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?
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?