Adults Score Low in Science Literacy

Article excerpt

Most adults in the United States keep abreast of scientific developments through news accounts. Yet only about 23 percent of those adults understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to make informed judgments about those science stories, finds a new survey performed for the National Science Foundation. Similarly, though most of the adults polled said they were interested in the environment and pollution, only about one in nine could offer even "a minimally correct scientific explanation" of environmental concepts such as global warming.

In the 12th issue of NSF's biennial Science & Engineering Indicators, published last week, Jon D. Miller and Linda Pifer of the Chicago Academy of Sciences unveil their updated survey on science literacy in the United States. The 1995 data show that about 70 percent of adults think science is valuable, continuing a trend more than 2 decades long (see p. 360). At the same time, Miller points out, understanding of particular concepts-or even of how science is performed-remains low.

For instance, he and Pifer found that fewer than 10 percent of adults can describe a molecule beyond noting that it's small. Only 20 percent can even minimally define DNA, and slightly fewer than half know that Earth rotates around the sun once a year.

Although almost one-quarter could explain correctly how chlorofluorocarbons were believed to contribute to the thinning of stratospheric ozone, only about half of these adults could describe reasonably well where in the atmosphere this thinning is taking place. …