Dear Science Communication Professionals: We have a problem.
Earlier this month, the Bill Nye vs. Ken Ham creationism “debate” received a disproportionate amount of press coverage. Considering that there really is no debate to be had when it comes to the science of evolution, for bad or for worse, Nye faced a hostile audience at the Creationist Museum in Kentucky. He hoped to score some scientific points against Ham’s literal translation of the Bible and his absurd assertion that the world was created in 6 days and that the universe is 6,000 years old.
In my opinion, (an opinion shared by other science communicators), the Nye vs. Ham debate did little for science outreach. It was all about who sounded more convincing and only gave creationists some free advertising.
And then, today, the National Science Foundation (NSF) delivered news of a pretty shocking poll result: around one in four Americans (yes, that's 25 percent) are unaware that the Earth orbits the sun. Let’s repeat that: One in four Americans — that represents one quarter of the population — when asked probably the most basic question in science (except, perhaps, “Is the Earth flat?” Hint: No.), got the answer incorrect. Suddenly I realized why the Nye vs. Ham debate was so popular.
But wait! I hear you cry, perhaps the NSF poll was flawed? Perhaps the poll sample was too small? Sadly not. The NSF poll, which is used to gauge U.S. scientific literacy every year, surveyed 2,200 people who were asked 10 questions about physical and biological sciences. On average, the score was 6.5 out of 10 -- barely a passing grade. But for me personally, the fact that 26 percent of the respondents were unaware the Earth revolves around the sun shocked me to the core.
Perhaps I’m expecting too much of the U.S. education system? Perhaps this is just an anomaly; a statistical blip? But then, like the endless deluge of snow that is currently choking the East Coast, another outcome of the same poll appeared on the foggy horizon of scientific illiteracy: The majority of young Americans think astrology is a science.
What the what? Have I been transported back to the Dark Ages? Astrology, of course, is not a science; it is a spiritual belief system at best and at worst a pseudoscience driven by charlatans and the tabloid press. The positions of the stars and planets in the sky do not affect my mood and my horoscope has little bearing on the kind of person I am. Even in China, one of the birthplaces of astrology, 92 percent of the people know that astrology is bunk. Really America, get your act together.
Unfortunately, if we are to use the “Is astrology a science?” as a litmus test for scientific literacy, things are looking grim. In 2004, 66 percent of the American public said astrology was bunk. Every year since then, that majority has slipped. By 2012, only 55 percent of Americans considered astrology “not at all scientific.” Probably of most concern is the fact that only 42 percent of young respondents aged between 18-24 said astrology is “not at all scientific.”
But there is a small glimmer of hope. According to the same NSF poll, the vast majority of Americans seem to love science. Although they returned woeful test results, it seems America is hungry to learn about science and think that science funding is essential for the well-being of the nation. But I’m now concerned about what America thinks science really is, especially in light of that astrology result. Also, just because the U.S. public wants to learn, can they find the institutions that will actually teach real science?
Schools across the nation are currently facing the unthinkable notion of teaching creationism alongside evolution in science classrooms. The fact that religion is given the same standing as science is not only absurd, it's a fundamental institutional failing where children (who may be excited to learn about science) will grow up with a second-rate education, neglecting decades of scientific knowledge in favor of pseudo-scientific religious agendas.
For a nation that prides itself on science and discovery, it will be a tragedy on a national scale if fundamental science is undercut by superstition and the bad policies it inspires.