Seriously Sad State of Science Education

Candice eetimesA recent article in New Scientist argued that the public’s understanding of science isn’t as bad as some commentators allege.  “Wow!” I thought… so much for falsely flattering their readership.  It reminded me of an article in National Geographic that slathered on the same a few years back,

“The public’s lack of scientific literacy is a familiar lament voiced by scientists. But a new Pew Research Center Report finds that while Americans’ knowledge of the sciences is complicated, it’s not as bad as perhaps some have feared.”

Really?  Let’s look at the data.  They refered to the 2015 Pew survey which asked only twelve softball science questions.  OK, I wouldn’t expect that the average high school graduate could calculate the Fermi Energy level of a two dimensional (thin film) metal at absolute zero temperature (which was the first problem of the very first problem set I encountered my first week of graduate school in the Materials Science Dept. at Stanford).  But really, the questions ranged from those that could and should be correctly answered by a fifth grader to just one question that was at the basic high school level.  The percentage that answered the questions correctly ranged from 86% for the easiest to only 34% for the “hardest”.

But let’s look at that hardest question which asked if water boils at a higher, lower, or the same temperature at higher altitudes.  There were only three possible answers, thus purely by guessing one had a 33.3% chance of getting it right.  With only 34% of the survey respondents getting it right, this means that the American public had no clue and was only guessing.

This question is basic!  It should be one of the easy questions for any high school graduate.  I once demonstrated this effect as a teenager in our chem lab by boiling water at room temperature by lowering the air pressure in flask of tepid water.  Every high school graduate should know that air pressure drops with increasing altitude… and should also know that fluids boil when their vapor pressure exceeds the air pressure… and that vapor pressure increases with temperature.  Put together three very basic items of knowledge and we get the final answer.  But the American public is unable to do this.

But the problem of science illiteracy and ignorance is even built into the survey itself.  One of the questions is,

“Which of these terms is defined as the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behavior?”

So, the “correct” answer is “astrology”… but this question, in its very phrasing and positioning in this survey tacitly suggests that astrology is a branch of scientific study.  Research suggests that as many as half of Americans believe in astrology.

I’m dismayed but not surprised… Not when one knows that 25% of Americans also believe Homeopathy nostrums work.  For the record, homeopathic “medicine” is pure water or sugar pills.  It is no more effective than obicalp (hint: read it backwards).

This level of science illiteracy and ignorance is dangerous in a modern society and especially in a democracy.  We have people voting and even lobbying on issues of which they have no clue.  We have people claiming climate science results are a conspiracy.  That airplanes are releasing nefarious “chemtrails” above our heads.  We have people taking and giving their children expensive and useless nostrums while avoiding known medical treatments that can save their lives.  We have people blaming vaccines for conditions that are completely unrelated.  We have people that honestly believe that cellphone “radiation” is killing honeybee colonies and others calling safe and useful food crops “frankenfood”.

In the doctor’s office, we routinely see patients demanding antibiotics when they have colds and influenza, not understanding that they can’t treat viral illnesses… meanwhile, the overuse of anti-biotics is leading to resistant bacterial illnesses.  (This may be one instance where prescribing obicalp may be ethical?)

People are literally getting sick and even dying because of science illiteracy and ignorance.

This is a call to action.  We need to improve science education in America.  We need to shift resources from sports and P.E. to Science, Technology, Engineeing, and Mathematics (STEM) courses in our high schools.

Further Reading:

Essay on How To Save American Education

External Reading:


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