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Do Americans Know Enough About Science?

Jun 16, 2016
Originally published on June 21, 2016 3:57 pm

Here & Now‘s weeklong series on the state of science in America continues with a look at science literacy, and how much the general public knows about science.

Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson talks with Chad Orzel, associate professor at Union College, about Americans’ basic science understanding, and how much it matters.

Take the Pew Research quiz “How much do you know about science topics?”

Hear more from our series on science in America

Interview Highlights: Chad Orzel

On Americans’ science literacy

So most of the discussions of science literacy in the general public refer to these surveys that have been done for about thirty years now where they ask people on the street a bunch of true false questions about basic facts about science. And on those, people do reasonably well. The average score is somewhere, 70 percent, something like that. These are very basic facts that they are asking about, things like, “Is the center of the Earth very hot?” or “Does the Earth go around the sun?” or vice versa. Things like that. These are fairly basic facts that they are quizzing people about to see how much people know.

On how Americans’ science literacy compares with the rest of the world

I think it’s fascinating compared to the rest of the world because one of my favorite questions on the survey is “True or false, lasers work by focusing sound waves?” In the United States about 50 percent of people get that right, which is equivalent to guessing. But it’s interesting we’re among the world’s leaders in that question.

On how much science Americans actually need to know

I think that for a lot of these facts it doesn’t make a great deal of difference for the average person on street whether the Earth goes around the sun or the sun goes around the Earth, that’s not really going to change anybody’s daily life very much. But knowing the process of science is something that’s extremely useful, it’s the most reliable tool we have for generating accurate information. I think that people actually do have a much better knowledge of that than we appreciate because that process is fundamental to almost everything that we do. If you have a job that is more complicated than digging holes and filling them back in, you probably at some point are using a scientific reasoning process. You’re looking at a problem that you have to solve, you’re thinking about a way to solve that problem, and you’re trying things out to come up with a solution that works and when it does you share that solution with other people. That’s something that everybody does all the time, everyday, we just don’t necessarily think of it as scientific.

On identifying people who show scientific promise

I think there are certainly people out there who are going to make the scientific advances of the future. The question is how well are we doing at properly identifying those. There are a lot of sort of subtle biases that cut against doing a good job of that. We have a lot of issues with class, and race and gender in science that sort of almost subliminally promote the message that only certain kinds of people can do science, which is nonsense if you look at it. Historically, there have been great discoveries in science made by people of all sort of ethnic backgrounds, men and women, people from all different countries, people from all different cultures. Science is a very universal thing, it’s just that we frequently do a bad job of conveying that information.


Chad Orzel, associate professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Union College and author of several books including “Eureka: Discovering Your Inner Scientist” and “How to Teach Quantum Physics to Your Dog.” He also writes the Uncertain Principles blog. He tweets @orzelc.

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