Scientific literacy is on the decline.
Or is it? If we say for argument’s sake that it is, the question
then is whether this is a recent phenomenon – a by-product
of a world where high-tech has come to mean easy solutions –
or something that has been eating away at the core of science for
much longer? The results of a survey published by Nature back in
1989, which reported that only around 10% of the population was
scientifically literate, suggest it might not be such a new phenomenon
– if you could call it a phenomenon at all.
Critics of multiple choice surveys, such as Nature’s
and many more since, point out that they only reveal some aspects
of scientific culture – providing few points of reference
and insufficient comparison with performance in other cultural domains.
How can we claim that the public is scientifically ignorant without
sufficient data on (say) their knowledge of the arts or history?
To answer some of these questions, RTD info decided
to issue its own questionnaire, enclosed with the magazine and posted
on its website (See RTD
info 31), inviting people to respond quickly and without consulting
references, to 21 questions in three categories: science, arts and
Provided in three languages, the subjects and
questions were deliberately limited to factual knowledge and conceptual
competence. While it is well known that scientific culture involves
additional dimensions, this grouping is sufficient to indicate new
directions for educational and training programmes.
Specialist training? You’d never
A total of 220 questionnaires were returned by
the end of May. The graph provided (figure 1) shows that the pattern
of correct answers is strikingly similar for scientists and people
who stated they had no scientific education – even for the
science category! This can mean one of two things: that the science
items were easier than those in the other two categories, or that
scientific literacy is not as poor as first expected.
Supporting the case for the latter, the majority
of the non-scientific respondents (50%) answered in the last question
of the survey that the ‘science category questions were the
most difficult to answer’. And yet this is the category in
which they performed best. As for people with a scientific education,
77% of them said the history/current affairs questions were the
most difficult. However, this is consistent with the fact that these
questions have the lowest success rate.
On average, non-scientific respondents performed
a little less well in science and a bit better in history/current
Regardless of the categories of people, the question
with the lowest number of good answers is ‘Who invented radio
in 1901?’ (29.8% correct answers: Marconi) and the question
best answered is also a scientific question: ‘ A “brown
dwarf” is an expression used in…?’ (86.0% correct
Although the small sample size and limited number
of questions temper the kind of conclusions we can draw from this
experiment, it does show that certain aspects of scientific literacy
are better developed than we might think. The irony is: science
is everywhere, yet some scientific concepts have widely permeated
society while others remain hidden in what has traditionally been
the ‘realms of magic and myth’. But perhaps not for