Chief Science Correspondent
The Center for Accountability in Science posted the results of a quiz-structured survey in which they asked a series of fifth-grade level science questions to an adult audience and, as you may have predicted, the results were disappointing.
“Most Americans are not armed with the basic facts about science,” CAS CEO Joseph Perrone said in a statement. “This alarming lack of scientific literacy makes it easier for the public to be duped by the scary headlines and junk science.”
American adults scored an average of 42.3 percent on this 10-question quiz (Click here to take it). Questions included the speed of sound, the composition of Mars and the length of time in which light from the Sun reaches the Earth.* The CAS did not publish any information on the sample size, demographics or testing method, although they provided a percentage below each question of participants who provided the correct response.
Before I go any farther, I should mention that I am an advocate for science literacy in American culture. (Click here and here for some of my discussions on how science can be more accessible to the public). However, this survey may be more harmful than beneficial.
The retention of a list of science facts does not constitute science literacy. I consider myself a scientifically literate person. I try to read scientific research in and outside my field every day. I also read more "popular" science articles from sources such as Science Daily and IFLS. And when I have questions about something I read, I read more into it.
You don't have to know random facts about science to actually be interested in science. So I wasn't able to figure out that a hammer is not a simple machine (I guessed the pulley), and I had no idea that it takes approximately eight minutes for the sun's rays to reach us (I feel like I should have known this one. But it's not a piece of knowledge I encounter in my everyday life).
Most people do not remember every piece of information they learned in elementary school. And that's okay. Some things we're forced to memorize at that age (grammar, spelling, enough arithmetic to make change for a customer) are more important than others (cursive, memorizing all 50 U.S. state capitals). This test was akin to standardized testing, where a student's knowledge is degraded into his ability to distinguish between A, B, C and D.
Don't get me wrong; it's great if you can still remember the capitals. I wish I did. But most people don't use this information in their everyday lives. And in 2014, most Americans have the power of Google literally at their fingertips. When you don't remember some little piece of vital information, such as the three categories of rocks, you can just look it up.
Education isn't about memorization or, at least, it shouldn't be. It's about management. Problem solving. Teamwork. Critical thinking. This quiz assessed none of those qualities.
What actually makes someone scientifically literate is their ability to investigate what other people say about science. That means reading more than one source about a study. It means looking at both sides - those who agree with the methodology and those who criticize it. It might even mean reading some of the research on your own - and learning to interpret a graph of data and read a methods section.
I found some of the results in this quiz promising. It was no surprise to me that only 25 percent of participants knew that mass times velocity equals momentum. But the users were by far most successful (63 percent) at answering a question on what is involved in the process of fracking. Fracking is an actual relevant environmental issue, and the fact that so many people responded correctly suggests that a fairly high number of American adults actually follow current science news.
The CAS should have tested the user's ability to analyze data, or to grasp basic science concepts from a piece of writing. In another direction, the study could have focused more on the user's familiarity with studies that are being discussed today, rather than pieces of knowledge the user had likely not thought about since the fifth grade.
The problem with the CAS' quiz is that the results can be discouraging. The users are set up to fail. When an average person fails the quiz, they are told that they are supposedly "scientifically illiterate" and less intelligent than an elementary school student.
But what does this actually accomplish? It pushes them farther away from actually being interested in the field. Science becomes intimidating, something you can't be interested in unless you have a large set of random facts, formulas and definitions mentally at hand.
Science illiteracy might be a problem, but this is not the solution.
*As a side note, I was disappointed that this quiz did not include a single question even remotely related to biology, despites its claim that it covers "a variety of subjects." While 10 questions is far from sufficient for covering all of humanity's knowledge of the sciences, it would have been nice to see a question on natural selection or even genetic engineering.