Let’s talk about science

Quick quiz: Does the earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the earth?

If you answered that the earth goes around the sun, congratulations! You scored better than 26% of respondents in the NSF’s 2014 Science & Technology: Public Attitudes And Understanding survey.

Yes, let that sink in for a moment. One in four Americans answered that question incorrectly.

Aristachus of Samos (310-230 BC) was a Greek astronomer who developed the first known model of the universe with the Earth orbiting the sun. It is now 2014 AD and 26% of Americans still don’t know what Aristachus knew.

Some might be quick to blame our education system, but that may not be the whole story. The NSF’s data suggests that Americans aren’t just short on facts, but rather, they don’t accept science as fact; rather, they think science is a matter of belief. When presented with the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” 48% of respondents answered “true”, but when the same statement was prefaced with, “According to the theory of evolution,” the number of respondents answering “true” increased to 72% (a 24% difference). Researchers found similar results when comparing responses to the statement “The universe began with a big explosion” (39%), versus when the same statement was prefaced by “According to astronomers” (60% — let’s not even get into the fact that 40% of Americans apparently don’t know about the Big Bang).

Perhaps most perplexing is that many of these statistics have not improved over time. For the past 35 years, the NSF has asked Americans whether astrology is scientific. They found that the percentage of respondents who believe astrology is based in science is virtually unchanged since 1979! Thirty-five years ago, 50% of respondents correctly answered that astrology was not at all scientific; in 2012, 55% of respondents answered correctly. In some groups, it seems that misinformation identifying astrology as a science is taking a firmer hold; apparently, between 2010 and 2012, the percentage of 35-44 year-olds who believe astrology is scientific increased by 13%.

Many media outlets have used these stats to argue that we’re “doomed”, but don’t believe the hype. For instance, it’s been reported that while many Americans (45%) answered that astrology is scientific, almost none of the Chinese respondents were fooled (8%). This statistic is only partially accurate; Chinese respondents were asked whether horoscopes, not astrology as a whole, were scientific. And, most interestingly, that’s the only question Chinese respondents scored higher on than Americans. In fact, Americans had a higher rate of accuracy on almost every other question compared with the other surveyed countries (China, India, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, and the EU), except the one about evolution. Keep in mind that, as I mentioned above, Americans’ rate of accuracy improves when that statement is preceded by “according to the theory of evolution”, and that rate is similar to other countries’ responses. Cherry-picking facts to support sensationalist headlines does nothing to inform the public, but does reinforce stereotypes (Chinese people are good at science and math!). More rigorously researched science reporting can avoid misrepresentation of facts, and can inform people about recent findings.

Here’s some good news from the report, which, mysteriously, not many media outlets have reported: the American public is receptive to science. Four out of five Americans reported that they are interested in new scientific discoveries, and similar numbers said they agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, “Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government.” More than half (58%) of respondents said they’d been to a zoo, aquarium, natural history museum, or science and tech museum in the last year. Unfortunately, science reporting accounts for only 2% of traditional media (TV, newspapers, radio), but more and more Americans are turning to the Internet for their news.

This is where scientists come in. Though we are encouraged to write papers and give talks geared towards other researchers, we also need to reach out to students and non-scientists. Find ways to communicate your research to as many people as you can. Not every person has had the privilege of receiving a solid math & science education, but many Americans do consume media. Many Americans watch TV, read articles online, or browse blogs, Facebook, or Twitter (check out this interview James Coyne conducted with Gozde Ozakinci in a Mind the Brain blog post on why scientists should use Twitter as a tool, and how). Consider posting science news and facts on your social media accounts, or starting a blog or website about your research or your field. Elise Andrew’s Facebook page “I F-cking Love Science” has 10 million followers; this is a testament to how receptive people can be to science when it’s presented in a fun and easy-to-understand way.

Kirsten Sanford, “Dr. Kiki“, interviews Stanford researcher Benjamin Tee about his research on flexible, pressure-sensitive electronic skin at the Berkeley Science Review‘s fall outreach event, Touch Me.

Get active in your local communities, formally or informally. Think about out how you’d describe your research to a new acquaintance at a dinner party, or to someone you meet in an elevator. Here in the Bay Area, we’re fortunate to have many established events where scientists can share their science knowledge with the public – Nerd Nite, TEDx, and The Bay Area Science Festival, among others. Check to see if there are groups in your area. If there’s not, consider starting one.

Spending an hour a week—or even an hour a month—communicating your science to others could teach someone something new. Maybe you can reach one of the 26% of Americans who don’t know we are orbiting the sun.

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Test your science knowledge! Here are other science questions the NSF asked respondents.

(Results by nation can be found in this report, on pg. 23.)

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot.
  2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move.
  3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
  4. All radioactivity is man-made.
  5. Electrons are smaller than atoms.
  6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
  7. The universe began with a huge explosion.
  8. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
  9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
  10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

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Answers:

1. True 2. True 3. Earth around Sun 4. False 5. True 6. False 7. True 8. True 9. False 10. True

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This article is being cross-listed on The Berkeley Science Review. Check out some other really interesting pieces there!

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jane hu

Jane Hu is a Ph.D. candidate in the psychology department at University of California, Berkeley. Her research focuses on social cognition and learning in preschoolers. She is also an editor of the Berkeley Science Review and an organizer of the Beyond Academia conference. Follow her on Twitter @jane_c_hu, and check out her science blog: metacogs.tumblr.com

 

 

 

 

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6 Responses to Let’s talk about science

  1. Rob says:

    The question “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” is misleading. Earth and Sun mutually attract each other (due to gravitation). Due to the balance between centrifugal force and gravitational force they maintain a (more or less) constant distance. So they both go around each other. Due to the Sun being much larger than Earth, the influence of Earth on the Sun’s position is small but greater zero.

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  3. Quiznos Bharnard says:

    I hate questionnaires like this. Four of the ten questions are misleading.

    “”
    Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
    - The Earth goes around the Sun more than the Sun goes around the Earth, but they go around each other.

    The universe began with a huge explosion.
    - False, not true. The Big Bang was not an explosion, which involves a quick release of energy in space, but rather the *rapid expansion of space itself*.

    It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
    - False, not true. While he father’s contribution to the child’s genome does determine the child’s sex, it’s his X or Y *chromosome*, not gene, that does so.

    Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
    - False. However, many doctors prescribe antibiotics even for viral infections.
    “”

    If the National Science Foundation can’t ask and answer proper scientific questions, why do we expect the general public to be able to?

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    • Jane Hu says:

      You and Rob (above) both point out that the simplified explanations the NSF uses are not completely accurate. You’re right, but the facts you reference are typically learned only after specialization in a field. A common debate in science communication is whether it’s worthwhile to sacrifice precision for understanding. Seems like you might disagree, but I think that in the case of these simple questions, it’s better for people to have a basic understanding of the mechanisms, even if they’re not 100% accurate.

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      • Quiznos Bharnard says:

        > You’re right, but the facts you reference are typically learned only after specialization in a field.

        I learned them in high school. A public high school in a rural area of middle america.

        > I think that in the case of these simple questions, it’s better for people to have a basic understanding of the mechanisms[...]

        That would be all well and good if this survey were designed to teach people things. But it was not designed to teach: it was designed to measure something, and that something is scientific literacy. That multiple questions have answers that are both right and wrong at the same time makes it invalid, and reporting on it as if it is valid decreases the level of scientific literacy in the world.

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  4. Rob says:

    You are right, I disagree. I see your point, that a simplification (obviously) looses precision, but can help to understand things better. But if the simplification is just wrong or, as in the Earth/Sun case, the question is written in a way that (rhetorically) forbids the correct answer I strongly disagree. If it had been a multiple choice question things would be different. Imagine this
    How do Sun and Earth move?
    a) Earth goes round the Sun
    b) Sun goes round the Earth
    c) They go around each other
    d) All celestial bodies are attracted to each other. The attraction force is determined by their mass and distance. The quasi-circular movement of the Earth around the Sun is a result of these attractions combined with the centrifugal force. (or something similar – I am not a huge expert here)
    e) The sky disk moves according to Gods will

    NOW one could say: all people that chose A have a basic understanding. All that chose c) have a deeper understanding and the ones that chose d) are probably quite experienced in the field.

    My point is: posing correct – non misleading – questions is possible. And only if one does this one can draw a meaningful conclusion.

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