There’s an online science knowledge quiz I found, hosted by the Pew Research Center, that asks visitors 12 fairly simple questions about science. None of the questions are tremendously difficult. They include questions such as “Antibiotics will kill viruses as well as bacteria. True or False?” and “Electrons are smaller than atoms. True or False?”
I know perfectly well that online surveys aren’t statistically sound, they certainly don’t represent the knowledge of the entire population but in this case I think the results tell us something. 46% of the people who completed the quiz didn’t know that antibiotics DON’T kill viruses. That’s presumably the same 46% of people who go to their doctor demanding antibiotics when they have a cold, not realizing that it will have precisely no effect.
More than half the people answering the questions did not know that electrons are smaller than atoms. Perhaps this isn’t as important as the ignorance about antibiotics and viruses but I still think it matters.
Like I said, this isn’t a representative survey of everyone in the world, just of those people who take the time to complete an American-hosted web quiz. However I suspect the results would be worse if we asked everyone else. The sort of person likely to complete the survey is someone already with access to technology, who can read English and who can understand how to click a mouse on a web page. They’re probably more science-savvy than most. It’s disappointing therefore that of all the people who completed the 12-question quiz, only 10% got every question correct.
I think this is all very worrying. I’m not expecting everyone to have a comprehensive understanding of microbiology, quantum physics or stem cell research but these issues are becoming more and more important to humanity. Already we hear concerns expressed by politicians about threats of radiation from modern nuclear power stations, the perceived dangers of genetically modified foods and the risks from cellphone masts. I think the public needs to be better educated about these things so we can tell when a politician, a supposed expert or someone wanting our money makes scientific claims. We need a basic level of science knowledge to know when people talk nonsense. Like each of the three examples I gave above. All of those in fact pose no known danger but that’s not what you hear from so many so-called experts.
Of more immediate concern is our scandalously low level of mathematical understanding. I don’t know of any studies about our national levels of numeracy but the BBC recently reported on the National Numeracy campaign group in the UK. Their research showed that nearly half the working age population had numeracy skills no better than a child in primary school. They suggested that these people probably don’t even understand their own payslip at the end of the month. I don’t see a reason to suspect we’re any better in Botswana.
Chris Humphries, the chair of National Numeracy, said (and I completely agree with him):
“It is simply inexcusable for anyone to say ‘I can’t do maths’”.I often hear people saying that they can’t “do maths” almost as if they’re proud of it, as if it’s some sort of achievement. It’s unthinkable that someone would say that about their ability to read or write so why is it acceptable to boast of having no maths or science knowledge?
The Chairman of the UK’s Commission for Employment and Skills, Sir Mike Rake, said:
“Poor numeracy is the hidden problem that blights the UK economy and ruins individuals’ chances in life. It’s so often overshadowed by concerns about literacy, and yet there is evidence to suggest that numeracy may be an even clearer indicator of economic and personal success.”Surely the same goes for us, in both maths and science. Our success as a nation will be based on our ability to communicate and function in a modern business world. If we’re going to be a successful nation in the future we urgently need a radically revised quality of maths and science education. Failing to do this might actually be the end of us.