It’s hard to know whether this glass is half full or half empty:
It’s from “The Conceptualization and Measurement of Civic Scientific Literacy for the Twenty-First Century,” Jon Miller’s chapter in the new American Academy of Arts and Science report, “Science and the Educated American: A Core Component of Liberal Education.” (pdf here)
Miller has been trying to get empirical about the question of what Americans know and don’t know about science. As a science journalist trying to communicate with a broad lay audience, it is, for example, useful for me to remember that just 54 percent of Americans know that electrons are smaller than atoms. (Hey, that’s good news! It’s up from 46 percent a decade ago!) Having some feel for audience pre-knowledge is a critical piece of negotiating the space between science and the lay public, and between me and my audience.
The most recent data is important for a couple of reasons.
First, it suggests that the widespread belief that America is “dumbing down” is wrong. Miller’s repeat surveys, going back to the late 1980s in work done for the National Science Foundation, show a steady increase in public scientific literacy. But despite the steady improvement, most people just don’t know much about science.
It is common to hear the argument that, if only our educational system did a better job (or if only the media did a better job of teaching science), then outcomes of science-based political and public policy debates would improve. This data, which I’ve been using to help guide and inform my data since I discovered in the early 1990s, has always suggested to me that we’re never going to get far enough up that curve to make a big difference in those political and policy debates, and that we rather need processes that are robust to the reality that most folks just won’t ever know much science.