It was difficult to miss all the hype regarding last week’s release of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) 2012 study on public attitudes toward and understanding of science and technology. Most cited the fact that one in four Americans believes that the Sun revolves around the Earth. But then again, our American narcissism may be as much to blame for our scientific illiteracy as our education system is — doesn’t everything revolve around us? What hasn’t been discussed as much are the seemingly positive and actionable outcomes of the study, such as the encouraging way Americans view science, both as a field of study and as a career; the role education plays in fostering scientific interest; and the disconnect between our interest in and our lack of knowledge of science, scientists and what it is that they do.
One aspect of this study is a survey consisting of nine science questions, such as:
“True or false: The center of the Earth is very hot.”
“Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”
Americans answered 5.8 out of these nine questions correctly, putting the United States on par with other countries, though comparison is limited, as not all questions are asked worldwide. What is noticeable is that other countries are trending upward in the acquisition of scientific knowledge, but the United States has remained more or less at a standstill. And in response to scientific questions that contradict established doctrine, Americans performed markedly worse, unless a qualifying preface such as “according to scientists” was appended to the questions. For example, whereas 48 percent of Americans affirmed that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” 72 percent answered “true” when the question was prefaced with, “According to the theory of evolution….” Similar results were obtained when surveyed about the veracity of the statement that “the universe began with a big explosion.” As expected, Americans with higher levels of education performed better on these nine questions. And, yet again, men performed better than women on the physical science questions (only).
And even though we “don’t know much about a science book,” the study suggests that Americans value science as a career and the scientific community very highly. We don’t know what scientists do — 65 percent claimed they didn’t know — but 80 percent of parents surveyed would be “happy” if their child pursued a career in science. Furthermore, according to the 2009 Harris Poll quoted in this study, being a scientist was ranked as the second most prestigious occupation, second only to firefighters, and ahead of doctors, nurses and teachers.
“Though we don’t know what they do, we’d sure love to have one in the family!”
In short, though we don’t possess a lot of scientific knowledge, and though few of us know what scientists do, we think very highly of them and want our children to become scientists. This is great news for a country that seemingly wants to continue being the world leader in scientific and technological advancement. We must bridge the gap between the science we value and where we are now. But we still don’t know how to get from here to there. We know that education is the starting place — improving science education in the schools, and improving access to higher education for all. It’s not enough, however.
In the underserved, overwhelmingly Hispanic high school in which I teach chemistry and physics, I reach two to three students a year who have what it takes to become great scientists — the appropriate combination of desire and capacity — but I know they will not all maneuver the roadblocks.
The NSF study confirms that the media’s coverage and portrayal of science does not mirror the value we place on it. Less than 2 percent of traditional news coverage is related to science and technology, with coverage of Steve Jobs’ passing, the end of the Space Shuttle program, Facebook’s IPO and the Mars Curiosity rover taking the lion’s share.
As far as entertainment television is concerned, between 2000 and 2008, only 1 percent of characters on primetime television were scientists. Of these, 70 percent were men, and almost 90 percent were Caucasian. Just watching an episode of The Big Bang Theory confirms this — scientists are portrayed as white, male, “smart-as-heck” geeks, and we root for them in spite of their idiosyncrasies, if not because of them.
Young women scientists are still underrepresented in the workforce and the media. I remember how easy it was as a freshman at Cornell to walk away from the all-male physics honors class in which I was enrolled. No one told me I could do it — definitely not the professor — and there was no female role model to show me it was possible. It is exponentially more challenging for our Hispanic youngsters to envision such a future for themselves. It’s not so much that we don’t have youngsters in our schools who are are making the grade, but without role models in which to see themselves, how are they going to navigate the difficult academic and financial terrain of a science degree when the going gets tough?
Until we are willing to promote and portray non-male and non-white scientists, the scientific field will continue to appeal to a diminishing fraction of our demographic. At least two or three students a year have what it takes — in every public high school in America. If we want to raise a nation of scientists and the scientifically literate, the least we could do is make sure those two or three get to the finish line.