Thursday, July 19, 2007

Why are Americans so darn stupid?

I've read in a number of places about surveys that show American's have a truly awful understanding of science. Lots of these things turn out to be apocryphal, so I went looking for actual data. One thing that I found was the General Social Survey, which is a study that has been done every year to two years since 1972. It asks a large number of questions ranging from attitudes on social trends to politics to science literacy. Most of the science literacy questions are new, so there aren't trends to examine. It's very interesting, and I would encourage you to go to the GSS website, download the results for yourself, and have a look. It's only a 2600 page PDF.

I took the results of some of the science questions and turned them into pie charts. Some of the questions I reworded for brevity, but they're basically all the same. Needeless to say, the results are somewhat disappointing.

The first one is a bit predictable, on evolution: (click for a bigger picture)

That's understandable, if frustrating. Americans are constantly lied to by their (religious) authority figures about evolution. Creationism is basically in industry in this country with its own books, videos, and lecture circuit. Since it's usually portrayed as a choice between religion and atheism, all people really know is that they despise atheists, so they chose the religious option.

The next one is a health question:

This one has actual practical consequences. If people think antibiotics are effective against viruses, they are likely to demand them from their doctor or just take leftovers in the case of a viral infection. Since the antibiotics do nothing against viruses, they'll just let any bacteria present possibly build up a resistance.

Here's one on astrology:

My hope here is that people misunderstood the question and thought it was talking about astronomy, not astrology. If not, one in twenty Americans think the position of the stars and planets actually has an effect on your personality.

This one is dear to my heart as I deal with these little buggers every day:

I guess electrons are esoteric to most people, but come on, this is high-school level stuff we're talking about, not the Bohr model vs. electron shells. It's not rocket science.

Here's the one that really scares me:

Go back and look at that again. One in four Americans doesn't know the Earth goes around the Sun. One in four. I can understand if a couple of people just got the question backwards, or answered too quickly and answered wrong by accident. I can't believe that a quarter of the people surveyed did.

Is it just ignorance? Is it just that so few Americans know anything about the world around them? Or does a huge fraction of the population actually reject heliocentrism? It's not a crazy question. There actually are modern geocentrists. Heck, they even have a freakin' annual conference. There is a Catholic group that holds that not only is the Earth the center of the Solar System, but of the entire universe. It is not a coincidence that all these kooks base their ridiculous nonsense on their religion.

That sound you hear? It's Galileo spinning in his grave. Or maybe he's just holding still and the Earth is rotating around him.


Vogue said...

I don't know that I'm, necessarily, surprised.

The younger generations are so into themselves, purported by the "everyone is a winner all the time" idea that I doubt people pay much attention to the world around them when it doesn't affect them in terms they can understand or relate to.

For the record, I think I got them correct. :)

David said...

We isn't stoopid, we'z amerikinz.