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Science & Engineering Indicators 2008

NSB LogoIt's that time again. The latest NSF report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 has been released. I've made previous entries for the 2004 and 2006 versions of the report. While Americans' scientific literacy did improve somewhat for most questions over the 2006 report, the long term trends are relatively constant, and the overall literacy is still depressingly low.

First, here's the same table as from the previous blog entry, comparing the scientific literacy of several countries(because of the time needed to analyze the data, the surveys for the 2006 report were conducted in 2004, those for the 2008 report were conducted in 2006). This table was taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding. The numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Figure 7-8
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions, by country/region: Most recent year
Percent answered correctly
  EU-25 (2005) Malaysia (2004) India (2004) China (2001) Russia (2003) South Korea (2004) Japan (2001) U.S. (2006)
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 47 19 NA 16 24 31 28 45
It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) 64 38 38 39 22 59 25 65
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 59 13 NA 46 35 48 56 76
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 86 58 57 39 NA 87 77 80
The universe began with a huge explosion. (True) NA NA 34 17 35 67 63 33
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 46 16 39 18 18 30 23 51
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 46 26 30 24 44 46 30 48
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 66 71 70 NA NA 86 NA 75
Human beings are developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 70 NA 56 70 44 64 78 53
The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True) 87 45 32 45 40 87 83 79
NA = not available; EU = European Union

NOTE: NA indicates question not asked.

SOURCES: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006); Japan—Government of Japan, National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, The 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology in Japan (2002); South Korea—Korea Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2004); Russia—Gokhberg L and Shuvalova O, Russian Public Opinion of the Knowledge Economy: Science, Innovation, Information Technology and Education as Drivers of Economic Growth and Quality of Life, British Council, Russia (2004); China—Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology, China Science and Technology Indicators 2002 (2002); India—National Council of Applied Economic Research, India Science Survey (2004); Malaysia—Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre, Public Awareness of Science and Technology Malaysia 2004 (2005); and EU—European Commission, Research Directorate-General, Eurobarometer 224/Wave 63.1: Europeans, Science and Technology (2005).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008

And here's the long term trend for just the U.S. This table was also taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding, and it follows the same format - the numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Appendix table 7-5
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions: 1985–2006
(Percent)
Question 1985 (n = 2,003) 1988 (n = 2,041) 1990 (n = 2,005) 1992 (n = 1,995) 1995 (n = 2,006) 1997 (n = 2,000) 1999 (n = 1,882) 2001 (n = 1,574) 2004 (n = 2,025) 2006 (n = 1,864)
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) NA 80 79 81 78 82 80 80 78 80
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) NA 65 63 73 72 71 71 76 73 70
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) NA 36 37 37 40 39 43 45 42 45
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) NA 43 41 46 44 43 46 48 45 53
The universe began with a huge explosion. (True) NA 54 32 38 35 32 33 33 33a 33
The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True) 79 80 77 79 78 78 80 79 77 80
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) NA 73 73 71 73 73 72 75 71 76
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year) NA 45 48 46 47 48 49 54 NA 55
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) NA NA NA 65 64 62 66 65 62 64
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) NA 26 30 35 40 43 45 51 54 56
Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True) 45 46 45 45 44 44 45 53 42a 43
NA = not available, question not asked

aQuestion asked of 1,558 survey respondents.

NOTE: Table includes all years for which data collected.

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1985–2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); and University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2008

Americans are still appallingly ignorant when it comes to science - a quarter thought that the Sun goes around the Earth, half didn't realize that electrons were smaller than atoms, and half didn't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun. Those are simple facts that any elementary school student should be able to answer, and it boggles the mind that Americans know so little.

I'm also reminded of the ongoing conflict in Florida over the state standards regarding evolution, and the likely upcoming conflict in Texas when the science curriculum gets reviewed this year. Why do people who are so ignorant over such basic science facts feel the need to interfere in science education?

I think there's a very straight forward message to take away from these polls - we vastly need to improve science education in this country.

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