Sometimes it seems the American public has been regressing in its understanding of science lately, especially with all the media coverage of debates about climate change and evolution, among a host of controversial issues. However, a researcher who spends his time tracking the public's knowledge of scientific concepts last week said that, in reality, just the opposite is taking place: U.S. citizens are more fluent in science now than in recent decades.
At the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Francisco, Jon D. Miller, a professor at Michigan State University in multidisciplinary studies, argued that Americans are more scientifically literate than they were 20 years ago, but that they still have a lot of room for improvement.
"A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults," Miller said. "We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times."
Miller noted that about 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He attributed much of the improvement in scientific understanding to policies at U.S. universities in recent years that require students to take science courses, as well as informal science education resources, such as science magazines, news magazines, science museums and the Internet.
"Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain, analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among U.S. adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing," he said.
Miller emphasized that a good grounding in science is fundamental for the well being of the public. He listed several reasons, including the need for a more sophisticated work force and for more scientifically literate consumers, as well as an intelligent electorate who can help shape public policy.
"Over recent decades, the number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing," he stated. "Any number of issues, including the siting of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste disposal facilities, and the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research, point to the need for an informed citizenry in the formulation of public policy."
To be classified as "scientifically literate," Miller said one must be able to understand approximately 20 of 31 scientific concepts and terms similar to those that would be found in articles that appear in the New York Times weekly science section and in an episode of the PBS program "NOVA."
Miller's work points to an improvement in the public's understanding of technical matters in general, but a passing grade from only 3 in 10 in the U.S. is setting the bar rather low. As he noted in his presentation, while Americans are holding their own, they are not even close to where they should be.