“Yawning gaps in basic knowledge”

See those dents in my desk? There’s one for every time I see the results of a survey like this:

Dr. Miller’s data reveal some yawning gaps in basic knowledge. American adults in general do not understand what molecules are (other than that they are really small). Fewer than a third can identify DNA as a key to heredity. Only about 10 percent know what radiation is. One adult American in five thinks the Sun revolves around the Earth, an idea science had abandoned by the 17th century.

Excuse me a minute… [bangs head on desk, labels new dent “2005”]
I should figure out what I, as a scientist, can/should be doing to improve basic science education. At least no one is trying to argue that science classes should “teach both sides” of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy… on the other hand, Biblical literalism demands a geocentric system just as much as it demands creationism, and the current Pope considers the Inquisition’s persecution of Galileo to have been “reasonable and just”, so maybe this is next once Intelligent Design gets established.

15 thoughts on ““Yawning gaps in basic knowledge”

  1. Mason

    That last one is the real kicker… Oh my. (Did you happen to find a link to the actual survey. I’m wondering how the questions were phrased.)
    As for what you as a scientist can do: Maybe blowing everybody so we can start from scratch…?
    If you bang your head hard enough, maybe one of the stars orbiting around your head will be the Sun… (or something; this seemed like it might be funny to my tired brain, but it’s actually really not…ah well, maybe I’ll write something amusing later)

  2. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Either you forgot to type “up”, or you are suggesting a way I can make science more appealing. In the latter case, while I think science education is important, I’m not that dedicated to the cause.

  3. shellock

    whenever a read stuff like this all i can thinkh of is a charie brown quote:
    “Stop the world I want to get off!”

  4. Lemming

    Maybe instead of “2005” you should labe it as “Aug 30, 2005, 11:27am” or somesuch. I mean, really, who is to say your not going to find something equally bothersome sometime this afternoon?

  5. Mason

    Um…oops. Damn keyboard. It’s all the keyboard’s fault!
    You should blow lots of people up, but blowing should be a wee bit more selective. :) (Either that or you have little time for anything else or are really fast or both.)

  6. Lemming

    Also the correct Internetese for “blow up” is now “a’splode,” in case you didn’t get the memo. Also of note is that the acceptable grammatical constructs for a’splode are a superset of what you’d expect. For example, the phrase, “Your head a’splode” is not only grammatically correct, but quite poetic in the context of Internetese.

  7. Mason

    I ignore those memos. I prefer the Queen’s English. :) OK, it’s actually not the Queen’s English or else I’d be talking about “behaviour” rather than “behavior”, but I prefer not to speak Internetese (what little of it I know) nonetheless.

  8. Lanth

    What I want to know is where these people are. I’ve never met anyone who took the other side of the Earth-Sun orbit controversy or who supported the “large electron” theory, but I’m willing to admit my sample is skewed. Is there a strong correlation between basic knowledge gaps and economic status? Childhood economic status? IQ? Amount of time spent watching Fox? If it’s the latter, I can imagine buying airtime on Fox to play educational spots instead of infomercials (“The Sun is a mass of incandescent gas…”).

  9. Katie

    Well, for starters we need some scientists to be willing to teach in public schools for very low pay (but lots of vacation). And a few more to design really engaging textbooks, lab projects, etc. and teach the teachers how to use them (since yes, the elementary school teachers are probably among the unaware general public). Then perhaps in a generation or two we can send kids to college with a solid scientific knowledge base. (If we manage to teach them math first!)

  10. Arcane Gazebo

    Mason: Just found the actual survey via Kevin Drum’s blog. The Earth/Sun question was:
    “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?”
    And the Times article misstated the response on that one. It’s not one in five adults, but ONE IN FOUR.
    They do a breakdown by education level but not other socioeconomic indicators.

  11. Mason

    I was holding out hope that maybe the phrasing of the question contributed to the answers they were getting… I know I’m not the usual one to hold out for a last bit of hope, but I really really wanted some way to understand how this could possibly happen. This kind of answer by a substantial fraction of the population is out of my worst nightmares (although 1/4 and 1/5 disturb me equally).
    Hey a bunch of people think humans hung with dinosaurs too… (And ‘hung’ _can_ be used as a synonym for _hung out_, so I’m going to make this comment not to prevent any repeat of the whole blowing incident from yesterday. :) )
    Hey, and question P (how long it takes for the earth to orbit the sun) reveals the question to O (unless there is a slight difference in how it was in the survey—‘Given your answer to O, …’ ). 1/4 of the population might have been really confused there…
    In terms of teaching in public schools, I know that several of the sciences have organizations devoted to it that really actively try to get scientists to help. I’m not convinced of how successful these efforts have been, but they exist to at least some extent. Math has NCTM (with some partnership from MAA) and physics as AAPT. One of the math conferences I have attended a couple times (the August Mathfest) includes some outreach stuff and some high school teachers actually attend this stuff, but these conferences are essentially orthogonal to research conferences (these are teaching sorts of conferences, or at least the mathematics one is). Some high school math teachers actually attend the one I’m thinking of, so that kind of venue seems the right way to start doing things along these lines. However, if you look at who is going to that conference, there are _very few_ from research universities, because the faculty at those places (in practice, anyway) seem to not be interested in these issues.
    It’s also worth mentioning that there is also a lot of resistance on the part of the teachers—many (understandably) view scientists as people who want to just ‘show them how to teach’ and there is probably a lot of truth behind this resentment.
    Everything really gets rather thorny, and that’s even when people discuss the ‘proper’ way to teach calculus—let alone things like evolution that (sadly) raise other hackles.
    Travis: Those articles in American Scientist do occasionally get used in high school classes, if you need further convincing to turn your posted exposition into an article. :)
    This response was a bit scatterbrained even for me, but I hope I was sufficiently coherent.

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