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?