We have said since our inception that there is no lack of knowledge among the public, the science audience has obviously grown dramatically, but people are instead framing science through their politics more, so those on the other side see a deficit. Science blogs of the last decade were obviously big culprits in politicizing science and therefore causing scientists to lose their reputation as impartial trusted guides, but Science 2.0 is designed to make science about data again and now who should get your vote.
And it's working, provided you survey people in both political parties with the same questions. A widely used index of civic scientific literacy, sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the Tuesday Science section of The New York Times, showed that 28% of American adults scored high enough to understand scientific ideas at that level. In 1988, well before Science 2.0 and a time when only a few print magazines and expensive journals monopolized science, just 10 percent of U.S. adults had sufficient understanding of basic scientific ideas.
"America's democracy depends on having a larger number of scientifically literate citizens," said Jon Miller, who directs the ISR International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan and has pioneered methods of assessing comparative levels of scientific understanding over time. "Today's political agenda includes debates over global climate change, embryonic stem cells, future energy sources, and the possibility of a viral pandemic. And as the twenty-first century progresses, scientific issues are only likely to become more prominent features of the political landscape."
In the wave of criticisms about America, one thing gets lost that explains American adult knowledge - America is the only major country that requires almost all its college and university students to complete a full year of science. So the scientific literacy of U.S. adults is higher than the general adult populations of other developed nations.
However, given the on-going changes in many fields of science, most adults will still learn most of their information about science after they leave formal schooling so it shows that Americans care deeply about science beyond just getting a grade - just not always the science some bloggers want them to accept.
To track changes in scientific literacy over time, Miller developed sets of durable, core questions that assess understanding of basic scientific constructs in several areas. These areas include understanding of simple probability statements, the relationship of atoms, molecules, and electrons, of the universe and solar system, and the life sciences, where public confusion is greatest. With funding from a variety of sources, including the National Science Foundation, he surveyed national samples of the U.S. adult population in 1988, 1999 and 2008 to assess levels of what he calls 'civic scientific literacy.'
The results are telling - in many cases the more politicized the science, the less the acceptance. Approximately 44 percent of American adults can define DNA correctly but only 20 percent can define the meaning of a stem cell. Only 37 percent of American adults accepted the concept of biological evolution in 2008, the only decline over the last twenty years. While 85 percent of adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA, only 27 percent of Americans know that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice.
Clearly there is room for improvement but part of that relies on the science establishment to corral those who treat the public as the enemy if they are skeptical - skepticism is an important trait for science understanding and some of the questions were not that people did not know, it's that they refused to accept the science. (see The Pitfalls and Perils of Communicating Science, published in the Communicating Astronomy with the Public journal)
"Looking to the future, we must increase the proportion of scientifically literate adults in our society," Miller said. "Scientific literacy is not a cure or an antidote in and of itself. It is, however, a prerequisite for preserving a society that values science and is able to sustain its democratic values and traditions."
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