Every two years, the National Science Foundation sends a report on U.S. science and technology to Congress and the President. Its focus is Americans’ understanding of technical concepts that might influence the country’s future potential in areas like advanced engineering. Usually the report shows the U.S. in the middle of the pack, behind burgeoning Asian countries, and ahead of similarly developed countries in Latin American or European countries.
For such a nebulous concept, there are lots of things to test. One is a survey of attitudes. How much do Americans really care about science? News about science and technology ranks eighth on the list of topics Americans follow closely (after weather, crime, community events, sports, health, local government, and national politics). Most of the time, what ends up being the most popular sci/tech news is the buzz around the newest Apple product.
A more empirical way to find an answer is to ask: How much do Americans know about science? A survey was designed to test the understanding of basic concepts. Here are the questions the NSF used for areas of physical and biological science. The answers are at the bottom. The full report is here:
1) The center of the Earth is very hot, true or false?
2) Continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue moving for millions more, true or false?
3) Does the Earth go around the sun or does the sun go around the Earth?
4) All radioactivity is man made, true or false?
5) Electrons are smaller than atoms, true or false?
6) Lasers work by focusing sound waves, true or false?
7) The universe began with a huge explosion, true or false?
8) It’s the father’s gene that decides whether a baby is a boy or a girl, true or false?
9) Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria, true or false?
10) Human beings developed from earlier mammal species, true or false?
The deeper question here may be why it’s important to understand science. Most people can go their entire lives without knowing how many electrons are in an atom of oxygen (eight, in case you’re curious). But I’d argue that more than just fun facts, science gives context. It explains how the world works and how our minds operate. When we’re faced with challenges like how to combat climate change or how to produce more food for a growing population, having a general understanding of the natural world informs what ideas we each bring to the table and the leaders we elect to find solutions. Scientific research is designed as a series of building blocks, where one finding is the foundation for the next question. In the same way, knowing generally how the world works is the basis for how we choose to change it.
1) True, the Earth’s core is about 10,000 degrees Fahrenheit. 2) True. 3) Earth around sun. 4) False. 5) True. 6) False, they focus light waves. 7) True. 8) True. 9) False, antibiotics cannot kill viruses. 10) True.