Take the new science knowledge survey

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

It’s 40 years since this weekly column began. It was a different world then, in the mid-’70s: No space probe had ventured past Mars. No one knew that quarks exist and form the nucleus of every atom. The new millennium was still a quarter-century away. The Internet did not exist. Neither did global warming. VHS camcorders and tapes lay in the future.

I was a kid in his 20s. I had not yet taught college Astronomy. But our publisher, who had bravely started our first newspaper Woodstock Times a year or so earlier, approved this column, along with a $5 remuneration. That bought nine gallons of gas. The average new car cost $3,700. A typical house was $35,000.

But some things haven’t changed. The National Science Foundation (NSF) keeps track of public science awareness, and just released its annual basic knowledge survey. Result? The average American correctly answers between five and six of its nine questions. That result hasn’t budged over all these years.


Care to try it? If you score higher than six, your “basic science knowledge” is superior to most folks. Few science-savvy people get ’em all correct, so don’t sweat it. Answer true or false:

  • The center of the Earth is very hot.
  • The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
  • All radioactivity is man-made.
  • Electrons are smaller than atoms.
  • Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
  • Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
  • The sex of a child is determined by the father’s genes.
  • Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

(If #8 answered correctly:) How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?

(Answers: 1T, 2T, 3F, 4T, 5F, 6F, 7T, 8 Earth goes around Sun, 9 one year.)

Science isn’t everyone’s “thing,” and I wouldn’t deem it deficient to get three wrong. But this quiz yielded some surprises. For example, many assume that Europeans are far ahead of us, but their scores on this NSF “basic science knowledge” test were no different from ours.

Beyond book-learning, educators say that they’d like US students to exhibit more critical thinking. Surveys reveal that a disturbing minority believe in various conspiracy ideas that do demonstrate skepticism of authority (which is good), but also faulty evaluative abilities (which is bad). For example, polls show that seven percent of the public thinks that the Apollo Moon landings were a hoax. And when asked, “Do you believe that the exhaust seen in the sky behind airplanes is actually chemicals sprayed by the government for sinister reasons?” fully five percent answer in the affirmative.

Buying into such ideas is a symptom of more than just a science deficiency, but an inability to assess how the real world operates (e.g. that thousands of people could all keep a juicy secret indefinitely). It also involves ignoring contradictory evidence. Apollo hoax believers never seem to wonder just where those rockets went after liftoff, if they didn’t go to the Moon. (If they had stayed in orbit, they’d remain visible. Plus, unfriendly countries tracking them on radar would have been happy to spill the beans.) With the “chemtrails” business, conspiracy believers seem unaware that a planeful of liquid released at 34,000 feet couldn’t reach the ground, but would dissipate. Aerial spraying is a treetop-level endeavor – not to mention the question of where you would find thousands of pilots willing to harm innocent Americans.

Science evaluation skills are more important than ever, given today’s critical issues like runaway CO2, and yet 37 percent of Americans think that climate change is another government conspiracy. The NSF’s revelation that we’re stuck in a marginal level of science awareness is hopefully a wakeup call. Otherwise we’re squandering that wondrous knowledge that we’ve gained since the ’70s.

Meanwhile, according to the Public Polling Policy company, four percent of Americans believe that “Lizard people control our society by gaining political power.” But is this really a stretch? I always vote for the “lizard people” candidate. Unfortunately, we never win.

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