Life, etc

Ignorance, Inc: When science is not so cool anymore

By J Brooks Spector 25 February 2014

For around four hundred years, scientists and students have relished the impact that early scientists like Galileo had on learning, knowledge and our growing understanding of the real world – as well as their bravery in confronting both obscurantism and just plain ignorance. Except, that is, perhaps, among one out of every four Americans who still believe the Sun is revolving around the Earth. J. BROOKS SPECTOR takes an astonished look at this phenomenon.

Don’t know much about history

Don’t know much biology

Don’t know much about a science book

Don’t know much about the French I took….

– Sam Cooke

For hundreds of years, students of science have thrilled to that (most likely apocryphal) tale of Galileo’s fearful interrogation by the priests – and when he was finally forced to recant his heliocentric view of the solar system, then whispered under his breath, “And yet it moves…” He almost certainly didn’t say it, the snappy comeback quality of it is almost certainly too good a line – and besides, who would have copied it down?

Nevertheless, the story encapsulates the point that science – and the pursuit of scientific truth – cannot be beholden to the whims and fantasies of politicians, no matter who they are. And, moreover, scientific ignorance, once addressed and sent on its way, should never be allowed to return by stealth.

Well that’s the theory. But then there are these bits of information. A survey of Americans’ knowledge about the physical universe released last week shows that around a quarter of the country believes the Sun revolves around the Earth. For such people, Ptolemy, and not Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo, was right after all. The National Science Foundation surveyed over two thousand people and found that in response to the question: “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”, 26% responded with the wrong answer.

It gets worse. Fewer than 40% correctly answered the question of whether the universe began with a huge explosion, and under half correctly responded to the question of whether “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” And only a little over half understood that antibiotics don’t work against viruses. At least for that last question, a charitable person could say that might simply reflect the fact that a person with a truly nasty, never-ending head cold will try almost anything to cure it – no matter what the science says.

As alarming as some of those gaps in American science knowledge might appear, Americans actually came out a bit ahead on several of the questions – in comparison to some similar but slightly older surveys of their Chinese and European counterparts.

Only two-thirds of the people surveyed for a 2005 European Union poll answered that same, absolutely basic question about astronomy, and the way we understand order of things celestial, correctly. That doesn’t speak very well for the birthplace of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, now does it? Fortunately for Europeans and Chinese, their figures for a minimalist knowledge of human evolution were 66% and 70% respectively – rather better than their US counterparts.

Paradoxically, according to a National Opinion Research Center aggregation of various surveys in the US, Americans appear to be supportive of scientific research in general, and they say they are apparently particularly interested in new medical discoveries and local school issues related to science. Of course that could relate to a growing interest in preventing the teaching of evolution, but more on that in a moment.

By contrast, Americans are now significantly less interested in space exploration, agricultural issues and international and foreign policy issues related to science. Space used to be really hot, but now it’s not anymore, apparently. Worse, international relations issues and science could well be code words for environmental and climate change issues – boring, boring, and boring, apparently. Of course, if the surveys could be repeated after this winter’s weather, that might change.

Things may not be all the much better over on the geographical battlefield side of things – unless there has been a veritable revolution in learning over the past eight years. Back then, the National Geographic Society, the body that has published that famous illustrated magazine for over a century, carried out a now-famous (or infamous) survey that seemed to have proven Americans had taken Sam Cooke’s famous lyrics quite literally to heart.

When the survey was taken in 2006, despite the nearly round-the-clock drumbeat of the name Iraq on the TV news and in newspapers since that long war began (and of course there was the war a decade before that one current in 2008), almost two thirds of Americans between the ages of 18-24 could not locate Iraq on a map of the Middle East without being told where it was. It was worse with efforts to locate Iran or Israel and it was even more embarrassing with Afghanistan. Some nine out of ten people surveyed could not find that site of relentless battle news either. And despite the frequent discussion of Sudan as the site for fighting in Darfur (South Sudan came later for most American newspaper reports), over half of those surveyed weren’t sure which continent held Sudan in its embrace.

In 2006, the Indonesian tsunami was still fresh in the news, but three-fourths of respondents in the same survey couldn’t find that rather large country on a map either. And as a bonus point, most of the people surveyed were simply not aware Indonesia was a largely Muslim nation. (In fact, it hosts the world’s largest Muslim population.) And around half surveyed couldn’t find India on a world map, just for good measure.

When the disappointing results of this survey were announced, David Rutherford, a geography education specialist for the National Geographical Society was moved to comment ruefully, “Young Americans just don’t seem to have much interest in the world outside of the U.S.” And noting his alarm over such results, Douglas Richardson, the executive director of the Association of American Geographers, added, “The Roper poll [the organisation that actually carried out the survey] is alarming, as it has been continuously for the past several years.” Richardson added that while interest seems to be picking up at the tertiary educational level, “We need to really, now, catch up in offering the foundation for students in geography in the middle schools and the high schools”. No doubt about that.

Richardson did note the then-new introduction of GPS technology to the general population was likely to help geographical understanding rather than decrease it. If this survey were replicated today, the results, while still embarrassing, might well be rather better than earlier as Internet usage has been growing rapidly throughout the population as well – and the survey did find that frequent Internet usage correlated well with better scores on geographical knowledge.

Reaching back a bit further, in a 2002 cross-cultural survey, 18-24-year-olds in Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Sweden, and Great Britain had also polled and in that cross-comparative survey, Americans came behind young people in every other nation, save for their counterparts in Mexico.

Sadly, it wasn’t much better with domestic geographical knowledge. Half of those surveyed could not find New York State, a third didn’t know were Louisiana was, and nearly half was unable to pick out Mississippi on a US map of the United States, even though Hurricane Katrina had just blasted the latter two states.

At the time of the 2006 survey, less than a third even felt it was necessary to know where countries in the news were located on a map and only 14% believed speaking another language fluently was a crucial skill. Demography doesn’t appear to have been a strong point either. 30% thought America’s population was somewhere between one and two billion, while around three fourths did know America was then the world’s largest consumer of petroleum, about the same number didn’t know that same country was the world’s largest importer and exporter of goods and services.

Nevertheless, despite the growing use of the Internet – and its concomitant positive effect on geographical understanding in recent years – a variety of American groups and local and state politicians continue to try to roll back the tide on scientific knowledge in the country’s public schools. Most recently, one Missouri state legislator, Rick Brattin, has been a particularly vociferous proponent for some pending legislation that would mandate “the equal treatment of science instruction regarding evolution and intelligent design.” (There are actually two bills now pending in Missouri dealing with evolution in biology education.) Importantly, education is largely left to the states and local governments under the American system and so such battles continue to erupt – driven largely by the significant Christian fundamentalist population – many the same people who support the Tea Party and blame something called secular humanism for society’s ills .

Brattin has publicly described himself as “a science enthusiast” and “a huge science buff” and he says the pending legislation would require teachers and instructional materials to “distinguish what is, in fact, theory and what is, in fact, empirical data…. There’s so much of the theory of evolution that is being taught as fact… things like the primordial ooze. With theories, they need to have equal treatment, objective treatment, not one brushed aside.” Okay, students, take out your Bibles and read…

While close observers of Missouri politics say this bill is unlikely to pass anytime soon in its present form, various battles against science education that includes evolution as a core element in biology are being fought in about a dozen other states – although in one of these, Louisiana, the fight is actually on to repeal a law mandating the teaching of intelligent design that had already been declared unconstitutional by the courts as a sub rosa effort to teach religion in the schools. Despite the critical importance of real science (and most probably real history, politics, foreign languages and geographical knowledge, for that matter) for the country to maintain its still-preeminent place in high-tech development and global trade, some people continually seem determined to undermine all this. Essentially it seems they’re determined to snap right back at Galileo about the Earth, “Oh no it doesn’t”. Even if it does. DM

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Photo: A scene from Idiocracy.

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