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October 17, 2005

Some assembly required.

While browsing the usual selection of online venues for news about the world, I came across a reference to a recent statistical study of American and European knowledge of science and technology, conducted in part by the National Science Foundation. The results, as you my dear reader may guess, were depressing. Here are a few choice excerpts.

Conclusions about technology and science:

Technology has become so user friendly it is largely "invisible." Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.


NSF surveys have asked respondents to explain in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. Based on their answers, it is possible to conclude that most Americans (two-thirds in 2001) do not have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific process. This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience.

Regarding evolution (a topical topic; see also several of my entries):

Response to one of the questions, "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science. In the United States, 53 percent of respondents answered "true" to that statement in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before 2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered "true.") The 2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought the United States more in line with other industrialized countries about the question of evolution.

Yet, there is hope

... the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in 1992.

Also, the survey found that belief in devil possession declined between 1990 and 2001. On the other hand, belief in other paranormal phenomena increased, and

... at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives. Although the majority (56 percent) of those queried in the 2001 NSF survey said that astrology is "not at all scientific," 9 percent said it is "very scientific" and 31 percent thought it is "sort of scientific".

In the United States, skepticism about astrology is strongly related to level of education [snip]. In Europe, however, respondents with college degrees were just as likely as others to claim that astrology is scientific.

Aside from being thoroughly depressing for a booster of science and rationalism such as myself, this suggests that, not only do Westerners have little conception of what it means to be "scientific" or what "technology" actually is, but Western life does not require people to have any mastery of scientific or technological principles. That is, one can get along just fine in life while being completely ignorant of why things actually happen or how to rigorously test hypotheses. Of course, this is a little bit of a circular problem, since if no one understands how things work, people will design user-friendly things that don't need to be understood in order to function. That is, those who are not ignorant of how the world works provide no incentive to those who are to change their ignorant ways. Of course, aren't we all ignorant of the complicated details of many of the wonders that surround us? Perhaps the crucial difference lies not in being ignorant itself, but in being unwilling to seek out the truth (especially when it matters).

The conclusions of the surveys do nothing except bolster my belief that rational thinking and careful curiosity are not the natural mode of human thought, and that the Enlightenment was a weird and unnatural turn of events. Perhaps one of the most frightening bits of the survey was the following statement

there is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their staff are any more technologically literate than the general public.

posted October 17, 2005 08:52 PM in Thinking Aloud | permalink