Who Deserves the Failing Grade?

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The Pew Research Center recently published its annual survey of science attitudes and knowledge, polling several thousand members of the American public and the scientific community (report summary | full pdf report).  The survey covers quite a spectrum, including public & scientist views on climate change, evolution, scientific achievements, religion, and the state of science funding. The public survey also included a 12-question quiz designed to sample respondents' science knowledge.

The report overview paints a fairly rosy picture of the public's perception of science:

Americans like science. Overwhelming majorities say that science has had a positive effect on society and that science has made life easier for most people. Most also say that government investments in science, as well as engineering and technology, pay off in the long run. And scientists are very highly rated compared with members of other professions: Only members of the military and teachers are more likely to be viewed as contributing a lot to society’s well-being.

However, scientists' view of the public's scientific knowledge is not nearly as flattering.

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations. Fully 85% see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.

Several important points bear mention. First, the public's knowledge of "contemporary" science issues was actually fairly high. 91% knew that aspirin can be used to help prevent heart attacks, 82% knew that GPS technology is dependent on satellites, and 77% correctly understood that undersea earthquakes can cause tsunamis. If it's directly relevant to everyday life or being (accurately) covered in the news, there's a good chance the public has a reasonable understanding.

Where things didn't go so well was in the textbook-style factual recall questions.  An example: true/false - an electron is smaller than an atom.

This brings me to my second point: we, as a scientific community, shouldn't fret too much that more than half the public answered the electron question incorrectly. If you look at how citizens do on factual recall civic literacy-type quizzes, the results are pretty sad, though not surprising. Whether it's science or civics, we simply forget facts learned years ago if they are not reinforced through everyday experiences, our job, or other personal interests.

My third point: if scientists believe the public to be under-informed, it's time to step up. Speaking as a scientist, our focus should be not on teaching freshman-level science to the masses. Rather, we need to focus on communicating the significance of what we do, how the scientific process works, and the fact that scientific disagreements don't mean that science is broken.  The answers eventually emerge, based not on conjecture and suspicion but experimental evidence.  We also need to actively weigh in on the distortions popularized by naysayers of important issues such as climate change and stem cell research.

39% of scientists in the Pew poll answered that they spoke with non-scientists about science or research findings "often." In all of academia, this is a failing grade.  We need to do better.

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