What's wrong? // By: scott feldstein - CC BY 2.0

Much ado about trivia

The Australian Academy of Science (AAS), an otherwise exemplary organisation, is upset because most Australians have a decent grasp of basic scientific facts.

Wait, let me start from the beginning.

A scientific literacy survey, recently carried out by Auspoll on behalf of the AAS, has found that science literacy of young Australian adults has fallen in the last three years. Just two-thirds of them are able to correctly identify the time it takes for the Earth to travel around the sun. In 2010 three-quarters of them knew the answer to that.

The survey quizzed people on a small selection of “basic scientific facts,” such as whether dinosaurs co-existed with humans, whether evolution is still happening and the percentage of fresh water on our planet. You can take the basic facts quiz on the Guardian Australia webpage and see how you fare too (you may want to do that now because there are spoilers in the next paragraph).

Turns out that most Australians overestimate the amount of fresh water the Earth carries, but are roughly accurate about the overall amount of water vs. land. Also, only 9% state that they don’t believe in evolution, and 70% are aware that evolution is still happening. Almost three-quarters of people also know that humans are influencing the evolution of other species. You can see the full survey results in more detail on the AAS website.

According to Guardian Australia, Professor Les Field, secretary for science policy at the AAS, was disappointed by the results:

“Things are getting worse in some demographics and I certainly would’ve hoped it had improved better than it has,” he said.

“The majority of Australians can answer the questions, but the people who don’t know the answers are the ones that worry me. Not knowing simple facts such as the time of Earth’s orbit concerns me.”

The immediate reaction of a well-informed science enthusiast might understandably be one of disappointment. However, even as a passionate science advocate, I just can’t share Professor Field’s concerns. At least, not concerns that are based on the results of what is essentially a trivia quiz. Is there any evidence for the underlying assumption that knowledge of certain facts about the world demonstrates the level of scientific understanding? I am very skeptical of this notion.

After all, you can teach kids all about the differences between Adam Smith and Karl Marx, but they still would be no smarter on how to do their taxes. Similarly, it is a grasp of scientific concepts, method and reasoning that makes one understand science. Facts alone don’t cut it.

I do agree with Professor Field on the importance of a scientifically literate society:

“It’s vital that we have scientific literacy in order to have an informed public debate. Issues such as climate change, drugs in sport and immunisation are on everyone’s radar at the moment. People need a rudimentary understanding of science to participate in these debates.”

To be a citizen who can take an informed stance in the climate change debate, one needs the tools of critical thinking for assessing evidence and expert opinion. One needs an understanding of the scientific method to know what consensus, statistical significance and long-term trends mean. One doesn’t, however, need to know the exact percentage of fresh water on Earth to have those cognitive tools at their disposal.

Do schools need to teach more basic science facts? Of course. Do they need more training in the scientific method and critical thinking? Absolutely. And that’s what policy should focus on.

Show comments

Your thoughts on this story

The first comment posted by anyone is held in a moderation queue. We want to hear from you, which is why we prefer you to use your real name when commenting. We will also moderate comments that don't comply with our Constructive Commenting policy.