Posted by: Dan | May 18, 2006

The Paltry State of Science Literacy in America

From the vault:

PLoS Biology – Some sad statistics – “Since 1979, the proportion of scientifically literate adults has doubled—to a paltry 17%.” There’s a silver lining, though, describes Liza Gross:

Americans have long been ambivalent about science. Conflicting attitudes toward science are not uncommon among industrialized countries—Canadians, Europeans, and Japanese, for example, also appreciate the benefits of science but worry about potential impacts on society. What sets Americans apart is that their reservations center primarily around religion. And now, as the United States struggles to maintain its undisputed position as world leader in science and technology, religious ideology has spilled over into the public sphere to a degree unmatched in other industrialized societies. Religious groups are turning scientific matters like stem cells and evolution into political issues.

Though some see the growing influence of ideology over scientific issues as a threat to America’s standing as global science leader, a leading analyst of public attitudes toward science sees it as an opportunity for increasing scientific literacy. “Even though the scientific community can feel besieged by this anti-science sentiment,” says Jon D. Miller, who directs the Center for Biomedical Communications at Northwestern University Medical School, “most people really haven’t made up their mind about this issue and, in fact, really haven’t even thought about it.” Rather than fretting about the cultural divide—or worse, doing nothing—Miller urges scientists to do their part to bridge the gap.

And of course, at the forefront, are attitudes towards evolution, being undercut by Intelligent Design, the Disco Institute and it’s “Wedge” strategy, and a “teach the controversy” mindset.

To measure public acceptance of the concept of evolution, Miller has been asking adults if “human beings, as we know them, developed from earlier species of animals” since 1985. He and his colleagues purposefully avoid using the now politically charged word “evolution” in order to determine whether people accept the basics of evolutionary theory. Over the past 20 years, the proportion of Americans who reject this concept has declined (from 48% to 39%), as has the proportion who accept it (45% to 40%). Confusion, on the other hand, has increased considerably, with those expressing uncertainty increasing from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005.

Clearly the result of “teaching the controversy,” the ID movement has clearly had an impact, but not on improving science education, but on confusing, muddling and obfuscating the public’s understanding of science. The culture war is alive and well, it seems.

It’s not that Americans are rejecting science per se, Miller maintains, but longstanding conflicts between personal religious beliefs and selected life-science issues has been exploited to an unprecedented degree by the right-wing fundamentalist faction of the Republican Party. In the 1990s, the state Republican platforms in Alaska, Iowa, Kansas, Oklahoma, Oregon, Missouri, and Texas all included demands for teaching creation science. Such platforms wouldn’t pass muster in the election, Miller says, but in the activist-dominated primaries, they drive out moderate Republicans, making evolution a political litmus test. Come November, the Republican candidate represents a fundamentalist agenda without making it an explicit part of the campaign. Last year, Miller points out, former Senator John Danforth, a moderate Missouri Republican, wrote in a New York Times opinion piece that for the first time in American history a political party has become an arm of a religious organization. The United States is the only country in the world where a political party has taken a position on evolution.

To gauge the extent of fundamentalism’s reach into American life, Miller evaluated adults’ responses to three statements: the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally; there is a personal God who hears the prayers of individual men and women; and human beings were created by God as whole persons and did not evolve from earlier forms of life. In 2005, 43% of American adults agreed with all three statements.

Miller’s solution: admit that the era of nonpartisan science is gone. Scientists and educators must “learn the rules of this new game and get behind moderate Republicans as well as Democrats to protect the practice and teaching of sound science.”

“Scientists need to become involved in partisan politics and to oppose candidates who reject evolution or attack scientific research,” he says. “It takes time, money, and paying attention to the issues.”

Clearly, increasing scientific literacy is a long-term challenge. The US pre-collegiate science and math education system is broken. US high-school student performance ranks behind every European and Asian country, according to the 2003 Trends in International Math and Science Study conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. Given that over half of high-school graduates don’t go on to get college degrees, that’s something to be concerned about. But Miller takes heart from the fact that, unlike any other country in the world, the United States requires the 47% of kids who do go to college to take a year of science—a distinction that may help the United States recover its flagging scientific standing. College professors would do well to remember that today’s undergraduates are apt to be functioning 40 to 50 years from now, he says. “It’s the last chance to teach people who are going to become important leaders in the community, and we should take this opportunity seriously.”

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