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Scientific Literacy
(Released September 2007)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


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Just how knowledgeable are you about science? Can you correctly identify which of the following statements are true and which are not?

The center of the earth is very hot.
Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
All radioactivity is man-made.
Electrons are smaller than atoms.
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
Obtained from the National Science Foundation (NSF) document Science and Engineering Indicators 2006, these questions are a sampling of those used in surveys designed to assess scientific literacy. Countries participating in these surveys include: the United States, 25 European Union countries, Russia, China, South Korea, Japan and Malaysia.

The results of such surveys have not been encouraging. The majority of respondents from all countries except China correctly identified the first statement about earth's core temperature as true. However, less than 50% of respondents from all countries correctly identified the second statement about lasers as false and the fourth statements about electrons as true. Only respondents from the United States, the European Union, and Japan scored higher than 50% in correctly identifying question three regarding radiation as false. The United States was the only country to score higher than 50% incorrectly identifying that antibiotics do not kill viruses.

survey questions graph
Figure 1: Survey questions from Science and Engineering Indicators 2006.

In the United States and Europe, correct responses regarding the inability of antibiotics to kill viruses have been increasing since the 1990s. In the United States in 1995 only 40% of people surveyed correctly answered the question. By 2001 correct responses were up to 51%, and by 2004 they had increased to 54%. In Europe in 1992 only 27% of people correctly answered the question. Correct responses increased to 40% in 2001 and 46% in 2005. This increase in knowledge is attributed to public heath campaigns, including media coverage and doctors' warnings, in both the United States and Europe, aimed at promoting awareness of over-prescription and the rise of antibiotic resistant diseases. Any increase in general knowledge, particularly regarding health issues, is a positive outcome. Still, even completely random responses to true/false questions should yield correct answers approximately half of the time. In Asia correct responses ranged from 18% in China to 30% in South Korea. Such low figures suggest not simply ignorance but misinformation.

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