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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Dispelling the scientific illiteracy myth
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image image image Date published: 28/08/02
  image Dispelling the scientific illiteracy myth
RTD info 34
  Is scientific culture on the decline? Or has it been lacking for a long time? A survey to test the scientific knowledge of RTD info readers sheds some light on the matter – although the results are not necessarily ‘scientifically correct’.

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 history/current affairs.

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 know it!

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.

1. Average number of correct answers per question

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 affairs.

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 answers: astrophysics).

2. Average scores by age category (scientists)

3. Average scores by age category (non-scientists)

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 much longer.

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