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Are US Voters Informed Enough About Science? 868

Posted by kdawson
from the stone-knives-and-bearskins dept.
Naturalist writes "For decades, educators and employers have worried that too few Americans are preparing for careers in science. But there's evidence to support a new, broader concern in this election year: Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions."
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Are US Voters Informed Enough About Science?

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  • No (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:05AM (#24580817)

    Whew.. I thought that question would be harder!

    • Re:No (Score:5, Insightful)

      by sm62704 (957197) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:40AM (#24581159) Journal

      How can voters be informed when the media aren't? It seem that whenever I see anything whatever about science on the TV news, they get something wrong, usually badly wrong and backwards.

      The average American (at least the ones I talk to) don't think that scientific consensis is that the globe is heatihng and we are responsible.

      I don't know about the rest of the world's media, but ours is abysmal. Without an informed media you can't have an informed populace. Perhaps that's what our corporate-controled media wants?

  • Um.... (Score:3, Funny)

    by prisoner (133137) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:06AM (#24580825)

    What is this "science" you speak of? Does it have something to do with making nucyalar bombs?

  • by Hoski (1249412) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:06AM (#24580827)
    I thought it was general knowledge that ordinary people (not just Americans) don't know enough to make informed decisions. Not just science based issues, but all issues.
    • by VdG (633317) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:53AM (#24581333)

      It occurs to me that if you asked a bunch of economists, they'd probably say that people don't know enough about economics. Same for any other field.

      That's not to say that people shouldn't know more about science. Though perhaps what we should really be seeking is a better performance from those we trust to guide our opionions, i.e. mainstream journalists.

      It's not just a problem for public opinion. Here in the UK, buisness leaders say there are not enough young people studying science at school.
      http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/education/7553040.stm [bbc.co.uk]

      It seems absurd that in an age when science has more and more impact on our day to day lives fewer and fewer pupils want to study it. Part of the problem over here is with the education system, where science GCSEs are perceived as being more difficult than the hummanities. I don't know whether that's true or not; my recollection (pre-GCSEs) was that science was easier, but that was because it was vastly more interesting than English or history.

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by CastrTroy (595695)
        As far as science being more difficult than the humanities, here's my view on it. It's harder to get 100% on a humanities test than it is to get 100% on a science test. In humanities, the responses are often subjective, and there's no perfect answer. The other side of the coin is that if you don't know all the material, you can still get a pretty good mark (lets say 70%) on a humanities exam, just by presenting your answers in a clear and concise way. If you don't know the material in science, it's ver
      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        by russotto (537200)

        It's not just a problem for public opinion. Here in the UK, buisness leaders say there are not enough young people studying science at school.

        That's because you don't get to be a "business leader" by studying science. Instead, you get to be an interchangeable cog in the machine run by "business leaders". Unless you stay in academia, in which case you get to join a medieval hierarchy where the higher up you go, the less science you do... but at least you can go up.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hanshotfirst (851936)

      I thought it was general knowledge that ordinary people (not just Americans) don't know enough to make informed decisions. Not just science based issues, but all issues.

      If history hasn't been revised in the time I type this, that was a big factor in setting up America as a representative republic rather than a pure democracy. The electoral college in particular is based on this mindset of the founders.

      Unfortunately, it assumes those MAKING the decisions are actually knowledgeable and informed. These

  • A Greater Truth (Score:5, Insightful)

    by benwiggy (1262536) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:07AM (#24580835)
    That's the beauty of democracy. You don't have to be qualified to have an opinion.
    "Most people"probably aren't qualified to have a meaningful opinion on economics, agricultural policy, foreign policy, military strategy, etc., etc.
    That's the price you pay for giving everyone a vote.
    • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:5, Interesting)

      by jacquesm (154384) <j@NOsPAm.ww.com> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:23AM (#24580987) Homepage

      I used to think democracy was really great until I slowly became aware that it means that whoever controls the media controls the votes. Reading Noam Chomsky's "manufacturing consent" really opened my eyes to how big the problem really is.

      It's a typical case of gigo, if you can not trust the sources for the knowledge that you base your decisions on (and almost no single source available to the general public is without bias) then you will get really lousy decisions.

      • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Culture20 (968837) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:49AM (#24581269)
        Which is why you consume differing sources of media. If a news show or written article says something factual or editorial that you've heard from another source, switch to another source, until there's a difference. The problem with this is that it forces people to think, and people (sometimes even smart people) don't want to think.
      • as the saying goes (Score:5, Insightful)

        by misanthrope101 (253915) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:08AM (#24581527)
        The only thingn worse than democracy is everything else. No single person or even group of people is smart enough to know everything, and even very insightful people (Edward Gibbon, for example) make bad or inneffectual legislators. Even the ancient Greeks had problems with democracy, and Athens had what, about 10K people at the time? Problem is, every other system sucks worse. Democracy is the way it is because we are the way we are, and if people didn't suck, you wouldn't need government in the first place.
    • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:4, Interesting)

      by Bombula (670389) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:42AM (#24581185)

      You don't have to be qualified to have an opinion.

      It's funny how some of the most important decision-making roles in our society - the role of a voter, the role of a parent, the role of an elected official - require no formal qualifications. What if being a heart-surgeon required no qualifications? What if driving required no qualifications? You need a license to pitch a tent and catch a fish, but not to be a parent? You need a certification to cut people's hair or do their nails but not to be President?

      I'm not sure why we expect so little of ourselves, and then proceed bass-ackwards to address the problems that arise. To take the example of parenting, we let anyone no matter how irresponsible or unqualified have kids, and then punish them - and the kids - when they screw up the job of parenting. How stupid is that? We don't do that with dentists or doctors or any other role of responsibility.

      • Re:A Greater Truth (Score:5, Insightful)

        by bmajik (96670) <matt@mattevans.org> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:28AM (#24581779) Homepage Journal

        To take the example of parenting, we let anyone no matter how irresponsible or unqualified have kids, and then punish them - and the kids - when they screw up the job of parenting. How stupid is that? We don't do that with dentists or doctors or any other role of responsibility.

        You and I probably wouldn't enjoy living in a society that resricted people's biologic function of having children. Nor would we want to live in a society where children were seized in great number from their parents post birth.

        Regarding occupational licensure -- this is as much brought on by members of said occupation as a way to do supply-side limiting of people legally allowed to perform their trade, with obvious benefits to their own salary. Occupational licensure is _always_ sold to the people as "for their safety", but always asked for by those employed in the trade, not consumers who have been harmed.

        If biology worked just a bit differently, and more people had difficulty having kids, and compensated surrogate mothers were more common, you can damn well expect some sort of union or occupational licensure for surrogate mothers to show up. And then you'd have precisely what you describe-- a license or permit required to have kids.

        The ramifications of licensure in politics, when viewed through the lens that licensure is really incumbent protection, are unpleasant to consider. The effective barrier to entry into US politics is still too high; adding a licensure system where those in charge are other licensed polititians seems like socio-political suicide.

  • by Notquitecajun (1073646) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:11AM (#24580869)
    I suspect that most of the reaction is about those who believe in creation (or even God for that matter); I could list several more:

    1. Global climate change

    2. Viability of alternate energy sources

    3. Carbon credits

    4. "Scary" parts of nuclear power.

    5. Where the power from the electric car will come from.



    I'm certain there's more. Disclaimer: I'm a conservative, which probably gives you some sort of impression of my views on the above.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:12AM (#24580873)

    Four out of three ordinary Americans agree they don't know enough about math and science. :)

  • Just science? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by RandoX (828285) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:14AM (#24580915)

    How about economics? Psychology? Current events? Foreign relations?

    People don't know enough about anything to make an informed decision when it comes to the actual issues. Campaign managers know how to spin anything to make their guy look good and the other guy look bad. I consider myself a fairly smart guy and there have been times where I've accepted a candidate's not-quite-straightforward answer until someone calls them on the facts.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by hey! (33014)

      What does informed mean? It doesn't mean just having data; it means having a collection data that enables you to make a good decision. The most informative kinds of data sets contain data that cut across each other. When you take income and deduct expenses, each of which is raw data, you get profit, which is derived. You become informed when a piece of data falls into your hands that alters the significance of the data that you always have.

      It isn't as hard to become informed as people pretend it is. It

  • short answer... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by je ne sais quoi (987177) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:17AM (#24580927)
    No.

    Long answer: Meh... There's really just the consolation that maybe Americans at least were never all that science savvy to begin with so the current state is nothing new. A more rigorous science education would probably be better.

    I'd say a good start on that is to get the fucking religious dogma masquerading as science out of the schools. You know what I mean: intelligent design.

    A good second step would be to hire more teachers who are actually good at science and math, but that would mean increasing the salaries and that probably won't happen. It used to be that intelligent women would do fulfill this need because of few career options but nowadays women can go on to science based careers not just in education. I've taught earth science to elementary education majors, very few of them found math and science to be enjoyable, but instead feared it. I can only presume they would transfer this to their students.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by infalliable (1239578)

      The second point is really key. You need to have strong science focused people, with good communication skills, "teaching" science. Whether it's on the local news or in a classroom, having people who really don't understand the science just do more damage than good. There needs to be professional rewards for those people who are good at science/engineering to go into those fields. Currently, there is none.

      As an engineer, I can easily make $60k a year out of undergrad. If I taught, I could maybe pull $4

  • by Kohath (38547) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:17AM (#24580931)

    That's the thing about voting. You get to vote regardless of whether someone thinks you have The Right Information about whatever topic. It's representative democracy. There are other forms of government that only let you decide in certain selected circumstances.

    Almost every election we hear some variation on: "Americans are stupid. We hate them, their religion, their culture, and the things they like. Why won't they vote for us? Don't they know we're better than them and can lead them from their benighted ways?"

    Yeah, we know. That's why you keep losing.

  • Not just the Yanks (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CmdrGravy (645153) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:21AM (#24580965) Homepage

    It's not just the yanks suffering from this.

    Here in the UK we've had a bunch of morons sitting around outside a power station protesting about it burning coal. Fair enough, thats only mildly moronic but when they are also rabidly against any nuclear power alternatives it becomes stupidly moronic and when they suggest that everyone currently working in the power industry should be forced to move to the Shetlands and build wind farms it's unbelivably moronic.

    Also people like Prince Charles speaking out about GM crops sets everyone a bad example.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Teun (17872)

      It's not just the yanks suffering from this.

      A lot of educated people will probably agree with you.

      Here in the UK we've had a bunch of morons sitting around outside a power station protesting about it burning coal. Fair enough, thats only mildly moronic but when they are also rabidly against any nuclear power alternatives it becomes stupidly moronic and when they suggest that everyone currently working in the power industry should be forced to move to the Shetlands and build wind farms it's unbelivably moronic.

      Also people like Prince Charles speaking out about GM crops sets everyone a bad example.

      A lot of educated people will probably disagree with you :)

  • by 91degrees (207121) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:22AM (#24580973) Journal
    This isn't a job interview. At least it shouldn't be. We can't possibly have enough information to determine who would do the best job of running the country. If we could judge that objectively, then there would be virtually no political decisions, instead just some skilled advisors in each subject.

    Democracy is all about the subjective factors. Is a public health service better than lower taxes? Should we invest more in education? How much more? Is it better to have extra perks for minorities or should everything be equal? Is the level of immigration too high, too low or just right?

    None of these have a right and a wrong answer. You pick the answers that seem right to you and pick the candidate that most closely represents your views.
  • by Paul Fernhout (109597) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @08:42AM (#24581181) Homepage

    From: http://www.its.caltech.edu/~dg/crunch_art.html [caltech.edu]
    "In the meantime, the real crisis that is coming has started to produce a number of symptoms, some alarming and some merely curious. One of these is what I like to call The Paradox of Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates. The paradox is this: as a lingering result of the golden age, we still have the finest scientists in the world in the United States. But we also have the worst science education in the industrialized world. There seems to be little doubt that both of these seemingly contradictory observations are true. American scientists, trained in American graduate schools produce more Nobel Prizes, more scientific citations, more of just about anything you care to measure than any other country in the world; maybe more than the rest of the world combined. Yet, students in American schools consistently rank at the bottom of all those from advanced nations in tests of scientific knowledge, and furthermore, roughly 95% of the American public is consistently found to be scientifically illiterate by any rational standard. How can we possibly have arrived at such a result? How can our miserable system of education have produced such a brilliant community of scientists? That is what I mean by The Paradox of the Scientific Elites and the Scientific Illiterates. ... I would like to propose a different and more illuminating metaphor for American science education. It is more like a mining and sorting operation, designed to cast aside most of the mass of common human debris, but at the same time to discover and rescue diamonds in the rough, that are capable of being cleaned and cut and polished into glittering gems, just like us, the existing scientists. It takes only a little reflection to see how much more this model accounts for than the pipeline does. It accounts for exponential growth, since it takes scientists to identify prospective scientists. It accounts for the very real problem that women and minorities are woefully underrepresented among the scientists, because it is hard for us, white, male scientists to perceive that once they are cleaned and cut and polished, they will look like us. It accounts for the fact that science education is for the most part a dreary business, a burden to student and teacher alike at all levels of American education, until the magic moment when a teacher recognizes a potential peer, at which point it becomes exhilarating and successful. Above all, it resolves the paradox of Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates. It explains why we have the best scientists and the most poorly educated students in the world. It is because our entire system of education is designed to produce precisely that result. ... Let me finish by summarizing what I've been trying to tell you. We stand at an historic juncture in the history of science. The long era of exponential expansion ended decades ago, but we have not yet reconciled ourselves to that fact. The present social structure of science, by which I mean institutions, education, funding, publications and so on all evolved during the period of exponential expansion, before The Big Crunch. They are not suited to the unknown future we face. Today's scientific leaders, in the universities, government, industry and the scientific societies are mostly people who came of age during the golden era, 1950 - 1970. I am myself part of that generation. We think those were normal times and expect them to return. But we are wrong. Nothing like it will ever happen again. It is by no means certain that science will even survive, much less flourish, in the difficult times we face. Before it can survive, those of us who have gained so much from the era of scientific elites and scientific illiterates must learn to face reality, and admit that those days are gone forever. I think we have our work cut out for us."

  • Clearly not (Score:5, Funny)

    by jmusits (727995) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:17AM (#24581641) Homepage
  • by lp-habu (734825) * on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:34AM (#24581881)
    Voters aren't informed enough about anything. They can't be, and never will be. Voters will always make their choices based on irrelevant factors and misinformation. That's the way it is. No amount of education will ever change that.
  • by Weezul (52464) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:40AM (#24581997)

    See this is why you want deliberative democracy [wikipedia.org]. In practice this means replace the presidential veto with a large "jury trial", say 100 jurors (a large jury eliminates the need for jury selection). Congress critters would vote not just "yey" or "ney" but also for an "advocate". Any advocate receiving at least 5% or 10% from either the house or senate would have the right to argue in the trial. Mr. President could also name an advocate. In the trial, the advocates would try to convince randomly selected ordinary people that the law was good or bad, or to drop specific provisions, like pork. Advocates could also parade around expert witnesses, expose the biases of other witnesses, etc.

    Such a system is really the only way to bring more science into government because people can not be expected to know much. Such a system is also the best way to control government spending.

  • Not to be bitter.... (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BitterOldGUy (1330491) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @09:54AM (#24582255)
    Here are my reasons why Americans are so science illiterate:
    1. Science isn't cool like it was in the 19th and early centuries.
    2. Sports, music, and other entertainers get the glory.
    3. Science teachers that make science boring. I've seen a tape of a teacher at MIT who made it exciting.
    4. Arrogance in the science community against non-scientific folks and treating folks who aren't as talented in the subject like retards.
    5. Anti-science in the religious arena.
    6. Anti-science among some sub-cultures (I was actually told by a minority that I read too much!)
    7. Certain groups thinking science is acting "White".
    8. Lack of media attention on minorities and women who excel at science.
    9. A cultural bias against women in science - girls aren't good at math - WTF!
    10. Schools treating science education like a burden and laying off science teachers whereas the football team gets all the money they want.
    11. Incompetent science teachers.
    12. Sucky textbooks.
    13. Sucky curriculums: Why does basic calculus have to be taught separately from physics? I didn't understand calc until I took physics and THEN it made sense. Otherwise, calc is just a wrote memorization and mechanical subject - BORING!
    14. The societal belief that you have to be born with the skills to be good at science and that hard work is futile. Maybe that's more Asians excel at science.
    15. Science is treated more like a stepping stone to more lucrative applied science fields: medicine and engineering.
  • The Real Question (Score:4, Insightful)

    by moxley (895517) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @10:20AM (#24582825)

    How can you expect them to be informed about voting when they don't even understand history and a huge percentage can't even list all 50 states let along tell you where Iraq or any other country is on a map of the globe?

    The real question is my mind is: "Are people in the US informed about anything that is not on TV shows?"

    Now obviously I can point to myself and some people I know and probably many of you here on Slashdot who are vociferous readers and who think most TV is trash designed to dumb down the public and say, yes, there are Americans who are very informed.

    But as far as the general public is concerned? I think the answer is "no."

    In general whe people talk about this there is a snarky lightheartedness that comes out, but I think behind that is a sadness for our country and the prospects for the future; a sort of resignation of hopelessness.

    I don't blame the people entirely, even mostly. it has happened so slowly, and I think it is the result of policies that have allowed corporations and profits to come over everything else, including people and politicians/legislators who have abdicated or been corrupted and allowed this to occur.

    I will give one example. Look at television (which I think is a HUGE part of the problem) and the FCC - the airwaves are supposed to be for the peoplel, the people supposedly own them. This is a total fucking joke. Corporations own the airwaves, even public broadcasting. "Public Access" stations, which were so few and far between except in some major metro areas have been almost wiped out. Instead we have "infotainment" news that focuses on scandals and sex; (hey, sex is great, but not in the place of real news). Reality TV? Seriously, why watch this crap, who cares what some completely brain dead over-privileged Laguna Hills teen slut obsesses over?

    Look at how textbooks have been politicized, especially in primary education and in one area in particular: history. I had a chance to look through some high school and jr high history books several years back and was appalled. There are decent history books like Howard ZInn's "A People's History of the United States" which seem to only be used in better schools.

    So these sorts of things progressing over years are what allows a populace to end up where ours is, with a system that has institutionalized corruption and an administration that has ushered in the age of a kinder, gentler fascism - So are the voters informed? FUCK NO - and it's so much worse.

  • by PhilHibbs (4537) <snarks@gmail.com> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @10:42AM (#24583269) Homepage Journal

    They should elect a politician who will consult with the best scientists in the world and act on sound scientific advice on topics that both they and the electorate don't know enough to make a call about. Is man-made global warming real? I don't know, I think it probably is, but that's the kind of question that climatologists should be telling us the answer to. Should we put a man on Mars? I don't know, that's up to NASA to convince congress that there is enough benefit either technologically or in terms of international prestige and national pride. Elect someone who will take advice and act on it in a way that is not guided solely by prejudice.

  • by rmjohnso (891555) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:10PM (#24585991)
    Question 3 from the quiz linked FTA:
    3. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True or False)

    That would be the Y CHROMOSOME. chromosome != gene
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chromosome [wikipedia.org]

    There isn't a single gene that determines gender.
    • from wikipedia:

      "The Y chromosome is the sex-determining chromosome in most mammals, including humans. In mammals, it contains the gene SRY, which triggers testis development, thus determining sex. The human Y chromosome is composed of about 60 million base pairs."

      So the SRY gene, which determines sex (words have gender, people have sex) is located on the Y chromosome. Since only the father has a Y chromosome, that gene is inherited from the father.

  • That's easy (Score:3, Funny)

    by Minwee (522556) <dcr@neverwhen.org> on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @01:30PM (#24586379) Homepage
    Based on the available evidence [youtube.com], I'm going to have to say "No".
  • by grizdog (1224414) on Wednesday August 13, 2008 @04:22PM (#24589363) Homepage

    The problem is not that people aren't informed about science, but that they aren't informed about the scientific method.

    Scientific Creationists come up with a "theory" and present it as some sort of equal competitor with Evolution. The notion that a theory has to allow one to make predictions, and to test the theory with experiments, and thus to be experimentally falsifiable, isn't well understood, and it is critical. Scientific Creationists would never admit of an experiment which, if performed, could prove their theory was wrong as stated, and needed modification or simply had to be discarded. This is what makes Creationism dogma and not scientific.

    This extends to popular opinions about controversial scientific questions, like Global Warming. Everyone from George Will to Al Franken has an opinion about the subject, and all but a handful of them desperately avoided taking a college course that involved labs and any real interaction with the scientific method when they had the chance. But they figure they have as much right as anyone else to weigh in on the subject.

    Of course, they do have such a right, but it doesn't help the general understanding when they ignore the scientific method, which they do not understand, but claim that their innate intelligence allows them to understand something which scientists have to sweat over for years.

    The net result, I fear, is a "science without tears" society, where students are given to believe that it is not necessary to actually study a subject in order to assert a competence in it. Employers may want to see certain courses on the transcript, but public policy won't be driven by fact and empirical observation - it will be driven (moreso than it already is) by who has the biggest microphone.

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