Next week Richard gives the tenth and final Simonyi Lecture, as he has retired from the Oxford University Chair for the Public Understanding of Science.
Max Hammerton’s article below mentions a skepticism about the success of public understanding on science – largely because it is hard and difficult. Studies reveal that more formal years of education and those that took voluntary course in mathematics and science were more likely to express an interest in science.
In terms of understanding, a survey in the United States [source]:
The percentage of correct responses to most of the NSF survey questions pertaining to basic science facts, concepts, and vocabulary has remained nearly constant.(See appendix table 7-9.) For example, more than 70 percent of those surveyed knew that:
- Plants produce oxygen.
- The continents have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move.
- Light travels faster than sound.
- Earth goes around the Sun (and not vice versa).
- Not all radioactivity is manmade.
In contrast, about half the respondents knew that:
- The earliest humans did not live at the same time as dinosaurs.
- It takes Earth one year to go around the Sun.
- Electrons are smaller than atoms.
- Antibiotics do not kill viruses.
- Lasers do not work by focusing sound waves.
A study conducted for the People for the American Way Foundation took a closer look at the question of teaching evolution and found an overwhelming majority of Americans (83 percent) agreeing that it should be taught in the classroom. However, there is also strong support for teaching creationism. A detailed breakdown of the survey findings shows a wide range of opinion on the issue:
- 20 percent favor teaching only evolution and nothing else in public schools;
- 17 percent want only evolution taught in science classes but say that religious explanations can be discussed in other classes;
- 29 percent do not have a problem with creationism being discussed in science classes but believe it should be discussed as a “belief,” not a scientific theory;
- 13 percent believe that both evolution and creationism should be taught as scientific theories in science class;
- 16 percent want no mention of evolution at all;
- 4 percent are in favor of teaching both evolution and creationism but are unsure about how to do it; and
- 1 percent have no opinion (People for American Way Foundation 2000).
While Dawkins is based in the UK, answering those questions right is for him a concern. I thought it was disconcerting that 14% of men in the poll thought the earth did not go round the sun – when reading that 34% of women thought the sun went round the earth I was dumbstruck. If this is a realistic sample of the American public the upcoming election will be won with less of a majority than those that do not know the orbit of the earth. Thankfully the world keeps on going around no matter what people think.
Perhaps there is always going to be a minority that will not concern themselves with basic science. It seems that parents do care that their children get a good science education, and when it is an issue that directly effects them, or gets a lot of media coverage they take a keen interest. The answer to me is that science has to become more connected to the everyday – to excite and encourage inquiry in early years so that science in secondary school builds on that interest.
Why does this matter? Well:
Without a grasp of scientific ways of thinking, the average person cannot tell the difference between science based on real data and something that resembles science—at least in their eyes—but is based on uncontrolled experiments, anecdotal evidence, and passionate assertions…[W]hat makes science special is that evidence has to meet certain standards (Rensberger 2000, p. 61). [ibid]
The key thing is being accessible and available. On that score, Richard Dawkins has achieved and those that wanted to understand had somewhere to go, where science could be explained in its beauty to those interested. Everyone else could fuck off.* That attitude to the role is why Dawkins succeeded with a job title beyond ability to deliver.
The above article re posted from here.
*To paraphrase what a New Science editor said; often wrongly thought to originate with Dawkins.