The fact that the earth revolves around the sun is a tired fact for many people. Yet for at least a quarter of Americans, this fact is anything but old news. A recent statistic released by the National Science Foundation found that approximately 74 percent of Americans are aware that the Earth revolves around the sun. The fact that American science education is in the gutter is just as banal as the fact that the Earth revolves around the sun. Every year, a new statistic is released that further vindicates the extent of our ignorance. However, as is the case with most national polls that attempt to illustrate the public’s fatuity, the devil is in the details.
The fact that American science education is in decline goes without question. Yet polls are a tricky business. Responding yes or no to a questionnaire is not an effective measure to rate scientific literacy. Science is not just the accumulation of a bunch of facts. Rather, science consists of critical thinking in face of empirical observations. In fact, scientists don’t prove anything. Rather, it is a process that chisels towards truth by weeding out false hypotheses. A more interesting question the poll could have asked is not whether the Earth revolves around the sun but why it revolves around the sun. More specifically, why do planets take the orbital path of ellipses rather than circles? Answering that question requires some knitty-gritty background in physics and calculus, which is where real scientific understanding comes into play.
To be terse, the phrasing of a question matters. This is most noted in 2012 when the Richard Dawkin’s Foundation published a survey that “found” that the majority of Britain’s who call themselves Christians do not actually practice the faith in any meaningful sense. Questions on the survey included whether the person read the Bible and went to Church. Yet just because a person does not go to Church or reads the Bible does not thwart them from self-identifying as a Christian in any meaningful sense of the term. This is like saying that because some people don’t know the full title of The Origin of Species, then they don’t really believe in evolution.
In the spirit of scientific thinking, understanding why American science education is in the gutter is more interesting than knowing that American science education is in the gutter. In regards to the former, all one need to do is reference American history. After World War 2, scientists were upheld in society as national heroes for developing the hydrogen bomb. In the 1950s, the United States government subsidized scientists in an effort to fuel the space race. In recent years, however, NASA’s funding has experienced substantial budget cuts, the space race has faded into a distant memory, and most science journalism is tailored towards health and fitness. In consideration of these points, it should therefore come as no surprise that scientific literacy has waned in American culture.
Another substantial reason that scientific literacy has been in decline in American culture is the attention religious fundamentalist have received. Religious radicals make for great entertainment by sparking a debate between science and religion where none need be. Unfortunately, it is for this reason that religious fundamentalists are more likely to be noticed. This is perhaps most vindicated by the recent debate between Bill Nye and young-earth creationist Ken Ham, which was one of the most live streamed events in internet history. Rather than wallowing in our stupor, America ought to restore science to its rightful place in culture by promoting critical thinking and subsidizing research. Most importantly, however, we ought to quit investing in research that polls, rather than minimizes, national ignorance.
By Nathan Cranford