Americans struggle with science, respect scientists, survey finds

February 14, 2014

While most Americans could be a bit more knowledgeable in the ways of science, a majority are interested in hearing about the latest scientific breakthroughs and think highly of scientists.

This is according to a survey of more than 2,200 people conducted by the National Science Foundation, one that is conducted every two years and is part of a report – Science and Engineering Indicators – that the National Science Board provides to the president and Congress.

A Michigan State University faculty member served as lead author for the chapter in the report that covers public perceptions of science. John Besley, an associate professor in MSU's Department of Advertising and Public Relations, reviewed the data, as well as similar surveys from around the world, and highlighted key findings on Feb. 14 during the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

According to the survey, more than 90 percent of Americans think scientists are "helping to solve challenging problems" and are "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity."

"It's important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists," said Besley, who also is the Ellis N. Brandt Chair in Public Relations. "It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists."

Unfortunately, Americans still have a tough time answering some basic science questions. Out of a total of nine questions that covered the physical and biological sciences, the average score was 6.5 correct answers.

For example, only 74 percent of those queried knew that the Earth revolved around the sun, while fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals.

Some of the other highlights of the survey include:

  • A majority of Americans – more than 90 percent – say they are "very interested" or "moderately interested" in learning about new medical discoveries.
  • The United States appears to be relatively strong in the use of what's known as "informal science education." Nearly 60 percent of Americans have visited a zoo/aquarium, or a science and technology museum.
  • Nearly 90 percent of those surveyed think the benefits of science outweigh any potential dangers.
  • About a third of the respondents think and technology should get more funding.

Explore further: Patients are 'myth'-informed about their risk of cancer

Related Stories

Patients are 'myth'-informed about their risk of cancer

February 5, 2014

(HealthDay)—Fewer than half of Americans are aware that body weight and physical activity affect cancer risk, according to the results of a survey commissioned by the American Institute for Cancer Research (AICR).

More than half of Americans doubt US global leadership in 2020

March 14, 2012

More than half of likely voters doubt that the United States will be the No. 1 world leader in science, technology and health care by the year 2020, according to a new national public opinion poll commissioned by Research!America. ...

Recommended for you

Study into who is least afraid of death

March 24, 2017

A new study examines all robust, available data on how fearful we are of what happens once we shuffle off this mortal coil. They find that atheists are among those least afraid of dying... and, perhaps not surprisingly, ...

Scientists make new discovery about bird evolution

March 24, 2017

In a new paper published in National Science Review, a team of scientists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology, the Shandong Tianyu Museum of Nature, and the Nanjing Institute of Geology and ...

Mathematical framework explains diverse plant stem forms

March 23, 2017

It is well known that as plants grow, their stems and shoots respond to outside signals like light and gravity. But if plants all have similar stimuli, why are there so many different plant shapes? Why does a weeping willow ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
Where was this published? If not peer reviewed, can we have a copy of the quiz so we know what was asked and if it was multiple-choice what the choices were? There is enough junk science out there designed to support agendas that claims like this can't be accepted at face value.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
The Science and Engineering Indicators report referenced in the article here appears to be available at http://www.nsf.go...seind14/ for the 2014 version. I have not looked into it for the specific survey questions, but did find a set of qusetions (and the above link) on the site's article at http://www.livesc...uiz.html and I think they're the same ones mentioned here, since the percentages correct match up. I hope this helps.
1 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Nothing in this to disprove "science" is anything other than a racket.
Trying to ride of society's coattails, "science" "validates" itself by saying people long to hear new "discoveries". They also crowded around to hear what sights, many of which "science" now declares untrue, reported by sailors. It doesn't make the lies by "scientists", in the majority of "peer reviewed" reports are now being declared unreproducible, true simply because many like to be regaled by the stories!
And, face it, if Americans supposedly largely don't know purported "scientific" truths, how can "science" even dare to act like public approval is proof that "science" isn't lying?
And note the "justification" for encouraging public approval of "science", not that it will better society or improve everyone individually, no, only that, "It can help ensure funding", and attract more profiteers to the scam calling themselves "scientists".
5 / 5 (5) Feb 14, 2014
How can people attend school for ten or more years and not know simple facts that preschoolers can comprehend?

I note that the above remark was written on a medium (the computer) invented and perfected by science on a protocol (the internet) invented and perfected by science etc. If he/she is not happy with science why not use the medium not derived from science...pigeons are cheap and plentiful...
1.5 / 5 (4) Feb 14, 2014
Re: "...fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals."

The problem may be people who were told mutation-initiated natural selection caused us to mutate into existence from other species that had mutated into existence. Now that more people are learning about how ecological variation results in adaptations during development, some of them may pay more attention to scientists who seem to make sense rather than tout nonsensical theories about snake-centric evolution of the human brain.
4 / 5 (1) Feb 14, 2014
Some of the questions are incorrect eg
"The universe began with a huge explosion" (answer true or false) The answer called for is true but the correct answer is false. The universe began with the expansion of spacetime. To explain this the classic 'raison bread' model is used.

The George Gamow model called for an explosive beginning which is why Fred Hoyle dubbed it the 'Big Bang'. But the current model (Lambda CDM) says that inflation caused by dark Energy is the main driver.

Clearly an American set the test..
4.7 / 5 (3) Feb 14, 2014
I'm just checking the is another error:
"It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl" (answer called for is true)

Wrong. It is the father's *chromosome* and not a gene that is responsible, and it is the presence or absence of this chromosome that is determinant of gender in about 99% of humans. The rest are 'androgen insensitive' or XY females. There is also the XXY variant that can result in a male OR female.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 14, 2014
"But the current model (Lambda CDM) says that inflation caused by dark Energy is the main driver."

...lambda-cdm has literally NOTHING to do with big bang, and in fact you are TOTALLY WRONG about dark energy "causing inflation" in the first place...not even close.

inflation is currently theorised as the symmetry-breaking fluctuative phase transition of a scalar quantum field called "inflaton" from higher to lower PE. the release in PE is necessarily balanced by an increase in gravitational PE, which is a mechanism sort of indistinguishable *in effect* from DM and leads to expansion of the space time, but the "lambda" of "lambda cdm", which is the "dark matter" of modern comology, is COMPLETELY UNRELATED to inflation.

furthermore, it should go without saying that big bang is utterly independent of lambda cdm,

i agree that "explosion" is fatuous, but maybe somebody who clearly wasn't good enough to learn physics in america should best withhold comment on particulars.
not rated yet Feb 14, 2014
There is a gene on the Y chromosome called the Sry gene which causes the male characteristics. So, gene could have been a correct answer but I suppose they were looking for Y chromosome since few know about the Sry gene.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
Americans struggle with science, respect scientists
The anomalously high number of people dismissing the evolution or landing on the Moon between people in the USA would suggest, that their actual respect of scientists would correspond their level of scientific knowledge. Apparently, it doesn't prohibit the USA in doing science very well, given the total amount of spending into it.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
Americans still have a tough time answering some basic science questions, and yet the fact that they think highly of scientists is given enough importance to dedicate an entire article to it? Hmmm interesting!
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
This would gain more respect if they showed the questions on the survey. Too many surveys have the questions convoluted to skew the results on purpose.
not rated yet Feb 15, 2014
One of the great discoveries of decision science over the past few decades is that you cannot rely upon the validity of asking people to reflect upon their decisions and beliefs. It's an incredibly important finding for people who study why people purchase products -- which is why we have so much data today that strongly suggests that people will generally post-rationalize their irrational decision-making …

… which leads us to a question: If you are noticing that people don't actually understand the principles of science, then don't you think that this is basically related to their trust in scientists? They are looking for answers to various questions they might encounter. If they lack an understanding of science, then it stands to reason that they will simply find somebody who they perceive to know. And that would be scientists.

But, notice the converse of this: If you were to actually educate them better, then they would be more likely to question scientists.

Oofa ...
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Re: "How can people attend school for ten or more years and not know simple facts that preschoolers can comprehend?"

If this surprises you, then you would be shocked to read the findings of physics education researchers (PER). Basically, we all enter our first physics mechanics class as Aristotelian thinkers. Problem is we also all generally leave that way too. The general conclusion is that although people may learn how to do problem-solving, lectures and problem sets do not necessarily induce students to update their mental models for how the universe actually works. So, what happens is that students generally maintain two separate understandings: their sensory-based Aristotelian model, and the model they learned in class. Over time, if assimilation never occurs, that model they learned in class does not get used, and it fades.

This problem is widely understood amongst PER's. They complain to university prof's, who do not generally care, and basically nothing happens.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
So, the question is: How do we get university professors -- whose reputations are associated with their research publications -- to care about whether or not students assimilate their teachings?

The surprising answer is that we basically already know how to solve this problem, based upon large-scale studies using what is called the force concept inventory (FCI) test. So, the FCI can be given to students both before and after a course, in order to determine how much conceptual assimilation has actually occurred from the class.

So, why not just institute these quick tests, and hand the results over to parents deciding where to send their kids to school? Because the universities refuse to institute these changes. Why should they submit to a system which exposes their own failure to teach? Who can force all of the universities to submit?

The answer to that is the online institutions like Coursera and others. They need to dramatically update their assessments.
3 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Or, another thing which could be done is for some entrepreneur out there to launch a website dedicated to testing conceptual comprehension for particular topics. Then, if a parent wants to see whether or not their child is actually learning, they could simply have their kid -- independent of whatever their school might suggest -- take this test both before and after the class.
1 / 5 (1) Feb 15, 2014
Re: "...fewer than half (48 percent) knew that human beings developed from earlier species of animals."
Actually, despite what evolutionists would insist is fact, evolution is still a theory And the sentence in the above article is an example of evolutionary dogma. Evolution is continually presented as fact, even though there is very little or no demonstrable evidence that one species can turn into a totally different species.

Let alone the idea that even what we call a simple one celled organism is extremely complex in all the minute biological mechanisms that make it live. And and a reasonable mind cannot conclude otherwise than it was designed by an extremely intelligent mind.
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
How do these numbers line up with the 1 in 4 that don't know the Earth revolves around the Sun? I think a good kick in the pants, and working a hell of a lot harder at learning is necessary!
not rated yet Feb 16, 2014
Someone please tell the president: He thinks the universe revolves around HIM!
not rated yet Feb 26, 2014
Re JackFrost:
In describing LambdaCDM, the Wikipedia entry says this:
"The model includes a single originating event, the "Big Bang" or initial singularity, which was not an explosion but the abrupt appearance of expanding space-time containing radiation at temperatures of around 1015 K. This was immediately (within 10−29 seconds) followed by an exponential expansion of space by a scale multiplier of 1027 or more, known as cosmic inflation. "

This is consistent with what I said, or meant, in my piece. Of course when we condense information we might leave out a few facts that annoy the aficionado.

I consider the initial 'explosive expansion' to take us up to the end of the initial inflation period.

Finally, note that I mentioned 'Dark *Energy*, not Dark Matter. The Lambda in CDM model is related to the accelerated expansion driven by dark energy. In the Wiki:
"Λ (Lambda) stands for the cosmological constant which is currently associated with a vacuum energy or dark energy"
not rated yet Feb 26, 2014
The SRY gene alone is not the complete story and the gene can even find its way to the X chromosome thus forming an 'XX' male.

From the Wikipedia areticle on this issue:
"Symptoms usually include small testes and subjects are invariably sterile. Individuals with this condition sometimes have feminine characteristics, with varying degrees of gynecomastia but with no intra-abdominal Müllerian tissue.[4] According to research at the University of Oklahoma health science centers, most XX males are not stereotypically feminine and are typical boys and men[citation needed] although other reports suggest that facial hair growth is usually poor and libido is diminished, with notable exceptions.[4][5]"

not rated yet Mar 14, 2014
Where was this published? If not peer reviewed, can we have a copy of the quiz so we know what was asked and if it was multiple-choice what the choices were?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.