in school is strongly affected by issues of poverty and language barriers. But then the question arises: if even the white students in our best schools have much more spent on their science education than in most other countries, why aren’t they nearer the top of the list? Once again, we are reminded of the appalling influence of creationism on the education of the conservative, church-going white population, which closes their minds to the bulk of scientific knowledge, no matter how hard we try to educate them.

Some people would point out that ignorance and disinterest in the world around them is the norm for much of human history. After all, most humans in the past and even now have lived in non-democratic societies, where they had no real political voice, and thus no real interest in something they cannot change.  These people argue that only if a national issue directly affects their lives do people emerge from their little cocoons of trash TV, video games, and local town gossip to engage the bigger world around them. All most people care about is how to eke out a living, how to spend time with their family and follow their favorite pastimes, and the rest of what happens at the state, national, or international level doesn’t engage them until there is a direct effect on their lives. (I know a lot of people who spend all their spare time playing computer games and have no interest in anything outside this hobby—and many other pastimes fit this description as well).  Maybe in a non-democratic society where the average individual has no voice in their governance, this might be excusable. But as the Jefferson quote at the top points out, in our democratic society we cannot afford to be ignorant of politics and world affairs, since we are expected to vote on these issues. Nor can we afford to be so poorly informed in science in a society where scientific issues affect our everyday lives, and frequently become part of the political discussion as well.

So why are we so scientifically illiterate? Everyone has a favorite culprit. Certainly the media share a lot of the blame, filling the airwaves and print and internet with mountains of useless reality TV and pseudoscience and celebrity gossip. Even the science they do present is watered down and oversimplified, often to the point of being distorted or just plain wrong. That was the point of last week’s blog about the lies perpetrated by Discovery Channel’s fake documentary. This is apparently where most scientists feel the blame lies. There are many who blame our educational system, and argue that students need to be turned on to science early and provided with hands-on experiments and active learning. This is probably also true, but unrealistic in this age when education budgets are being slashed to meet politician’s needs to cut costs without raising taxes. I know many high school science teachers personally, and they are at wit’s end. To them, the issue is not just the problem of small budgets, inadequate supplies and equipment, and huge classes. They battle an almost impossible uphill struggle to keep the interest and attention of the average American teenager, filled with raging hormones and interests in cars, pop culture, video games, and the opposite sex, and to get them to pay much attention to science classes, no matter how wonderful and inspiring the teachers try to make it.

As I pointed out in my 2009 book Greenhouse of the Dinosaurs, one need only watch the transformation in children’s programming to track the changes in kids’ interests. For the preschooler and pre-teens, many of the shows are highly educational and filled with dinosaurs and astronomy and other real science. Science is clearly “cool.” Switch channels to the programs that cater to teens and tweens: it’s all about boy-girl relationships and getting along and being “cool” with your peers, along with lots of teen celebrity gossip and pop music marketed just for teeny-boppers. Science is no longer “cool” but “nerdy”; the “popular” kids try to avoid looking like they might enjoy it, even if they do. (Although teenagers do love computers and technology, if only to better communicate with their friends and catch the latest music or video or movie or game). About the only factor that explains this change is adolescence.

So how do the European countries and developed Asian countries like Japan, South Korea, and China keep their teenagers (with their own raging hormones) on track while American kids lose interest? Most systematic surveys on this topic suggest that these countries have far more rigorous and demanding educational systems that expect more of their students, and have high cultural expectations of academic achievement (especially within the family). No matter how many social and hormonal and cultural distractions there are for teenagers, these Asian and European students do much better than do American students.

In recent years, people have noticed that Finland has consistently achieved the best results in education, including science education. How do they do it? One study showed:

“In the 1970s, reports Darling-Hammond, Finland’s student achievement was low. But in the decades since, they have steadily upgraded their education system until now they’ve reached the top. What’s more, they took what was once a wide achievement gap between rich and poor, and reduced it until it’s now smaller than in nearly all other wealthy nations. Here’s how:

* They got rid of the mandated standardized testing that used to tie teachers’ hands.

* They provide social supports for students including a free daily meal and free health care.

* They upgraded the teaching profession. Teachers now take a three-year graduate school preparation program, free and with a stipend for living expenses. In Finland, you don’t go into debt to become a teacher.

* The stress on top-quality teaching continues after teachers walk into their schools. Teachers spend nearly half of their time in school in high-level professional development, collaborative planning, and working with parents.

These changes have attracted more people to the teaching profession—so many that only 15 percent of applicants are accepted.

The Finns trust their teachers, Darling-Hammond reports. They used to have prescriptive curriculum guides running over 700 pages. Now the national math curriculum is under 10 pages.

With the support of the knowledge-based business community (think Nokia), Finnish schools focus on 21st century skills like creative problem-solving, not test prep.”

Next post: Why does it matter?

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62 Responses to “Cultural ignorance and scientific illiteracy”

  1. MikeB says:

    I try to do my little part.

    I have no science background, other than about two years of university science classes that I took before I realized I did not have the discipline to pursue a science major. I majored in literature.

    But I never lost my love of the sciences, and so now I teach college level writing classes devoted to the study of the history of Darwinian thought. I also teach a freshman seminar about how we lay persons should evaluate claims we see in the media about food and farming. It’s a course in critical thinking.

    The results are mixed, dismal. Half drop out or fail. I tend to take the blame myself. I don’t know what to do about it.

    • Daniel says:

      “The results are mixed, dismal. Half drop out or fail. I tend to take the blame myself.”

      I obviously don’t know anything about your teaching methods or what you expect from your students, but perhaps the fact that a lot of students drop out or fail is actually more beneficial in the long run.

      Based on my experiences anyway, a big problem with higher education is grade inflation and that it’s too easy to graduate. College level courses ought to be hard, and should not be dumbed down to give everyone a trophy, so to speak. It breeds a sense of entitlement that seems to get increasingly worse.

      • MikeB says:

        Your comment reminds me of something my friend Alan says. He’s a microbiologist, a banjo players. He’s in his sixties. Whenever I talk about the standards in my classes, he says:

        “Don’t cheapen my degree!”

        I can dig it!

  2. Daniel says:

    I would suggest you spend some time observing the Newark public school system, and then ask yourself if we just mimicked what the Finns did, whether the actual quality of education and outcomes would improve in any significant way.

    First, 3/4 of the students in Newark get free lunches.

    Second, teachers in New Jersey have rigorous certification credentials, although they’re different depending on what they’re teaching. http://www.state.nj.us/cgi-bin/education/license/endorsement.pl?string=999&maxhits=1000&field=2

    And, the average teacher salary in the Newark public school system is $68,000 not including benefits, which are generally very generous. If that teacher has a spouse that earns a subsistence level salary, that’s a household income of $90,000.

    http://www.indeed.com/salary/q-Teacher-l-Newark,-NJ.html

    I can’t speak to some of your other points, since there’s no way to judge what constitutes over-reliance on standardized testing, or how one can measure the “stress on top-quality teaching”. But still, I’ve met quite a few teachers that work in Newark or non-magnet New York City public schools that are very dedicated, smart and hardworking. It’s hard to expect their pupils to obtain even basic reading skills, much less basic science skills, when many of the student’s parents are or were teenage mothers, they have absentee fathers, are often parents themselves by the time they’re 16, they’re embedded by a culture that is openly hostile to speaking something that remotely resembles passable English, and there is no effort to instill basic discipline (as opposed to obedience) outside of the classroom.

    Also, Japan places a lot of stress on standardized testing, and their students do quite well.

    http://www.japantoday.com/category/opinions/view/japan-and-its-standardized-test-based-education-system

    By all means though, feel free to blame the state of schools systems like Newark, which is where much of the real crisis lies, on Republicans, creationists and the tea party. It just won’t do those students any favors.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      Sure, poverty and income inequality in Newark vs. Scarsborough is a large part of the equation, as I stated in the post. Impoverished students clearly have bigger barriers to learning, as do those who are not native English speakers. But even when those are factored out, the surveys I cited showed that students in relatively middle and upper class neighborhoods are ALSO staggeringly illiterate in science, and geography and many other topics of basic citizen literacy. THAT is not attributable to being disadvantaged, but by not learning, or not caring, about what they SHOULD have learned in school. Those people who give dumb answer in “Jaywalking” are not from poor neighborhoods, but wealthy enough to be spending cash in big shopping malls that the interviews capture them in. The surveys I cited showed that this DOESN’T happen in developed nations in Europe or Asia.

      • Daniel says:

        “But even when those are factored out, the surveys I cited showed that students in relatively middle and upper class neighborhoods are ALSO staggeringly illiterate in science, and geography and many other topics of basic citizen literacy.”

        The surveys you cited, or at least linked to, do no such thing. While you cite the surveys that say X amount of Americans don’t know this or that, and Jaywalking, of all things, the only comparative study you cite that judges academic achievement does so across all students of a particular age, separated only by sex. Indeed, the CSM article you site has this little nugget:

        “Not everyone sees PISA as bulletproof. Comparing something as different as educational systems in countries with different cultures and populations is fraught with complexities; some experts say the rankings are not as straightforward as they might seem.”

        And then there’s this from Miller:

        “A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults,” he said. “We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times.”

        Really, you’re not interested in understanding the phenomenon or even remotely suggesting a serious approach to the problem other than to cherrypick data and take pot shots at “teabaggers”.

  3. BillG says:

    I would also add religious ignorance in the conversation. Many theists are thinly informed on their own (professed) religion and don’t know jack about counter religions or claims. Ironically, though anecdotely, I find the atheist/agnostic is often better informed.

    Is it a stretch to conclude claimed religious affliation would recede with increased doctrinal literacy?

    • Karen says:

      It is a stretch. While doctrinal literacy leads a few people away from religion, chances are they were prone to question what they read anyhow. The vast majority of people can live with cognitive dissonance, and doctrinal literacy may reveal a whole lot of things that one can brush away with “God’s ways are mysterious” or some such thing.

  4. Paul Willis says:

    Good article, but the Brits are fighting the Taliban (just like us Aussies)

  5. Karen says:

    Some scary statistics there.

    I started my MS degree in 2004. Because it was in a different field than my BS, I had to take almost all the upper-division undergraduate classes before being fully admitted to the program. There were several struggling undergrads, C students, who decided finishing the requirements for the science field was too demanding and shifted into science education. As far as I know, most of them graduated with education degrees. So the young people who struggled with science will have gone on to teach it.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      I’m sure this is a factor, at least to some degree. Most of the best students I taught in undergrad geology went on to grad school in geology to get a Ph.D., or to get into a geology career like environmental geology. Those who didn’t do so well went to the fallback job: teach science in high school. I’m just not sure whether there’s any rigorous survey information out there to back this up.
      On the other hand, at the collegiate level the best teachers are often also the brightest best people in their field, who not only got Ph.D.s but also are on the cutting edge of research. So the “those that can’t do teach” story doesn’t apply.

      • Max says:

        At the collegiate level, the best researchers can be terrible teachers, and the best lecturers aren’t necessarily great researchers.
        But at the K-12 level, most teachers don’t have a clue about real world applications in my experience.

        Almost as bad as management consultants who never managed a project.

        Where “those that can’t do, teach” makes sense is when retired athletes, dancers, and SEALs become coaches and consultants.

  6. Trimegistus says:

    Teachers’ unions. They protect the worst, encourage the better teachers to keep their heads down, and ruthlessly fight any attempt to improve education. And since oh by the way the teachers’ unions are heavy Democrat campaign contributors and election volunteers, there’s no way to change this politically.

    • Daniel says:

      It has nothing to do with teachers’ unions. Charter schools get the same or slightly lower results when you control for things like household income and the like.

      http://www.freakonomics.com/2007/10/04/more-evidence-on-the-lack-of-impact-of-school-choice/

      The merits of teachers’ unions, or lack thereof, speak only to budgetary concerns, i.e., can a particular state or municipality afford to pay what unionized teachers demand.

      • Max says:

        “Teachers union chief: Bad teachers should find new jobs”
        http://www.deseretnews.com/article/765634471/Teachers-chief-Bad-teachers-should-find-new-jobs.html

        School reform advocates often point to teacher tenure as a roadblock to change. Those advocates say the promise of essential lifetime jobs has left teachers unaccountable and leaves students in classrooms with uninspired teachers. If a teacher has no real prospect of being dismissed, there is little a school official can do to force changes.
        Correct, Weingarten said. Some teachers fit that bill and should be kicked out of classrooms if they have been given a manageable classroom and sufficient supplemental training.
        “We want people to be prepared and supported,” she told reporters after the speech. “But if they can’t do our job, which is the hardest job in America, then they shouldn’t be there.”

  7. Max says:

    “Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun”

    Oh, it’s worse than that. It’s not 53% of all adults, but only of the 73% of adults who know that the Earth goes around the Sun and not vice-versa.

    • kermit says:

      Worse than that, even. I assume that most folks do not have a strong religious or ideological reason for getting this wrong. (Christian Fundamentalists, for example, might have religious reasons for getting evolution and age-of-Earth related questions wrong). Therefore, many of those who answered wrongly simply *guessed* wrong. If this is a multiple choice test/survey, I would think that this implies that many who chose the right answer simply guessed also. But I suppose that 53% would include these.

      • Max says:

        The question about whether the Earth goes around the sun is true/false, but the question about how long it takes doesn’t appear to be multiple choice, but I’m not sure.

  8. Max says:

    As I said in the last thread, the U.S. did relatively ok compared to other countries on most science questions in the survey, except the ones on the Big Bang and evolution.
    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind06/append/c7/at07-10.pdf

    For example, 54% of Americans knew that antibiotics don’t kill viruses as well as bacteria, compared to 46% of Europeans and just 23% of the Japanese. And that question is more relevant to most people’s lives than whether the universe started with a big explosion.

  9. Max says:

    “Another point apparent in the PISA results is the breakdown by racial and ethnic groups, with whites doing better than Latinos and African-Americans. This is not surprising, given how the quality of education in any subject in school is strongly affected by issues of poverty and language barriers.”

    Why do Asian Americans do better than whites?

    • Daniel says:

      Or Indian Americans for that matter.

    • kermit says:

      Do third generation (or more) Asian students do better than white Americans? I would guess that the longer a youngster’s family has been in this country, the more they will be achieving on par with others of their income level and region. If true, this would indicate the difference is due largely to culture and family dynamics.

      • Daniel says:

        Self selection probably has a lot to do with it too, especially with respect to Indians. Immigration from the eastern hemisphere is a lot more restrictive these days than it was in the early twentieth century. So the people that want to take the effort to immigrate to the US will have to be more motivated, and have more resources, which will tend to be skewed towards people that will perform better in school. In fact, US immigration laws are designed to let more skilled workers into the country.

        While the upper crust of Indian society is getting larger, the fact remains that there is still an extremely large chunk of the population that is backward and superstitious to the point that it would make your average US creationist look like James Randi. These types are generally not the ones that are immigrating to the US, or if they are, more often than not, they come by themselves, work very hard, and send money back home.

      • Max says:

        Immigrants from Mexico are motivated too, so that’s not the main difference, nor are “poverty and language barriers.” And I’m not talking about foreign grad students and H-1B workers, I’m talking about immigrants who come to the U.S. with no money and barely speaking English.
        The difference is that, as Karen said below, the Asian parents pressure their children into professional occupations.

      • Daniel says:

        By “motivated”, I mean it is a lot more burdensome to move an entire family from India than it is Mexico, simply by virtue of geography. In other words, it costs a lot less for a Mexican immigrant to immigrate one way or the other, and it’s a lot easier for a Mexican to immigrate illegally than it is for someone across the ocean.

        So generally, the people that are immigrating from India and setting down roots in the US are from the upper crust, as opposed to out in the hinterland where the population is really superstitious and backward.

        Or another way to think of it is that if, theoretically you could put the entire population of India into Mexico and vice versa, we might very well be saying how successful Mexicans do as immigrants to the US.

  10. Karen says:

    Back in the early 80’s when I was taking some computer engineering classes to update my skills, I had a classmate of East Asian descent who commented over lunch one day that he’d failed his family. Apparently they had wanted him to go into medicine or law, and that engineering was seen as a second-class occupation in his family.

    Now _that’s_ familial pressure to succeed.

    • Karen says:

      Oh, and given his skills, energy, and lack of risk-aversion, he’s probably founded a successful startup and made millions by now. This was in Silicon Valley, after all.

  11. Max says:

    I had a pretty good math teacher and AP physics teacher at my school. Nice guys who knew what they were talking about and sponsored math and physics competitions. But the physics teacher told me about his other physics class, where students threw staplers. And I was the math teacher’s assistant in his algebra class, where he spent most of the time saying “Who threw that?” and sending students to the referral room. Same school, same teachers, different students.

    I had bad teachers too. One taught an AP class with relatively smart students, but he was a hippie who was against teaching to the test, so the students either didn’t take the AP test, or got low scores, yet they considered him a good teacher.

  12. Stephen H says:

    Wait, the Finns didn’t just say “the private sector can do it better”? Here in Australia the big push is for standardised testing lately – we seem to pick up on the rest of the world’s social experiments right after the rest of the world figures how badly they have actually performed.

    “73% couldn’t explain why we fought the Cold War”. It may be because I’m Australian, but I can’t explain the Cold War either. The clash of ideologies cost a hell of a lot of money and freedom.

    • Max says:

      If you were fighting for Communism, you were just fighting for the other side. The KGB wasn’t just about spy games and purges, but also “active measures” like disinformation, propaganda, and subversion.
      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Active_measures

      • Stephen H says:

        Ah – so the KGB was responsible for the Bay of Pigs? The Hollywood Ten? Gotcha.

      • Max says:

        http://archive.frontpagemag.com/readArticle.aspx?ARTID=8914
        “The Hollywood Ten were not, as it happened, spies for the USSR, but they belonged to a Party that –as even left-wing ‘revisionists’ now acknowledge– planted spies for the Soviet Union throughout the US government as a matter of course. Ellen-Shrecker, the chronicler of the blacklist as it functioned in educational institutions, has admitted that Earl Browder, the leader of the CPUSA during its most ‘liberal’ period (1941-1945: the Second Popular Front), was in fact a key talent scout and recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, ‘routing volunteers to the KGB and identifying secret Party members who could be of use.'”

  13. Max says:

    Standardized testing makes students perform worse on standardized tests?

  14. Max says:

    Can anyone explain these stats?

    http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind10/append/c7/at07-10.pdf

    “It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.”
    High school grads: 64% correct
    Baccalaureate: 64% correct
    Graduate/professional: 74% correct

    So far, so good. Now, the alternative version of the question:

    “It is the mother’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.”
    High school grads: 69% correct
    Baccalaureate: 92% correct
    Graduate/professional: 78% correct

    What’s with the huge jump in Baccalaureate? This is where I’d double-check the Excel sheet.

    • Daniel says:

      To be honest, the question seems to me to be a bit confusing. By using the word “gene” it kind of conveys the sense that the test is asking whether a parent is genetically predisposed to having a girl or a boy.

      • Zoe Brain says:

        The correct answer would be neither – but having 46,XY chromosomes very strongly biases the odds towards being male, and similarly, having 46,XX chromosomes biases the odds even more strongly towards being female.

        However… the Y chromosome can come from the mother, if she’s XY or XXY. And foetal hormonal environment can cause sex reversal, as can gene sequences for 5ARD, 17BHSD, 3BHSD etc not on either X or Y chromosomes.

        I wish the science of biological sex wasn’t stuck on such a low ring of Wittgenstein’s ladder. It causes enormous problems for Trans and Intersex people.

    • Bruce says:

      Both ans. are true. The males gene decides if the fetus is a male or female but the mother decides if it is a boy or a girl, that is given human status (human rights). When the ambiguity of the question is considered, baby can be interpeted as fetus (human potential) in the first but more likly as baby (with human rights) in the second, one can see where the difference can arise.

  15. Alan(UK) says:

    I know that the United States of America is a country on an island between Europe and Asia but I have never been there. Nevertheless, I got virtually all the questions right on a site giving a vast number of questions like those in the US citizenship test. These were of course multi-choice questions. The first worrying thing was that I could not have given the correct answers if the correct answers were not already in front of me. No doubt you clever biology and medical people can explain it. As far as I can see, the purpose of this type of test is to produce a ‘score’ or more cynically, to produce money by producing a score.

    In England pupils take General Certificate of Secondary Education; mostly at age 16 and in up to 10 subjects. They can go on to do Advanced Level exams two years later in 3 or 4 subjects. At the school where I work, this level of achievement is quite usual.

    All the pupils study physics as a separate subject and get high grades in the GCSE exam. But then they have been taught in well equipped laboratories by good teachers qualified in the subject. Most will then drop it in favour of other subjects.

    When I collect in the text books after the examination period, I think that for most this will have been their only exposure to the subject and basically anything that they remember will probably have to do them for life. Some of the books are returned looking remarkably unread.

    In most schools less physics will be taught and pupils will only be able to get a general science qualification in physics, chemistry and biology worth 2 subjects at GCSE. Less able pupils will be taught even less and can only get a single GCSE. Of course, many will get a low grade even in that.

    Many schools do not have a physics teacher with a degree in a physics related subject so often even A-level physics is being taught by a biologist.

    Text books have errors, in fact the errors are passed on from generation to generation of writers. As these books are ‘approved by’ or even published by the examination boards, the errors now become the ‘correct’ answers to the questions.

    Our most famous university allows its name and insignia to be printed on International General Certificate of Education physics examination papers. Moreover, it published one of these papers on its website as an example paper. We should be talking about the best of the best here.

    One of the questions, with multi-choice answers, is about magnets attracting or repelling. The last part involves a magnet and an electrically charged plastic rod. I knew the answer to this as 50 years before I had turned a heavy metal tube with a charged plastic comb. I would have thought the answer was obvious but I set up the apparatus in the school physics lab to confirm it.

    What answer do the examiners, with the resources of the Cavendish Laboratory behind them, get? Answer: ‘It neither attracts nor repels’. Remember, the candidate gets no chance to explain his answer – just boxes to tick.

    But, it gets worse. After the examination papers are marked, they produce a report. What do they have to say about this question? “The most common mistake was in (d), where some candidates thought that the rod and magnet would be attracted.”

    Even with the right answer in front of them, they still don’t get it.

    This was at least a proper physics question. Most exams, due to government diktat, are peppered with stupid questions that have only a tenuous link with the subject.

    The big scam is that the test scores are supposed to tell how well each candidate has done. But the same scores are supposed to tell that the test is equivalent in difficulty to previous tests. And, the same scores are supposed to show that the standard of achievement overall is improving year-on-year.

    The problem with these examinations (and this applies as much, if not more, to the pollster in the shopping mall) is that the the objective is not to give the candidate the opportunity to demonstrate what he knows for the benefit of himself and those that he will have dealings with. Rather, the objective is to produce a result that, when analysed statistically, is the one that the customer is paying for. Of course, what the customer is paying for is the result that the government wants.

    As the standard of knowledge about statistics is even lower than about science, it is possible to fool almost everyone almost all of the time.

    Are Americans stupid? Or is it just that certain people want to show that they are? In the US, compared to the UK, showing your ignorance is more socially acceptable. Take TV for instance (and you can take it as far as I am concerned) the objective is to fill up the space between the adverts with pictures and words. The people that can do this are looked up to.

  16. Factchecker says:

    Could you provide a citation for the Jefferson epigraph? He certainly wrote similar sentiments, but I can’t seem to find a source for this particular quote.

  17. Graham says:

    One thing left out is the apparently popular view that NASA gets between %10 to %25 percent of the US budget when like most things it’s less than %1. One ‘cut the waste’ pundit supposedly said “So that’s why they never get anywhere…” when told how much money NASA actually gets.

  18. Andy says:

    Minor quibble on an excellent article: disinterest vs. uninterest. The key issue is that most students are uninterested in science, not that they are disinterested. http://www.dailywritingtips.com/disinterested-not-the-same-as-uninterested/

    • Daniel says:

      You should quibble more with the factual inaccuracies, cherry picking of data, flat out misrepresentation of what’s in his sources, and highly questionable conclusions. When he gets called out on it, he doesn’t respond, and can’t even admit that he made any mistakes.

  19. Wendell says:

    A little legal/historical correction: The Constitution did end slavery. It is called the Thirteenth Amendment. To the extent the Emancipation Proclamation had any legal affect (it didn’t) it applied only to those States that remained in rebellion as of January 1, 1863. Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri were never in rebellion and, therefore, it did not apply to them. Slavery became illegal in all three in 1869 when the 13th (and 14th and 15th) Amendment was ratified. An “amendment” to the Constitution is just as much a part of the Constitution as the original Articles.

  20. Denny says:

    It is not that teachers are not teaching, but the real question is, are the students absorbing what they need to know for their field of endeavor. One element that effects the amount they absorb is distraction. A lot was mentioned about science and it should be noted that the study of any science is difficult because it is changing. What you learn in high school may be obsolete by the time you begin studies in college. When you add up distractions and change in science, the student is easily frustrated and may decide in favor of a change in curriculum. One of the things that you should learn from your education is that some things do change because as science improves its methods and research increases the knowledge base, we must continue to learn and review what we already know and compare with the new technology. The perfect example is in computers. Obviously, advancements in this technology have skyrocketed and are still increasing at appreciable rates. If computers are a significant part of a persons work environment, refresher courses are necessary to
    stay abreast of changes to be competitive. With all due respect to teachers, it is difficult to keep up
    to date on scientific advancements, but for students to receive the full benefit of their education,
    teachers must stay current with these advancements. The ideal situation would be to have teachers
    available from industry that are part of the personnel that causes change and can best explain the
    changes to students. The best approach to teaching is to prepare the student for his job through as
    much exposure as possible. As an engineer, I had the opportunity to interview graduates for various
    jobs and found that many of them had no idea what to expect. Co-operational education that includes some opportunity for work exposure is great for college students. This concept should be
    practised at high school levels and funding should come from tax dollars because we we all benefit
    as our students become more knowledgeable and can contribute more to society.

  21. Dan says:

    Isn’t the reason for widespread ignorance simply hat knowing all of these facts provides *no benefits* to the lives of normal people. Is an electron bigger or smaller than an atom? Who cares when you are working a job that has nothing to do with science and have kids to raise and bills to pay? The same with all of these facts. When has it ever mattered to a person’s life knowing in which century the American Revolution occurred? My hypothesis is that if that fact did happen to matter for a particular person, they would know it.

    I am sympathetic to the complaint that widespread ignorance undermines democratic decision-making, but honestly, for 99 percent of the population what influence does any one person have on a meaningful political decision? I may have read half a dozen books on the history of the mid-East, but President Obama has never called to ask for my opinion on what to do in Egypt? Has he called you? What about science policy? Or any other question for that matter? The number of people who can answer yes is trivially small.

    And at the ballot box, economists delight in pointing out that voting is irrational because it takes up your time but has an infinitismelly small chance of affecting the outcome. If voting is a waste of time (economically speaking), how much less fruitful is it to study the details of politics and public policy if your only influence is casting a ballot that doesn’t change the outcome of anything?

    People learn what is useful to them to their lives (or at least what they think is useful). If widespread ignorance exists, the question shouldn’t be how can we get people to know all of these facts, but rather why is it that people don’t think it’s worth their time and energy to learn them. If you can give people a reason to know something (like money in their pocket or benefits for their kids), they will flock to the libraries and devour every book they can find. Without such a reason to offer, however, complaining about what people don’t know doesn’t help anyone.

    • Max says:

      Donald promised to explain why it matters in his next post.

      Some facts do matter to people, like whether antibiotics kill viruses or whether all radiation is manmade.
      It’s even more important to understand the scientific process, like why experiments need controls.

      And scientifically illiterate voters are more likely to elect scientifically illiterate politicians who ridicule fruit fly research and deny global warming.

      I’d like to think that prospective jurors may need to understand some science, but lawyers tend to dismiss prospective jurors who know too much.

      Although I’m sure that no physicist thinks atoms are smaller than electrons, the factors behind science illiteracy may also be behind the STEM labor shortage if there actually is one.

      • Daniel says:

        Considering that the very sources Prothero cites undercuts his basic premise, (that Americans are more scientifically illiterate than their European counterparts), and his dishonesty as to what his sources actually say, I don’t see what value his other conclusions in the matter actually have.

        And whether people’s scientific illiteracy leads them to elect those type of politicians is questionable. I’m sure a lot of people that voted for John McCain, and hence Sarah Palin accept evolution, but voted for them for other reasons. The same way it’s unlikely that a politicians view on fruit fly research ultimately determines whether they get someone’s vote.

      • Max says:

        On the contrary, politicians have been forced to backtrack or equivocate on their positions to placate their base.

        http://www.mediaite.com/tv/newt-gingrich-defends-climate-change-credentials-i-am-an-amateur-paleontologist/
        During a town hall in Iowa today, Gingrich was asked by a supporter to clarify his position on global warming. The candidate immediately stated that global warming “hasn’t been totally proven.”

        http://www.nj.com/news/index.ssf/2011/05/gov_christie_wont_say_if_he_be.html
        “Gov. Chris Christie refused to comment when asked if he believes in evolution or the theory of creationism when asked at a press conference earlier today.
        ‘That’s none of your business,’ Christie said.”

      • Daniel says:

        Ok, but a lot more people vote for someone than a base, and political bases are not as monolithic as you are saying.

      • Max says:

        Evidently, they’re intimidating enough to affect the politician’s positions.

      • Daniel says:

        I don’t recall the last two Republican presidential candidates denying global warming or evolution. Bush, as I recall, was a little wishy-washy, but not in a way that I found particularly disconcerting.

        In any event, a politician’s belief, or lack thereof, in evolution, especially someone that’s running for, or holds office at the federal level, is not particularly relevant to me anyway.

        And global warming, even among the typical voter that doesn’t dispute it, ranks pretty low on their list of priorities. I care much more about how much I’ll pay in taxes, healthcare, tort reform, the judiciary, immigration, and military spending, just to name a few.

      • Max says:

        Do you recall McCain’s running mate? Palin’s inane remarks on fruit fly research and global warming only reinforced her image as an airhead.

  22. Nick C says:

    I find it amusing that in a post about how ignorant Americans are, you cite statistics regarding how many more Britains can identify the Taliban than their American counterparts, then go on to note how Britain isn’t fighting in Afghanistan. Really? Cause I kind of just got back from there and couldn’t help but notice all our Brit counterparts standing shoulder to shoulder with us. But perhaps you’d know better.

    And George W. Bush “dragging” us into a war in Afghanistan? Perhaps my memory has escaped me, or perhaps you are of the incoherent moral belief (insofar as atheists are able to have those at all) that no war is morally justifiable, but I believe I recall this big attack that happened in New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania about 12 years ago. So, I’d be interested in hearing more about your history of how Bush dragged us into Afghanistan.

    Other than those points, good post! Americans are generally idiots! At least we can agree on something.

    • Max says:

      Other than the ridiculous potshot at atheists, good comment. Science-minded hippies can lack military science literacy.

  23. d brown says:

    the TLC( i think it was) brought the good shows and aimed low. that why it did not look as bad as it was. and they made more money

  24. Nyar says:

    “They battle an almost impossible uphill struggle to keep the interest and attention of the average American teenager, filled with raging hormones and interests in cars, pop culture, video games, and the opposite sex,”

    Considering the catastrophic fertility rates in Europe and East Asia, they should probably focus a little less on science and little more on the opposite sex.

  25. Brandon says:

    I am disappointed this article didn’t point out how ignorant all of humanity is on so many scientific subjects. We still have so much to learn, it is important to understand that.

  26. S O says:

    “68% of Danes, 75% of Brits, 76% of Finns could identify the Taliban, but only 58% of Americans can—even though we’re fighting them right now in Afghanistan (and the other nations aren’t).”

    Actually, they do.

  27. Ronbo says:

    While the broad averages on scientific literacy are depressing, substantial progress is made (or lost) not by the masses, but by the best, the specialists. We’re losing ground there, too.
    First, because so many talented and qualified people end up going in to finance rather than science or engineering – the rise of the quants has created a brain drain of math majors away from R&D. Good jobs in software development have taken away many more – a master’s in physics? Might as well get a job as a programmer.
    Second, the steep rise in the cost of a college education sends a perverse economic signal. By making college less affordable and thus less attainable, we as a society are signalling young people that we place less and less value on them getting a degree, much less a graduate degree. This also biases the applicant pool more towards those with family wealth, and thus away from merit. As a result, we don’t allocate our post-secondary educational resources towards the best candidates, but instead the best-connected.

    • Max says:

      There are few good jobs in physics, but what’s that got to do with science literacy?

    • Daniel says:

      I know a few very smart people with physics degrees that went on to pursue lucrative careers in finance. At the same time, Goldman Sachs doesn’t toss around positions to every smart person with a science degree, so it’s really doubtful that this is the cause of brain drain from R&D, even if it really exists.

      The cost of college is going up, and very quickly at that, but more and more people are going to college, so that’s not what’s keeping all of those future physicists from doing something else. Also, the people that have what it takes to obtain a science degree are not the ones that are priced out of going to college.