Home > Uncategorized > Just how essential is a scientific public?

Just how essential is a scientific public?

I’ve always been more a pessimist when it comes to the knowledge of the general public. I’m pessimistic in that I have little faith in the knowledge of an everyday American when it comes to knowing even basic science.

According to a survey done by the National Science Foundation not too long ago, my pessimism is well-founded. The survey simply asked basic science questions to over 2,000 random households nationwide. Among the questions were the following: 

  • The center of the Earth is very hot. true or false?
  • The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. true or false?
  • Which travels faster: light or sound?
  • How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun: 1 day, 1 month or 1 year?
 
The results were poor. Not horrendous, but poor. I’ll spare you the full results, but a majority of Americans surveyed did NOT know such simple, basic scientific facts like that humans developed from simpler organisms or that it takes 1 year for the Earth to orbit the Sun. In fact, only 22 percent of those surveyed could describe DNA and only a mere 9 percent could describe a molecule.

This originally frightened me. After all, how can the United States continue to lead the world scientifically if our public is so ignorant?

But then a thought struck me: why do we even need a well-informed public? Sure, it’s nice to have a public that knows basic science, but is it even necessary? The public doesn’t doesn’t exactly influence the work of scientists, after all, so where’s the harm? I’m increasingly prone to the belief that a public that doesn’t know basic science does just as much harm as a public that doesn’t know basic accounting. If ignorant people keep out of a professional community, why should we care if they know or don’t know basic knowledge of that community?

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  1. lexicory
    March 7, 2012 at 3:37 pm

    I feel like the general public should be well informed, always. Think about “being well-informed” when it comes to something such as elections or voting rights. If you have no idea anything about the race, the candidates, or the issue, you will not make well-informed decisions and that could possibly affect the entire country. I realize that this is a little different from being informed in science, but I believe that it is basically the same concept. People as citizens need to be well-rounded enough to answer AT LEAST basic science questions such as the ones mentioned above. It is a sign of overall how well-educated our population is. Even if your “specialty” isn’t astronomy or science, if you’ve had a decent and well-rounded education, questions such as that are simple. If you cannot answer those, it says something about any other bit of education you have (or don’t have.) While it’s true that the public doesn’t exactly influence the work of scientists, this ignorance reflects very poorly on our country and education systems.

  2. Ben Harrison
    March 8, 2012 at 2:31 am

    I agree with Lexi. When the public is less informed, it means the scientists have more power. They can say more outlandish statements that we (the public) have no defense against. At least with a basic knowledge, we can decide for ourselves whether to agree with scientists or not. Advocating that every member of the public should have an extensive scientific background, on the other hand; is ridiculous. We shouldn’t force an extensive curriculum of anything on our youth, but we should at least teach basic science. I would be interested in seeing the age group that the study looked at. Were these older people, or younger people. If the latter were true, I would be seriously worried about our education system. If, on the other hand, the older members of the public didn’t know this, I wouldn’t be seriously concerned. I would like to believe that our generation has basic knowledge, or at least enough to answer these basic questions. Could you post a link to the article you found this from??

  3. March 9, 2012 at 7:39 am

    I don’t know why the previous poster is so willing to excuse older Americans for their scientific ignorance (or perhaps apathy). It’s not as if the topics raised by the questions listed are recently developed or newly discovered scientific phenomena. Ought they not have learned it in the first place, or is senility inevitably linked with old age?

    I don’t necessarily agree with the picture that the previous poster paints of some sort of self-important, tyrannical scientists, all too willing to feed us nonsense just to take over the world. But we do live in a country where even the least educated individuals are usually obligated by law to have had some sort of educational training.

    As far as the original post, I think we are far too often we are concerned with the practicality of knowledge. But wouldn’t most of us would agree that there is value in knowing things, if only for the sake of knowing things? Even if you’ll never be called on to offer information on the intricate workings of the universe, I think it’s worthwhile to know which galaxy we live in. As a society we should be able to assume a particular base of knowledge in the people around us–especially those who have gone through educational systems like our own!

  4. March 10, 2012 at 11:21 pm

    I thought this post was really interesting. The term “well-informed public” has been thrown around so much, but we have never really discussed why that is so important. I don’t really think I am able to answer that question, but like the post before mine, I agree that there is a value of knowing things, even though we aren’t necessarily going to be taking a test on the topic. But I think there is value of having a well informed public, in terms of events that affect everyone and not just certain individuals. Knowledge is available, and people are free to choose what they want to read more about certain topics, but for things that have been in discussion/ controversial, like global climate change for example, they should know and be able to understand what is going on and why people may/may not be adjusting their behaviors accordingly.

  5. March 11, 2012 at 11:26 pm

    Like several of the other comments, I strongly believe that it is important for our public to be informed, even when it comes to things that they might not directly have influence on. Nothing is worse than talking to a person who has all kinds of opinions on a subject, that they really know nothing about. It’s a little different in this case when it comes to science, but the general principle is the same. Not only that, but the United States as a whole is viewed by many as the most powerful country in the world. The fact that our society can barely explain a molecule, something that is in literally everything in our world, is a bit frightening to me.

  6. March 12, 2012 at 12:21 am

    Everyone here is so willing to attack my idea that there’s no real disadvantage to having a scientifically ill-informed public, but I’ve yet to hear a truly convincing reason why. I think we’ve all been brought up to value knowledge, even if that value is without hard reason. Consequently, you all have a knee-jerk response toward rebutting my point. But let’s face it: the public has very little influence on the scientific community. Scientists tell the public how it is, not the other way around. So, again, where’s the harm, if those in science will continue to perform science well with or without a good pulblic knowledge? This is why the voting rights analogy that was used earlier is a poor one; because people have influence over politics, but they don’t have influence over a professional scientific community.

    I do agree we need to have a well-informed public, but each person only really needs knowledge for the things they have influence over. Science is not one of those things.

    Don’t get me wrong: I do value knowledge for the sake of having knowledge. But I feel that’s beside the point.

    Also, someone asked me where I ascertained this info. I actually got it from a long research paper, the link of which is below. If you scroll down to page 24 of the report, you’ll find the survey.

    http://www.freedomforum.org/publications/first/worldsapart/worldsapart.pdf

    • March 12, 2012 at 4:20 am

      I think we’ve answered you, and I think it callous and obstinate of you to assume that we haven’t considered your question if we haven’t reached the same conclusion as you. And it may serve you well to turn down the patronizing tone. Look a little closer:

      1. lexicory said that a basic grasp of science is a sign of the vitality of our educational system, which has strong implications on the state of our society–the knowledge itself may not be crucial, but its measure is a valuable index of our societal health.

      2. Ben Harrison pointed out that “knowledge is power” and that to deprive the public of scientific knowledge is to put it the mercy of a newly-created scientific elite.

      3. I disagreed in part with Ben Harrison, but, in the same vein as lexicory, proposed that practicality may not be the question we should ask–after all, we live in a society that values knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Indeed, it may just enable phatic expression, serving a social function and not a necessarily practical one: we should all be able to assume a certain base of knowledge in our fellow members of society, if only to denote shared backgrounds.

      4. neharj pointed out that science may have implications beyond the purely scientific, such as in policy decisions, which concern us all.

      5. klazar7 echoed the sentiment that lexicory brought up in the first place.

      HK’s points are also valuable, one of which seems to agree with neharj’s point above.

  7. HK
    March 12, 2012 at 3:03 am

    I have two ideas to add. First, this dichotomy between scientists and “the public” is somewhat fallacious. Scientists are not born scientists; they come from and are a part of the public. An uninformed public leads to less scientists and therefore, I would argue, I less productive society. If the United States is to remain among the most powerful countries in the world, we’re going to need more scientists making the advancements which improve technology, medicine, the environment, etc.. Second, even for the people who have absolutely no influence in the scientific community, having a general knowledge of science is vital. Say a large segment of our population doesn’t understand the effects of pollution. Ignorance of science would cause them to be ignorant of the potentially dangerous threat in global climate change (and it is a bit more dangerous than being ignorant of accounting). Those are two reasons we definitely need general science knowledge, even as non-scientists.

  8. anthonypribadi
    March 14, 2012 at 9:15 am

    When I was reading the post and all the comments, I was just about to say something similar to what HK says above. I would argue that “basic knowledge of science” although does not affect the scientific community the way election affects government, it does affect scientific community in other ways. Some of the points are already mentioned by HK, firstly, scientists come from public (who decide to become scientists). And that starts with some trivial scientific facts which further ignite one’s motivation to study more and do more research, hence, scientists. And aside from the probably environmental hazardous acts people will do if they are ignorant towards science, there is another important aspect in science development that will get neglected too, which is funding. I believe those people who donate money to researches have some kind of faith in science evolution.

    And I think that as human beings, we simply can’t ignore science at all. We all are born scientists. Science was the first educational subject on earth, I believe. We live in this world and we got to know how this world works. My father sometimes reminds me that I used to ask many questions, like, “papa why should I eat orange?” and he answered, “because it has a good amount of vitamin C,” then I continued asking, “then what is vitamin C good for?” and so on and on. I almost certain every kid has similar experiences dealing with this complex world, wanting to understand whys and hows. But, something happens when we get older and somehow distract us from our sciential kid spirit, i.e. greed, lust, pride, …

    And lastly, I want to give comment to the statistical result. Looking from a non-American perspective, yes, that statistic is a bad one, and we should somehow improve. But, I believe in other countries, especially the developing ones, the percentage would be lower if the exact survey were to be conducted. I mean, the bottom line is, we are not alone in this situation; others may have it even worse. Be gracious of what we currently already have.

  9. March 20, 2012 at 5:12 pm

    I like how provocative this post was! Even though I am a little late to the conversation, I’d like to continue this discussion. Here’s what I think: what is the POINT of having a scientific professional community if they are not going to work for the public/the greater good? If we have an ill-informed public, then what is the reason fro having any scientists at all? What is the point of having scientists study our earth – from things like pollution to global warming to cancer. If scientists aren’t relaying their information to people, then it’s almost useless. That’s why we have to have to well-informed public – because scientists simply cannot do research just for the sake of doing research. It has to GO somewhere, it has to be absorbed somehow – it has to be applied to the real world. Where is the practicality in using the money, time, and other resources if the public is just going to be ignorant to it? There needs to be a higher level of communication between scientists and the public. If we just let this country stay uninformed, we are widening that gap.

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