Will J Grant & Merryn McKinnon: Dumb answers to dumb science questions

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Science is increasingly a social issue. Lines between science, technology and their applications are increasingly blurred. Photo / Getty Images
Science is increasingly a social issue. Lines between science, technology and their applications are increasingly blurred. Photo / Getty Images

Guess what: Australians have spent the last three years getting a little bit dumber. Well, at least according to the Australian Academy of Science, we've lost touch with a few key basic facts.

Repeating a national survey of science literacy first conducted in 2010, a survey published by the academy found just two-thirds of us know that it takes a year for the Earth to travel around the sun, compared with three-quarters in 2010. Among 18 to 24-year-olds, the rate knowing the correct answer fell from 74 per cent to 62 per cent; among those over 65, it fell from 51 per cent to 46 per cent.

Luckily, slightly more of us (73 per cent now compared with 70 per cent in 2010) know that early humans (are we allowed to call them cavemen and women any more?) didn't live with dinosaurs.

The academy found a number of other details about our scientific literacy:

39 per cent of us know 70 per cent of Earth's surface is water.

70 per cent of us know evolution is occurring.

73 per cent of us know we're influencing the evolution of other species.

Happily, 79 per cent of us say science education is very important or absolutely essential to the economy.

The survey says ... very little, actually. Surveys of this type are, to put it bluntly, blatant concern trolling. Scientists and the science interested can collectively gnash their teeth at the large groups of people who fail to grasp some rudimentary scientific fact.

They get great coverage, and they get politicians promising to do more to enhance the scientific literacy of the public. But they really don't mean very much. So 73 per cent of Australians know the earliest humans didn't live at the same time as dinosaurs - but how is that relevant to policy or politics?

We pretend that factoids are a useful proxy for scientific literacy, and in turn that scientific literacy is a useful proxy for good citizenship. But there's simply no evidence this is true.

Science is increasingly a social issue. Lines between science, technology and their applications are increasingly blurred. There are ethical, political and environmental considerations.

Science and technology relate to areas such as health, education, leisure and employment. The issues are interrelated, complex and subject to rapid change. Will understanding that Earth rotates around the sun help deal with any of these issues? Likely not.

Scientific literacy may be one aspect that defines a good citizen, but to claim scientific literacy equals good citizenship is naive.

Surveys such as this have been used, and criticised, since their inception in 1989. The first issue of the journal Public Understanding of Science, which would arguably have a readership with a vested interest in such outcomes, contained several entries commenting on the "futility" of the exercise.

Yet we still persist in using these surveys to berate the public for not knowing more.

Science literacy surveys such as these do nothing except keep academics busy, tick various grant recipient boxes and make the general public feel more disillusioned about their scientific abilities.

Would a Nobel laureate in physics be able to answer biology questions? Possibly. But we don't ask them to. We recognise it's not their field of expertise. So why are we asking the general public questions about science unrelated to most peoples' expertise or day-to-day lives?

The questions these tests ask have absolutely no bearing on the kinds of scientific literacy needed today. The kind of understanding needed about alternative energy sources, food security or water management; things that actually relate to global challenges.

Australia's research and scientific community recognise this, as evidenced through the formation of a research alliance.

This alliance calls for a non-partisan, national strategy to invest in research and translation of science. Nowhere in the statement is there a call to educate the public about the living arrangements of dinosaurs and our cave dwelling ancestors.

Rather, there is the argument to support and nurture the existing science and research sectors, and to provide the necessary resources to ensure Australia has a research future.

Australia needs science, research and innovation to ensure our economy and society remains strong and internationally competitive in the 21st century.

The point people should be grasping from these survey results is that 79 per cent of respondents see the crucial relationship between science and the economy.

Will 79 per cent of our politicians also make the same connection, and act on it appropriately? That's the real test.


Will J Grant is a researcher/lecturer, Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at Australian National University. Merryn McKinnon is a research associate at Australian National University

- NZ Herald

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