According to a MIT report, at least 216 million Americans are scientifically illiterate. There are several other reports that seem to highlight this assessment of US ignorance. There appears to be a failure in American culture and the educational system, especially when an adult cannot understand basic science concepts. Where did we go wrong and what can be done about this? Believe it or not, science literacy is a matter of national security, critical for our economy and future as a competitive nation.
Ignorance in America
A significant portion of the US public doesn’t understand basic science concepts. In 2001, the National Science Foundation found that around 66% of Americans do not understand the scientific method. Discovery has also reported about 1 in 4 Americans being unaware that the Earth revolves around the Sun, according to a 2014 National Science Foundation report. There are countless examples that confirm these estimated figures of science ignorance.
The Oklahoma State University Department of Agricultural Economics conducted a monthly survey of about 1,000 US citizens, published in a January 2015 article. At least 80% of the respondents want food products that contain DNA to be labeled. No joke, DNA! It’s really embarrassing that such a number of ignorant people could exist in what we call the greatest country on Earth. DNA is Deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) – the genetic instruction set for every living thing, including fruits and vegetables. This should have been taught in basic grade school science classes.
American political figures have also publicly displayed their scientific ignorance, see this NPR example for some ignorant quotes regarding science. Do you want illiterate people in positions of leadership? The problem is illiterate people vote for illiterate people. Some politicians may enjoy an illiterate electorate, but ignorance will not help our country over time – things will only get worse.
Value of Science
Science literacy has a priceless value, especially because we depend on science to survive. Science will be critical in terms of national security and our future in a competitive world. We need more educated scientists in the classroom. They produce the best students – our future problem solvers.
Science solved the most deadly disease outbreaks, took us to the Moon, enabled air travel, created the internet, gave those with cancer hope, and continuous to provide other means to solve international problems, such as public health, and clean air and water. Although some scientists use their “powers” for negative things, like war and new weapons, a majority are solving common problems that every single average person must deal with. Do you enjoy a comfortable bed? Do you like clean air and water? Are you glad that you don’t have to get sick after a meal? Do you enjoy being comfortable and safe? Are you glad that you don’t have to die after simply breaking a bone? You can thank science for all of those things.
When we have a scientifically literate public, we have a larger body of people that make better decisions and solve more problems. The best way to discover new things and solve existing problems is the systematic approach, often called the scientific method. Science is not limited to career decisions. People in their personal lives can also make better personal decisions, if they have a basic understanding of science.
When enough people remain scientifically illiterate, they lack common sense, logic, reason, and critical thinking skills, which are required to make good decisions. Science literacy is a problem with the public and even those in positions of leadership, such as national political figures.
Science illiteracy historically ended up in bloodshed, such as burning people at the stake. People that didn’t know about medical science (such as seizures) often thought people were possessed by a mythical devil because they would shake violently, so they executed them, instead of giving them scientifically-proven medical help. Had they utilized reason, logic, and basic science, this probably would have never happened. This is not the only example of what could happen when you have a large public population that is scientifically illiterate – just study history for millions of other examples. You don’t want an ignorant public because without knowledge and reason you have a typical lynch mob on your hands – reacting blindly to any given issue.
Solutions for Science Literacy
We need to highlight the benefits of science and answer the question: why should we learn basic science? Science communicators need to show science in the critical, exciting, and positive light that it deserves. Our educators need to also be delivering quality basic science information, starting with the first year a child enters school. Those that are not teaching quality modern science courses should not be teaching in a science classroom – they are doing a disservice to our country and endangering our future. Schools and colleges should be held responsible for keeping poor teachers on the payroll.
By the way, if politicians are going to keep saying that they value teachers, then they need to put their actions behind their words. Many good teachers are underpaid and are not offered health insurance benefits. Let’s focus on “good” teachers that are well-qualified for the position they are in as well as consistently delivering quality classes. We need to get rid of the system of poor educators that aren’t doing their jobs and keep giving us the students that are scientifically illiterate, don’t know the name of their own state or presidents, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, and other basic knowledge. What happened during their 12 years of school, if students don’t know these basic things? What were they learning that entire time?
Our good science teachers deserve to be paid well and held in a respectful manner as a key to our future success. There should be an incentive for good science teachers. Good teachers should replace the bad ones. They should not only be paid well, but also be offered health insurance, and student loan forgiveness that is easier to obtain and with better terms than the existing structure. Don’t just say you value teachers, show it.
Our very existence depends on science. Therefore, we should allocate more funding for our good science teachers, professors, research projects, and organizations that support modern sciences. The US could gain a lot of national pride by making science a priority in our classroom, public, and in politics. A focus on promoting science could result in new cures for diseases, new products, safer designs, higher quality life, better foreign relations, less wars, and a position of world leadership into the future of mankind.