Monday, February 17, 2014

Scientific Illiteracy

Barney Henderson at the UK Telegraph reports on a survey which is depressing for what it tells us about scientific literacy among Americans and depressing, too, for what it tells us about philosophical literacy among, well, among Barney Henderson.

It turns out that in a survey of 2200 people who were asked nine questions about basic science the average number of correct answers was only 5.8, but the really depressing news was that a surprising 26% of respondents got wrong their answer to the question, "Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth."

It really is lamentable that so many Americans are ignorant of a fact they should have mastered by fourth grade, but Mr. Henderson went on to demonstrate a shortcoming of his own when he noted that:
Fewer than half of the respondents - 48% - are aware that humans evolved from earlier species of animals and just 39% answered correctly that "the universe began with a huge explosion".
Mr. Henderson doesn't seem to realize that whereas the evidence that the earth revolves around the sun is beyond dispute, the evidence for human descent from "earlier species of animals" and the evidence that "the universe began with a huge explosion" are much less so. Neither of these are the sorts of things one, especially a layman, is in a position to know, and indeed there's controversy among scientists about both, especially the latter. Both of them, unlike claims about the earth's path, are historical claims for which all evidence is circumstantial and indirect. It's true that the consensus of scientists favors both claims, but that hardly means that they're true much less that laymen should be criticized for not knowing whether they're true.

In fact, the sampled population showed a lot more sophistication on these questions than does Mr. Henderson. A trip to the survey itself reveals this on page 21:
Half of the survey respondents were randomly assigned to receive questions focused on information about the natural world (“human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a big explosion”). The other half were asked the questions with a preface that focused on conclusions that the scientific community has drawn about the natural world (“according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “according to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion”).

In 2012, respondents were much more likely to answer both questions correctly if the questions were framed as being about scientific theories or ideas rather than about natural world facts. For evolution, 48% of Americans answered “true” when presented with the statement that human beings evolved from earlier species with no preface, whereas 72% of those who received the preface said “true,” a 24 percentage point difference.
In other words when the question is framed properly so as to include the preface that many scientists believe that humans descended from other species and that the universe began in a cosmic explosion, the percentage of respondents giving the correct answer was 24 points higher reflecting a much better understanding of the actual state of affairs than Henderson's rendering would lead one to suspect.

To allege that it was incorrect to answer false to the question about humans evolving from other species or the question about the universe beginning in a Big Bang is to claim access to knowledge that no one has. It reflects a kind of intellectual arrogance and presumption that careful thinkers usually try to avoid.

Unfortunately, having said all that, it also turned out that a total of 42% of Americans also agreed that astrology is either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific." Perhaps the 42% were confusing astrology with astronomy, an easy mistake for those who spend their days watching Honey Boo Boo and devouring the latest news about Kanye and Kim, but if they actually did know what astrology is and still gave this answer then heaven help us.