Does the public really need more science knowledge?

Spoiler Alert:  Maybe not in the way you’d expect…

You’ve probably heard this before:
“About a quarter of Americans don’t know that the Earth revolves around the Sun.”

And if you had hoped this was just an odd outlier in America’s understanding of science, you’re in a for a disappointment. The claim comes from a regularly published report by the NSF (National Science Foundation) which, among other things, includes national survey data about the American public’s attitudes and knowledge on science. While the factoid above comes from the 2012 survey, the more recent 2016 report isn’t much more optimistic. Take a look a some of the recent “Science and Engineering Indicators 2016” statistics found therein:

  • This time 76% of adults agree that the Earth goes around the Sun (not the other way around)
  • Barely half know how long it takes the Earth to make that journey (a year)
  • 49% of all adults think electrons are larger than atoms
  • Conversely, only 49% accept human evolution (that humans developed from earlier species)
  • About half of all surveyed think antibiotics are also used to kill viruses (generally)

Add that to a 2012 finding by the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) that places the US 27th out of 64 countries in science and it’s hard to deny the picture that’s forming (and sadly, one we’ve likely all acknowledged for some time now):

The American public doesn’t really seem to get Science.

If you’re reading this article then chances are that this dilemma isn’t new to you. But I did want to stress the degree in hopes to tease out the general gut reaction — “We need to improve science education so that the public is more science literate. We need the public to know more about science.”

But my question, at least on that last point, is — do we really?

Now I should clarify up front that I’m on the side of “Team Science” here. I would like the public to know as much as it can about science, and I think the statistics above represent a disturbing, real problem. However, I do take case with an easy and subtly key assumption to make about the solution, that the solution is found in the public knowing “more science.”

And while I’ll admit I’m half arguing semantics in second, let’s take a stroll down memory lane first to see what I mean. Think back to your own science classrooms of youth. Ever remember being asked to learn most of the element symbols on the periodic table? What about the Henderson-Hasselbalch equation? Still remember all of the division of biological taxonomy? Maybe you can still calculate the number of gas molecules at a certain pressure (the ideal gas law)? The “three types of rocks” maybe?

These are all pretty common middle/high school topics (or at most, early post-secondary general science ed), and there are certainly more difficult and nuanced topics that also fit the general docket. And yet, can you prattle off the explanation to each of these off the top of your head? If you’re a science geek, ok maybe, but what about almost every other person you meet on the street corner? And even more poignant to think about, how often do you think any of this information is relevant (matter of a need-to-know) for our daily lives?

You might quibble with me some on which topics are “common” or “difficult,” but I hope the point comes across. Much of the hoped knowledge of science education is already destined to fall by the wayside. And why not? Science nerd that I am, I couldn’t care less whether someone knows the chemical symbol for Strontium or whether they can calculate the number of gas molecules in their car tires.

So indeed, I don’t think we need “more science” (and here’s the semantics) in the sense of knowing more about what knowledge science has produced. In reality, we can’t keep up with it anyway (for a stunning example, consider that global scientific output has roughly doubled every 9 years).  But more “about” science? More about how it works? How it affects us?


Granted, “science as a process” rather than a “body of facts” has been touted already. But I’m not entirely sure we’re really taking that idea to its true logical conclusion. If we really believe that, then we’ve got more work to do than simply learning a lot of the same science content through “hands-on” or “project-based learning” (good things, mind you) in K-12. And taking this to heart may mean we utterly get rid of a lot of science content that we would otherwise think to be standard. Simply emulating science principles in the classroom might not be enough, and its link to the public can’t end once we graduate.

But if science content is not enough, what is? What do we focus on? Here’s at least my take:

  • Skeptical, evidence-based thinking:  This is perhaps the one that, I believe, could produce the biggest social currency. While we generally think of “evidence” as a matter for science and the courts alone, it’s about time that this key component of the science process get it’s time in the spotlight shared by the rest of our ideas. After all, with the spread of how easy it is to get your voice out online, we’re seeing growing concerns that we’re beginning to live in a “post-truth” world where the public can’t distinguish between fact and claim amidst the noise. Not to mention all of the other benefits this offers even to general decision-making.
  • Where it affects our way of life:  If you don’t believe this is an issue, then you probably missed the 2016 election. Despite being one of the most significant concerns produced by science for our world, climate change endured all of the presidential debates without a single question on the topic. And climate change was just one of the important matters afoot! The trouble of antibiotic resistance is a lurking threat, and the can of worms that is human genetic engineering is not far from being opened. The list goes on. Despite being some of the least publicly discussed issues, these may be some of the matters most likely to affect your average citizen in the near future.
  • How it affects our worldview: Here is one where I do think some specific science content is key. Science does have something to say about those age-old human questions (Where did we come from? Where are we going? etc.), at least on some level. And so far, given how unnecessarily contentious issues like the big bang or evolution are, it’s clear we’ve got work to do. Granted, this is obvious, but I’m not sure we prioritize it. In fact, I often think many science educators and communicators tend to quickly skirt about it for concerns of offending some of the conservative religious crowd. And there are more topics than just these hot-button issues (our place in the universe, our relationship to other biological life, etc.). Figuring out how to address these issues in a positive but proactive manner seems to remain to be desired.
  • Utility: Here’s a question for you, which of the following two science and technology subjects do you find more significant and relevant to most people? The central dogma of biology, or the science behind how cars work? This is not to say we need a whole unit on cars for each grade or that we really should trade one for the other, but it’s a salient analogy. And I must admit, this is a tough one on me as I feel like the idea of DNA -> RNA -> protein is one pretty darn important biological concept. Still, if I think critically on it, it’s hard to argue against the knowledge of how your car or truck works being more beneficial to most. And yet I can’t remember a single class I ever had on the matter (my utter inability to fix most car issues presented as evidence), while I can remember hitting on the central dogma even in high school. I imagine you can think of a few other examples of where we likely spend more time on topics that remain abstraction for most, while utilitarian topics lay right under our feet.
  • Possible careers and interest-grabbers:  Regardless of whether you believe there really is a crisis in having enough science and engineering professionals in America, I would argue this is still a responsibility of our educational pipeline. We should be showing what science (and engineering) careers can look like and doing so in a way that grabs some buy-in (Project Lead The Way is an interesting take on curricula for this). And on that, it really is worth dedicating significant time for the sole sake of making science seem cool and engaging. This also a great place to hit on the “cutting-edge” material that we might have missed while focusing on practicality. That’s incentive to take the science career, but it’s also what will help the public keep engaged. Speaking of which…
  • Involvement:  How do those who aren’t going to become science professionals stay involved? In what ways will science still be relevant? Is there a way to keep easily “current” on key topics, and what are those topics to pay attention to in the future? Do they still have a vote in what goes on? While I would argue that this bucket of questions might be the hardest of them all, we otherwise musn’t be too surprised that the public at large loses interest and engagement with science over time. And if the platforms needed to answer those questions don’t exist yet, well, then it’s time to make them, hard as it may be.
  • What we don’t know:  It astounds me that, for a field all about asking questions and exploring frontiers, we spend nearly all of our educational time talking about what we do know when its often the boundaries of our knowledge that excite and inspire us. And it really doesn’t take a huge build up of background content knowledge to reach those points. I’ve had discussions with middle school students about dark matter and dark energy (in this case, at Space Camp, but still) that were absolutely excellent. Any background they may have needed to understand it, they themselves were ravenous for– this time, not because they had to learn it, but because they wanted to and it was an exciting topic. And that extends to the general public too! If we want buy-in, showing them the fantastic mysteries we’re aiming at is well worth it!

I’m sure there are experts out there who could add to or prioritize this list, but I find these areas of focus quite compelling. And sure, there are facts in science that, ideally, the public “should” know. But if we look critically at the growth of knowledge, I feel we must see that we may have to radically rethink which pieces of “science” are important as time goes on. Increasing knowledge specialization is inevitable, and it may mean we have to give up some things we once thought were “have-to-know.”

But we can’t just give society the chance to emulate science in the classroom and hope that will work either. As we can see here, when we’re talking about “science” education (and communication too!), we really are touching the leaves of a tall, tall tree whose roots extend extend into culture, religion, politics, belief, economics, and much more. So “more science,” heck even “better science” as we typically think of it, isn’t likely enough. It’s really a broad-spectrum challenge.

And as I’ll step down from my preachy pulpit here, I have to concede that it’s a heck of a challenge indeed, and not one that I can claim to excel at. But to go back to the beginning, if a quarter of Americans thinking that the Sun goes around the Earth bothers us, then we can’t just throw the same old solutions at that problem.

So TL;DR:  The solution to the general public’s lack of understanding and engagement of science is not simply more science education, and better techniques to get that science content across might not cut it either. Rather, we have to start seeing science not as a body of facts, and also not just as a method of achieving knowledge, but rather give thought to the wide-spanning social factor it is as well. And to take that to heart might mean a bigger restructuring of science education and communication than we might have thought.

And while it might perturb me that half the population has the size of an electron completely off, staving off global warming or an antibiotic resistance (medical) armageddon… well, that’s probably worth it.


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