Getting it wrong: Australian science literacy hits new low

A bumper sticker sometimes seen on automobiles in North America and elsewhere proclaims, “I may be slow, but I’m ahead of you.” Similarly, perhaps the only positive note that can be sounded on a recent Australian science literacy survey is that the results are somewhat better than a similar study done in the U.S.A.

Results of science literacy survey

The survey, which is described in detail at the Australian Academy of Science website, asked a handful of questions on basic science. It is similar to a survey conducted in Australia in 2010, and is based on a 2009 survey conducted in the U.S.A. by the California Academy of Sciences (which was obtained by the present authors from the CAS).

The questions were the following:

  1. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  2. Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
  3. What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered with water?
  4. What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water?
  5. Do you think evolution is occurring?
  6. Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species?
  7. In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?

So how did Australians do on this quiz?

Sadly, only 59% responded correctly that the Earth takes one year to orbit the Sun. Fully 30% responded that it takes only one day for the Earth to orbit the Sun. Of even greater concern is the fact that the percentage responding correctly actually declined from a similar study among Australians in 2010, when 61% got the right answer. Indeed, the greatest drop in correct answers occurred among the youngest respondents (ages 18-24 years), who fell from 74% correct in 2010 to only 62% in 2013.

What percentage of Americans got the correct answer in 2009? Only 53%, a truly dismal figure for a nation that fancies itself as the world’s high-technology powerhouse.

For question #2 above (humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs?), 73% of Australians knew that this is false, a small increase from 70% in 2010. There is some room for optimism here, as a higher percentage of 18-24 year-olds (80%) knew the correct answer.

How did Americans fare?

Only 59% knew that the statement of question #2 was false.

Similarly, 73% of Australians correctly stated that the percentage of the Earth’s surface that is covered by water is between 70% and 80%. By comparison, only 42% of American adults responded that the percentage was between 70% and 79%.

The question about the percentage of the Earth’s water that is fresh water proved to be the most difficult of the lot. Only 9% of Australians gave the correct percentage (3%). The remaining responses ranged rather widely between 0% and 100%. By comparison, only 1% of Americans knew the correct answer.

Australians did much better on the questions about evolution. Seventy percent acknowledged (correctly) that evolution is occurring (but 9% said they do not believe in evolution, and 10% said it is not occurring). And 75% of Australians agreed that humans are influencing the evolution of other species. The corresponding U.S.A. percentages on these two questions are 62% and 70%.

Along this line, according to a 2009 poll, 39% of Americans think that the Earth, the Sun, Moon, stars, plants, animals and the first two people were created in the past 10,000 years.

Finally, 81% of Australian men and 78% of Australian women agree that science education is absolutely essential to the future of the Australian economy. In the U.S.A. survey, 86% agreed that science education was essential or very important to the U.S. healthcare system; 79% agreed that it was essential or very important for America’s global reputation; and 77% agreed that it was essential or very important for the U.S. economy. (We might deduce that the less one knows the more one values knowledge?)

These depressing results are summarized in the following table:


Question Australia correct (2013) U.S.A. correct (2009)
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? 59% 53%
Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs. 73% 59%
What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered with water? 73%* 47%**
What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water? 9% 1%
Do you think evolution is occurring? 70% 62%
Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species? 75% 70%
In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian [or American] economy? 80%*** 81%****

* Percent responding between 70% and 80% cover.
** Percent responding between 70% and 79% cover.
*** Percent responding “essential” or “very important.”
**** Percent responding “essential” or “very important.” Average of three percentages.

Reaction

Needless to say, Australian science education observers are disappointed. Les Field, Secretary for Science Policy at the Australian Academy of Science, declared “Things are getting worse in some demographics and I certainly would’ve hoped it had improved better than it has.” He continued, “The majority of Australians can answer the questions, but the people who don’t know the answers are the ones that worry me. Not knowing simple facts such as the time of Earth’s orbit concerns me.”

Field explained that “It’s vital that we have scientific literacy in order to have an informed public debate. … Issues such as climate change, drugs in sport and immunisation are on everyone’s radar at the moment. People need a rudimentary understanding of science to participate in these debates.”

On a final depressing note, the rot does not stop at science nor stay only in Australia and America.  Woeful ignorance  of geography was found among Canadian students at Memorial University as reported in 2012 on CBC. “Each semester, Judith Adler gives students in her Sociology 2270 class a pop quiz.” Of the most recent results she wrote:

“They should not be confusing Antarctica and the Arctic, and they should know that they live on the Atlantic Ocean … and they should be able to know where North America is.”

Adler described the test as extremely elementary, adding she’s had to make it even simpler over the years. This year’s results were no less shocking.

“The Atlantic Ocean is labelled as the Mediterranean Sea; Africa is circled and labelled as Europe, with Spain and Italy being put in the middle of Africa,” she said.

Adler said she can’t believe her students’ lack of knowledge when it comes to geography.

“The revelation of how the school system here has completely dropped geography from young people’s education has been very striking to me,” she said.

Ignorance may be bliss but its consequences are potentially devastating.

Comments are closed.