National Science Foundation Survey Suggests Americans Lagging in Scientific Literacy

Solar System

February 24, 2014

Does the Earth revolve around the sun, or is it the other way around? A recent survey suggests one in four Americans cannot answer that question correctly, drawing some columnists to question the national state of scientific literacy. The full results will be presented before U.S. lawmakers soon, reports KMVT, and may help them determine whether the government should invest more in science education.

The survey, titled "Science and Engineering Indicators," is conducted by the National Science Foundation every two years, notes a Michigan State University press release. This year, researchers asked 2,200 people nine questions meant to test their knowledge of basic scientific concepts. The fact that one-in-four participants incorrectly stated that the sun rotates around the Earth has drawn headlines, but according to TIME, there were a number of additional questions in which respondents fared poorly. The average score was 6.5 out of 9. Nonetheless, Americans still performed better than Europeans who have taken similar tests, at least with respect to sun-Earth rotation: TIME notes that only 66 percent of European Union residents answered the same question correctly.

"Unfortunately that does not surprise me," planetarium manager Rick Greenwald told KMVT. "It's a misconception that people have out there, but when you think about it, a lot of times we observe things but we don't think about them."

The press release states that while most Americans could probably "be a bit more knowledgeable in the ways of science," most tend to respect scientists and are interested in hearing more about scientific discoveries, particularly those with medical implications. More than 90 percent of respondents think scientists are "helping to solve challenging problems" and are "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity." They also tended to score highly in an area known as "informal science education," meaning they visit zoos and science, technology and natural history museums.

"It's important for Americans to maintain a high regard for science and scientists," said John Besley, an associate professor in advertising and public relations at Michigan State University said via the press release. "It can help ensure funding and help attract future scientists."

The preliminary results were presented recently at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. TIME notes that the public may not know the full results of the survey or its methodology until the NSF delivers it to President Obama and lawmakers.

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


"1 in 4 Americans Apparently Unaware the Earth Orbits the Sun," time.com, February 16, 2014, Samantha Grossman, http://newsfeed.time.com/2014/02/16/1-in-4-americans-thinks-sun-orbits-earth/

"National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators 2014," nsf.org, http://www.nsf.gov/statistics/seind14/

"One In Four Americans Can't Answer Science Question," kmvt.com, February 21, 2014, Rachel Holt, http://www.kmvt.com/news/local/One-In-Four-Americans-Cant-Answer-Science-Question-246623281.html

"Survey: Americans Struggle with Science; Respect Scientists," msutoday.msu.edu, February 14, 2014, http://msutoday.msu.edu/news/2014/survey-americans-struggle-with-science-respect-scientists/

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