of Scientific Literacy
Understanding Scientific Terms and Concepts
Understanding the Scientific Process
Belief in Pseudoscience
Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many
citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and
concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process.
In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific
illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans.
Studies also suggest that not many Americans are technologically
Importance of Scientific Literacy
Scientific literacy in the United States (and in other countries)
is fairly low. (Scientific literacy is defined here as knowing basic
facts and concepts about science and having an understanding of
how science works.) The majority of the general public knows a little
but not a lot about science. For example, most Americans know that
the Earth travels around the Sun and that light travels faster than
sound. However, few know the definition of a molecule. In addition,
most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process.
It is important to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts,
concepts, and vocabulary. Those who possess such knowledge are better
able to follow science news reports and participate in public discourse
on science-related issues. An appreciation of the scientific process
may be even more important. Understanding how ideas are investigated
and analyzed is a sure sign of scientific literacy. It is valuable
not only in keeping up with important science-related issues, but
also in evaluating and assessing the validity of any type of information
and participating meaningfully in the political process (Maienschein
As noted earlier in this chapter, the science community has expressed
concern that the public's lack of knowledge about science may have
far-reaching consequences. Experts in science communication have
identified challenges and successes in efforts to address this lack
of knowledge. (See sidebar, "Communicating Science
to the Public.")
The benefits of scientific literacy have become increasingly apparent
in the wake of a landmark 1993 Supreme Court decision that addressed
how particular types of evidence should be handled in legal proceedings
(Kosko 2002). A recent survey revealed
that many judges did not possess the knowledge necessary to determine
whether evidence presented as scientific was, in fact, scientific.
Seeking assistance in recognizing which scientific claims should
be kept out of the courtroom, a group of judges recently approached
a scientist who has spent part of his career helping the public
distinguish valid from unfounded scientific claims. The judges asked
the scientist to provide them with "indicators that a scientific
claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse."
(See sidebar, "Science and the Law.")
Understanding Scientific Terms and Concepts
Neither Americans nor Europeans got high marks in a 2001 quiz designed
to test their knowledge of science. Both groups were asked 13 questions.
On average, Americans answered 8.2 questions correctly, compared
with 7.8 for Europeans.
Americans scored higher than Europeans on seven of the questions
(figure 7-6 ).
Response to one of the questions, "human beings, as we know them
today, developed from earlier species of animals," may reflect religious
beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science. In the United
States, 53 percent of respondents answered "true" to that statement
in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before
2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered "true.") The
2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought
the United States more in line with other industrialized countries
about the question of evolution.
During most of the 20th century, probably the most contentious
issue related to the teaching of science has been whether and how
evolution is to be taught in U.S. public school classrooms.
The controversy has continued in the new millennium, erupting in
Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere. Contention about this issue
also surfaced in England in 2001. (See sidebar, "More
Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science
Neither the U.S. survey nor the Eurobarometer has shown much change
in the public's level of knowledge about science, with one exception:
the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses
has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51
percent) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up
from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered
the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in
The promising trend in knowledge about antibiotics and viruses
suggests that a public health campaign to educate the public about
the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics has been working.
This problem has been the subject of widespread media coverage,
and whenever the main culpritthe overprescribing of antibioticsis
mentioned, so is the fact that antibiotics are ineffective in killing
viruses. In addition, parents of young children, especially those
prone to ear infections, have been warned by their pediatricians
about this problem.
However, the message still has not reached a large segment of the
population, in both the United States and Europe.
Americans apparently are also becoming more familiar with the terminology
of genetics. In a 2001 NSF survey, 45 percent of respondents were
able to define DNA. The percentage of correct responses to this
survey question increased in the late 1990s, a trend that probably
reflected the heavy media coverage of DNA use in forensics and medical
research. More recently, a 2003 Harris poll found that 60 percent
of adults in the United States selected the correct answer when
asked "what is DNA?" (the genetic code for living cells), and two-thirds
chose the right answer when asked "what does DNA stand for?" (deoxyribonucleic
acid) (KSERO Corporation 2003).
Surveys also indicate that the American public lacks an appreciation
of basic statistical concepts and terminology. If statistics were
confined to academic journals and textbooks, this finding would
be of limited interest. But daily newspapers and even television
newscasts rely on tables and charts to illustrate all kinds of trends.
(See sidebar, "Understanding Statistics.")
Understanding the Scientific Process
NSF surveys have asked respondents to explain in their own words
what it means to study something scientifically. Based on their
answers, it is possible to conclude that most Americans (two-thirds
in 2001) do not have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific
This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion
of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience. (See
discussion of "Belief in Pseudoscience" in this
In 2001, both the NSF survey and the Eurobarometer asked respondents
questions designed to test their knowledge of how an experiment
is conducted and their understanding of probability-two important
aspects of scientific literacy.
Only 43 percent of Americans and 37 percent of Europeans answered
the experiment question correctly. Both groups did better with probability:
57 percent of Americans and 69 percent of Europeans answered that
Most Americans are probably not technologically literate. They
have little conception of how science, technology, and engineering
are related to one another, and they do not clearly understand what
engineers do and how engineers and scientists work together to create
technology. Those are the major findings of a recent report issued
by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research
Council (NRC) (Committee on Technological
Literacy 2002). In addition, the International Technology Education
Association (ITEA) concluded from its 2001 survey that "adults are
very interested in but relatively poorly informed about technology"
(Rose and Dugger 2002).
In the NAE/NRC report, technological literacy was defined as "one's
ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology." The
concept includes an understanding of the nature of technology, the
design process, and the history of technology; a capacity to ask
questions and make informed decisions about technology; and some
level of hands-on capability related to the use of technology. (See
sidebar, "Characteristics of a Technologically Literate
According to the NAE/NRC report:
Technology has become so user friendly it is largely "invisible."
Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or
why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes
from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of
the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences
society, and how people can and affect its development.
The report also notes that, "like literacy in reading, mathematics,
science, or history, the goal of technological literacy is to provide
people with the tools to participate intelligently and thoughtfully
in the world around them." The following points are also made:
- Technological literacy is particularly important for decisionmakers
in business, government, and the media. However, as the report
notes, "there is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their
staff are any more technologically literate than the general public."
- Technological literacy is extremely important to the health
of the U.S. economy. Technological innovation is a major factor
in the vitality of the economy, and an increasing number of jobs
require workers to be technologically literate.
Although discussions of technological literacy imply agreement
about the definition of technology, many people define technology
far too narrowly. Their definition is usually restricted to computers
and the Internet.
In the ITEA survey, respondents were asked to name the first word
that comes to mind when they hear the word "technology." Approximately
two-thirds said "computers." Moreover, when given a choice of two
definitions for "technology," 63 percent chose "computers and the
Internet," whereas 36 percent chose "changing the natural world
to satisfy our needs." Younger people were more likely than older
people to choose the broader definition.
A majority of survey respondents (59 percent) associated the word
design (in relation to technology) with "blueprints and drawings
from which you construct something" rather than "a creative process
for solving problems." College graduates were more likely than others
to choose the latter definition.
The ITEA survey results suggest that most Americans feel confident
in their knowledge of technology. More than three-fourths of those
interviewed said they could understand and use technology either
to a great extent (28 percent) or to some extent (47 percent). Younger
respondents and college graduates were more likely than others to
feel confident about technology.
Respondents were also asked whether they thought they could explain
how certain technologies work. Most (90 percent) said they could
explain how a flashlight works, 70 percent could explain how a home
heating system works, 65 percent could explain how a telephone call
gets from point A to point B, and 53 percent could explain how energy
is transferred into power.
For each example except the flashlight, women were less confident
than men in their ability to explain the technology. Respondents
who said they had a "great" understanding of technology and those
who held technology- or computer-related jobs were more likely than
others to say they could explain the technology in the four examples.
Despite their apparent confidence about explaining how various
technologies work, respondents had difficulty answering specific
questions. About half (51 percent) did not know that using a portable
phone while in the bathtub does not create a risk of electrocution,
and only a fourth (26 percent) knew that FM radios operate free
of static. However, 82 percent knew that a car operates through
a series of explosions, and 62 percent knew that a microwave oven
does not heat food from the outside to the inside.
Belief in Pseudoscience
Although S&T are held in high esteem throughout the modern
world, pseudoscientific beliefs continue to thrive, coexisting alongside
society's professed respect for science and the scientific process.
The science community and those whose job it is to communicate information
about science to the public have been particularly concerned about
the public's susceptibility to pseudoscientific or unproven claims
that could adversely affect their health, safety, and pocketbooks
Pseudoscience has been defined as "claims presented so that they
appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence
and plausibility" (Shermer 1997,
In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and
interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and
aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection
or confirmation" (Shermer 1997,
Belief in pseudoscience is relatively widespread.
For example, at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes
in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can
affect people's lives. Although the majority (56 percent) of those
queried in the 2001 NSF survey said that astrology is "not at all
scientific," 9 percent said it is "very scientific" and 31 percent
thought it is "sort of scientific" (figure
table 7-5 ).
Belief in astrology is more prevalent in Europe, where 53 percent
of those surveyed thought it is "rather scientific" and only a minority
(39 percent) said it is not at all scientific (European
Commission 2001). Europeans were more likely to say that astrology
is scientific than to say the same about economics: only 42 percent
of those surveyed thought that economics was scientific. Disciplines
most likely to be considered scientific by Europeans were medicine
(93 percent), physics (90 percent), biology (88 percent), astronomy
(78 percent), mathematics (72 percent), and psychology (65 percent).
History (33 percent) was at the bottom of the list. (Comparable
U.S. data on the various disciplines do not exist.)
In the United States, skepticism about astrology is strongly related
to level of education: 74 percent of college graduates said that
astrology is "not at all scientific," compared with 45 percent of
those with less than a high school education and 52 percent of those
who had completed high school but not college. In Europe, however,
respondents with college degrees were just as likely as others to
claim that astrology is scientific.
Europeans were more likely than Americans to agree that "some numbers
are particularly lucky for some people." The percentages were 46
percent and 32 percent, respectively.
Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations suggest that at
least half of the U.S. public believes in the existence of extrasensory
perception (ESP), and a sizable minority believes in unidentified
flying objects and that aliens have landed on Earth. In the 2001
NSF survey, 60 percent of respondents agreed that "some people possess
psychic powers or ESP," and 30 percent agreed that "some of the
unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space
vehicles from other civilizations."
Surveys even show increasing belief in pseudoscience (Newport
and Strausberg 2001). Of the 13 paranormal phenomena included
in a periodically administered Gallup survey, belief in 8 increased
significantly between 1990 and 2001, and belief in only 1 (devil
possession) declined. Belief in four of the phenomena (haunted houses,
ghosts, communication with the dead, and witches) had double-digit
percentage point increases between 1990 and 2001
(figure 7-9 ).