Public Knowledge of Science

A recent survey by the Australian Academy of Science shows that people know less about basic science than they did three years a go. Should we be concerned that people don’t know that it takes one year for the Earth to orbit the sun? If so what should we do about it? What is the social significance of scientific thinking?

The survey included a nationally representative sample of 1,515 people, the majority of whom got most questions correct. Nevertheless, those who answered questions incorrectly included 40% of people who did not know that it takes one year for the Earth to travel around the sun. The proportion of young people who got this wrong was higher in 2013 than in 2010. Around one quarter of people incorrectly believed that humans and dinosaurs coexisted; a similar proportion did not know that most of our planet is covered in water; and the same percentage were not sure whether or not the majority of the Earth’s water is fresh (only 9% knew that only 3% of our water is fresh).  While the majority know that evolution is still occurring, 9% said they don’t believe in evolution and a further 10% said evolution is no longer happening. Australia does not have a major religious lobby group opposed to teaching evolution in schools, as is the case in other countries. Science is taught as a major subject throughout primary and secondary schools. So what’s going on?

Despite the lack of understanding about evolution, our planet and basic science, the majority of the participants (79%) think that science is fundamentally important to Australia’s economy and the future. Why is there a disjunct between basic science knowledge and support for science as an institution?

Australian Professor of Mathematics Jonathan Borwein and American scientist David Bailey compared these findings with a similar American survey by the California Academy of Sciences in 2009. Australians fared better in their knowledge of science than Americans in most questions.  For example, only 53% of Americans surveyed know the correct answer about the Earth’s orbit of the sun and 59% knew the correct timing of dinosaurs and humans. Borwein and Bailey argue that both surveys are a cause for concern, especially as the proportion of younger people getting basic science wrong is higher than we might expect given they are closer in age to the their scientific education. Has the quality of science teaching declined? Or are the structural issues at play?

Scientific researchers Will Grant and Merryn McKinnon argue the Australian Academy of Science survey is not a true measure of scientific literacy. The researchers argue:

“Science is increasingly a social issue. Lines between science, technology and their applications are increasingly blurred. There are ethical, political and environmental considerations… Will understanding Earth rotates around the sun help deal with any of these issues? Likely not.”

The researchers argue that as public funding for science has decreased, these types of surveys are designed to market the importance of science. Grant and McKinnon note that we wouldn’t expect a Nobel laureate in one field, such as physics, to be able to answer questions from another specialist field. So why would we expect the general public to understand general scientific facts?

The focus of learning in mainstream education is on information retention, rather than comprehension. This has intensified in Australia, as our relatively new national system NAPLAN has introduced tests in Years 3, 5, 7 and 9. Individual scores reflect on the school and subsequently affects collective access to government funding. There is increased pressure on kids to learn the “right” answer to be regurgitated under test conditions, rather than on the process of learning how to work through scientific problems. The qualitative difference between these approaches is about critical thinking. The most basic, yet vital, scientific skill at our disposal is knowing how to process a problem and weigh up evidence.

The survey findings may not be surprising and it’s easy to scoff and scorn over people who get basic questions wrong. If we look beyond the shock factor, the results show that there’s a gap between the way in which the public  engages with basic science and how we value science.

So how do we improve generalist scientific knowledge? In part, it could be about showing how different scientific concepts are applied to specific everyday problems. On a deeper level, science should be about equipping people with the basic tools to think critically.

What do you think about the Australian survey and its American counterpart? How is science taught in your country and how might it be improved?


AAC Survey:
Borwein and Bailey:
Grant and McKinnon:

First published on Science on Google+