Science Literacy - American Adults 'Flunk' Basic Science, Says Survey
    By News Staff | March 12th 2009 12:00 AM | 41 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
    Are Americans bad at science?  If so, are they worse than anywhere else?   We know the answer to one of those questions.  A new national survey commissioned by the California Academy of Sciences and conducted by Harris Interactive  says that the U.S. public is unable to pass even a basic scientific literacy test. 

    The good news; U.S. adults do believe that scientific research and education are important. About 4 in 5 adults think science education is "absolutely essential" or "very important" to the U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%). 

    People are starting to realize that innovation and industry - not making cheap mortgages a government mandated right - are what propels successful economies.    That means people have to understand science.

    The big issues are global health and energy these days so if people are going to make smart policy decisions, they need to understand what is going on.   Since not everyone reads yet, we'll have to be patient while they catch up.   

    To get some more science literacy, check out   To test your already existing scientific literacy, take this Richard Carrier literacy test.   If you're already confident in your knowledge, here's what other people do not know:

    • Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
    • Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
    • Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth's surface that is covered with water .(*)
    • Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

    Knowledge about some key scientific issues is also low. Despite the fact that access to fresh water is likely to be one of the most pressing environmental issues over the coming years, less than 1% of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet's water is fresh (the correct answer is 3%). Nearly half didn't even hazard a guess. Additionally, 40% of U.S. adults say they are "not at all knowledgeable" about sustainability. 

    "There has never been a greater need for investment in scientific research and education," said Academy Executive Director Dr. Gregory Farrington. "Many of the most pressing issues of our time—from global climate change to resource management and disease—can only be addressed with the help of science."

    This survey was conducted by telephone within the United States by Harris Interactive on behalf of the California Academy of Sciences between December 17 and December 21, 2008 among 1,002 adults ages 18+.


    (*) The approximately correct answer range for this question was defined as anything between 65% and 75%. Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%.


    All of your examples are trivia questions, they demonstrate who can remember facts, not who understands science. Why should a Nobel-winning nuclear physicist know that only 3% of the Earth's water is not salt water? A more insighteful analysis would determine whether people understand the scientific method, how to analyze data, how to research, and how to use logic to draw useful conclusions.

    I disagree that nobody would know how much is fresh water. although few would know the exact number, most should be able to get in the neighborhood. after all, we all know that the oceans are salt water, so we're basically talking about inland waterways. which can't account for more than a few percent of the total.

    About 70% of the fresh water is in permanent snow and ice, so estimating based on just inland waterways would be very low. Of course, I didn't know this without looking it up -- I would have had to guess just like everyone else.

    I don't agree it's trivia.   You learned math by first memorizing facts.    

    Likewise critical thinking about geological or atmospheric science is unlikely to happen among people who can't find France on a map.   

    A basic foundation of knowledge - trivia is an emotionally charged term which makes facts sound like they are unimportant - is essential to broader understanding.
    Hank and others who disagree with me. I didn't say knowing facts is a waste of time, nor did I assert that a knowledge of foundational evidence is a waste to time. Nor did I argue against the conclusion that Americans could use more scientific knowledge. I find it odd that the author links to a much more useful quiz yet doesn't actually draw any information from it nor the article that follows. It seems that nobody who disagrees with me looked at either of the quizes.

    My arguement is that the 4 questions cited in the article are not a reasonable way to evaluate the scientific literacy of the population. I agree that all adults ought to know 1 year is the time it takes for the earth to orbit the sun and that they should know that dinos were extinct millions of years before humans evolved. But someone who knows those two facts has hardly proven that they understand the basic ideas of science. None who have disagreed with me have offered evidence to contradict my assertion. Hank, do YOU think someone who got those 4 questions right must have a decent scientific education?

    I do think they are at least a reasonable barometer because the questions required some thought; they didn't ask how many days are in a year - trivial - they asked how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.  

    Your arguments are not analogous; someone who knows those simple facts is not necessarily a great science mind but someone who does not is and yet can still be a good science mind is such a statistical outlier they should be buying lottery tickets instead of taking surveys.
    You've got to be kidding me. How many elements on the period table have four letters is a trivia question. And I would be shocked at the notion that a Nobel Prize-winning physicist would not know how much of the earth's water is fresh water. I defy you to find one.

    Sadly, the " Anonymous (not verified) | 03/13/09 | 10:04 AM" post is insightful and correct, and this "scientific literacy" test is garbage.

    "All of your examples are trivia questions, they demonstrate who can remember facts, not who understands science. Why should a Nobel-winning nuclear physicist know that only 3% of the Earth's water is not salt water? A more insighteful analysis would determine whether people understand the scientific method, how to analyze data, how to research, and how to use logic to draw useful conclusions."

    While your criticism of the water questions might be valid, the first two questions on the list are not mere trivia but represent some very basic and fairly fundamental things. I doubt any scientist worth his or her salt would be confused as to what a year is or whether dinosaurs and people coexisted.

    Also, you are not suggesting a better test for the nebulous idea of scientific literacy, but testing a different and more specific concept of understanding of the scientific method and practice. That is not the same thing and is not solely what the article was seeking to address. The idea that roughly half of Americans do not know that a year is the time it takes the Earth to orbit the Sun or that dinosaurs died out a bit before humans entered the picture is fairly indicative of a general lack of scientific literacy. In this sense scientific literacy is meant as a general awareness of basic scientific conclusions at even an elementary school level.

    I consider myself pretty knowledgeable, and I would have have gotten the question about Dinosaurs and early humans wrong. I believe that dinosaurs were around at the same time as early humans. If there weren't, why are they still here today?

    Or are birds no longer considered part of Dinosauria?

    If someone doesn't know it takes a year for the Earth to revolve around the sun what are the odds that they understand the scientific method? I'd say it's probably lower than the amount of fresh water on the planet! Respondent: "Scientific method? Uh. Is that E=mc2?"

    I know 3% is not odds, uh, just testing you.

    For further discussion:
    There is an almost universal consensus among paleontologists that birds are the descendants of theropod dinosaurs. Using the strict cladistical definition that all descendants of a single common ancestor must be included in a group for that group to be natural, birds are dinosaurs and dinosaurs are, therefore, not extinct. Birds are classified by most paleontologists as belonging to the subgroup Maniraptora, which are coelurosaurs, which are theropods, which are saurischians, which are dinosaurs.[8]

    total: 510.072 million sq km
    land: 148.94 million sq km
    water: 361.132 million sq km
    note: 70.9% of the world's surface is water, 29.1% is land

    Randall and the Anonymous poster prior to his post is more to the point than the understanding of the Scientific Method. Rather it is the intended point of the survey to indicate how many people just didn't pay attention in grade school, or perhaps more succinct how many people retained what they learned.

    I get the whole man was not there with dinosaurs, but since we have no proof saying that they weren;t, does not mean that there were none. You can say that there is a high probability that man and dinosaurs were not together, but you can't say that it is a definitive fact.
    Same thing with fresh water facts. It may be 2% one day, 4% another. Rain fall affects things, dry spells, etc. So, I agree with the whole "just knowing facts" statement before and that it is not enough.
    So, how do you test scientific process knowledge in a good way? This is how schools should be testing kids.

    Holy buckets! "we have no proof saying there weren't"

    Uhhh... dating? The newest dinosaur fossils and the oldest human fossils aren't anywhere close in terms of time periods. This can be confirmed by the surrounding earth and the fossils themselves. The evidence is so strong you can say that it is about as good as a fact and until evidence comes along that proves otherwise, it is considered a fact.

    2% one day and 4% another? Do you realize the volume of water you're talking about? It varies by percentages of a percent, perhaps, but water that evaporates becomes freshwater also.

    You're a perfect example of the kind of person this study is referring to.

    You're exactly the sort of dolt this article is talking about.

    "How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?"

    -Homer J. Simpson

    Americans, as a rule, are morons. I've said it many times. And those of you who complain this is just a "memory" test ... ask these morons who won on American Idol or what happened on Lost. And then remember that just over 50% of the voters wanted Obama! OMG! How dumb are we?

    your tax dollars at work!

    yes we can

    One issue is that we don't always get to hear about all the things that make science fascinating, things that would captivate public attention. But there are some cool things out there...

    Like this: how literate are you in what's going on at the poles, the fastest-warming places on Earth? (What do we do when the scientific publishing process makes it so that all climate data we hear about is approx. 3 years old?) Well, how about hearing it directly from those in the field...

    Check out:

    For the International Polar Year, the Exploratorium (in San Francisco) gave polar scientists cameras and blogging tools and asked them to document their field work. Follow along on their adventures and see what it's like to be a research scientist in the Arctic or Antarctica, and what findings are being discovered in real time.

    How can the common people learn more about science if most of their time is spent at work? And how can they study science when their degree choices are made with employability in mind? (as a physicist you need a PhD to be employable, but if you study software development you can find work with a BSc)

    All humans have the natural instinct of curiosity which leads them to seeking answers to their questions about the world, and today science can and does provide very satisfactory answers. But learning these answers requires some time indestment, which cannot be made by people who focus so much on their work.

    One has to wonder why in our era with so advanced robotics around us, we still have to work so many hours a day. Perhaps the common people would become more interested in science if they could afford to work less and have more time available for study and reading.

    The poster "George" makes an excellent point, and hints at another one: Our species seems to have a propensity for producing labor saving devices, but still requires people to pay their bills with labor. We are on the edge of widespread use of robotics now...what will happen when even the most trivial job can be done by an inexpensive machine? If you were running GM, would you rather employ a $200,000 robot, or a union worker who will cost you two million in benefits and pension over his working life (and with no warranty)?

    Sure, you still need some highly educated people to build and service the robot, but let's face it: not everyone is gonna pass that Robotics 101 class. Certainly not those who haven't a clue how long it takes the Earth to travel around the sun, and why it's important. So what happens to the rest of beer-drinking, TV-watching humanity?

    I think someone is gonna have to rethink the economy. Unemployed people don't buy many cars.

    I'm coming to this subject late but the answer to your question about robotics and employment, as well as time to study, is being answered by the Zeitgeist Movement. It doesn't claim to have all the answers, but there is undeniably a better way to thrive than on beer, tv, and a less than scientifically aware population. I blame religion; we start out lying to our children about Santa Claus and God (both the same entity, really) and it seems more than half of the population then becomes unable to think critically. Few ever escape this early programming, and it's easy to sit back your whole life and let someone else call the shots when you're somehow convinced prayer will take care of you along with a big white haired guy. We've allowed the sometimes less-than-bright population to be all the more confused by lies; the lies pile one on top of another until it seems most people's decisions are based on fantasy. And end up with a totally screwed up world.

    We went down the wrong path again and again and again, every time there was a crucial decision to be made.

    I think the answer to your first question: "How can the common people learn more about science if most of their time is spent at work?" is fairly simple. They have to learn all those "basic" things while they are not working yet, i.e. in elementary, middle and high school. As a European living and studying (PhD) in the US, I can't say but that I am amazed on how uneducated are Americans (even college students!). I was shocked when I heard the kind of things that kids are taught in college because they never learned them in highschool. And even if you referred to learn more stuff... well, if the 4 hours of TV watching that americans spend on average where devoted to read or to educational TV channels (instead of Ameircan Idol) the problem would be solved. So NO its not a problem of not having time... its a problem of "mentality" and even "ideology".

    You make a good point here about the value of science to American industry. Indeed, this is why I pursued a BS in Computer Science instead of a higher degree in Physics: I can make a substantially better living as a software engineer (which really does only require a BS) than as a physicist with substantially less effort. Furthermore, the amount of money earned by many people in the financial services industry is disgusting. They produce nothing and are nothing but parasites. It's twisted, but that's the way it is.

    You are stretching it by suggesting that the common man's ignorance is cause by spending too much time at work, however. As someone else pointed out, basic scientific knowledge should be acquired when in secondary school. Unfortunately, far too few kids see the value in getting a good education (you're a dork if you like science and doing homework eats into your busy social schedule), and far too few parents care as long as their kids get passing grades. The last people to blame are teachers. Talk about inequity. Teaching should be among the most valued of all professions. Where would any of us be without teachers?

    Science needs an image overhaul in the US. Scientific innovation must drive the economy, especially given the challenges we face. The only way this can be accomplished is politically, and it must be part of Obama's agenda. We cannot survive as an economic power if our biggest industry continues to involve moving money from one place to another (usually from the pockets of the less fortunate into the pockets of the ultra-wealthy).

    Americans have plenty of time to watch garbage reality TV, and obsess over worthless celebrity imbeciles. When a higher percentage of Americans can tell you who won the last Dancing with the Stars than can tell you how long it takes for the earth to go around the sun, it isn't a matter of having enough free time.

    Anyone who has so little awareness of their environment that they don't know how long it takes the earth to orbit the sun should be used as a battery like in "The Matrix" or sent off to colonize another planet. Some of my neighbors were recently trying to figure out why the developers of our fairly tall building had put the pool on the South side, not realizing that if it were on the North side it would be in the shade a lot of the year.

    There will never be a lack of demand (long-term, anyway) for labor. The previous poster doesn't understand fact number one about economics: people's wants and needs are UNLIMITED. No matter how many machines do how much work, there will always be a demand for yet more, which people will then fulfill. You can't do infinite work with a finite number of machines.

    This topic started out as lack of scientific knowledge. You think that is scary - the average person's understanding of even simple economic theory is pretty much ZERO.

    Sorry... wait... ECONOMIC Theory? I think right now we have NO working Economic theory. Actually assumptions like the one you talk about are at the root of the problem with the global economy right now.
    Also... are you making a distinction between economy and science in your last paragraph? It might be actually accurate to separate them until someone starts doing real science on the economics community.

    Both Keynesian and Classical theories allow for there to be greater supply of labour than the demand for it, which is what I take it you mean by "lack of demand for labour". If the labour market was perfect the price and quantity would naturally adjust to levels where demand = supply, however both theories recognise that the labour market is not perfect (they differ on the causes and solutions for it).

    Wiki has a somewhat passable introduction:

    Gerhard Adam
    "... allow for there to be greater supply of labour than the demand for it"

    What does that even mean?  To allow for it, simply means that they recognize that they will be unemployed.  However, there is a fundamental failure to apply boundary conditions to economic models, by using theories that address relatively local conditions and then having worldwide competition using widely disparate economic systems.
    Mundus vult decipi
    Let me register another agreement with the first comment--this survey is about trivia, not science. Sure you'd like people to be able to roughly quantify a few things--but knowing whether the earth is 70% or 76% covered by water is just trivia. I have a PhD in Physics and my guess was high 70's--just outside the 'correct' range. (BTW, technically large amounts of 'land' are covered by solid water most of the time, so the answer is not even well defined.) And the humans/dinosaurs issue is hugely contaminated by creationist ideas which are never mentioned in the article.

    I think some bloggers need to improve their social science literacy and learn how to put together a meaningful survey.

    Actually, I am appalled at the interviewers:

    The approximately correct answer range for this question was defined as anything between 65% and 75%. Only 15% of respondents answered this question with the exactly correct answer of 70%.

    That's a load of horsehockey if I ever saw one. Of course, 70% is not the "exactly correct answer". And it is nonsensical to define 25% and 35% of land mass as equally close to 30%.

    In fact, I find it encouraging that 47% were "merely" close rather than "exactly correct". The "exactly correct" answers are most likely rote learning. The close answers more likely are something associated with an actual idea of the ratio.

    We don't need as much people who have learnt their stuff, but people who know their stuff.

    It's interesting how 2 people mention jobs in physics and software. I've got a PhD in physics, and I'm writing software now.

    I also agree with David K, saying that the test is silly. There is no "exact" answer to questions like the percentage of the earth covered by water. Saying that the "exact" value is 70% (which is "wrong", according to the link above saying it is 70.9%) illustrates a fundamental ignorance of the meaning of numbers and measurement. When it rains, more of the earth is covered by water. Does that number include ice? What about ice covered with dirt? Ask someone how to measure the length of coast line ... that's always a fun discussion... what is a "coast line" and at what resolution do you measure it (from a map at the resultion of the print pixels, or by measuring around grains of sand on the beach that are partially in contact with water)? That is what makes science interesting -- how do you answer questions with "good" answers that are not just a random choice of definition. It is a frame of mind, not a collection of "trivia".

    its not a very good test about how many people have an inkling about science but it gives a clue about how many don't. i personally would really want to see similar survey about the rest of the world for comparison.

    Was the given result, specifically, that roughly half of a 'Net-literate population failed to know how long it takes the Earth to revolve around the Sun, the expected result of the survey? Surely the implied "scientific" duty is to verify the reliability of the instruments used and the accuracy of those results as compared to other measures, not to draw conclusions about public idiocy based on one grouping of responses. I personally find it hard to believe that the results of the "year" question are representative of an English-literate population.

    Who wonders? americans have a bad schoolsystem!

    yes, that 70.9% does in fact count ice, ice with dirt on it, and interstitial water (the water between grains of sand)

    So much of the information out there about teaching science focuses on the kids (of course) but there is little out there for parents. Memorizing facts is what turned most parents off of science when they were kids. They've lost the awe and wonder that all kids have (kids are just scientists at play). Getting themselves re-interested and re-enthused about science is job #1 for parents if they are to support their kids in exploring and discovering the world around them. There is so much to be absolutely gob-smacked about out there if only scientists and the media were better at explaining it to us regular folk!

    Why is everyone responding that the question has to do with fresh says nothing but 'water'........just for your information less than 1% of the water on earth is attainable and consumable by humans- and yes most people should know the answers- except the large religious contingent out there would miss the dinasaur one and would answere like the idiots perry and bachman would- 3000 years ago.