Monday, January 31, 2005
This is an excerpt from the keynote address given at the
Integrative Biology and Human Biodynamics Commencement,
University at California at Berkeley, May 16, 1999.
Americans are woefully inadequate both in their
understanding of how science works and in their knowledge of basic
scientific facts. The National Research Council (NRC) questioned a random
sample of Americans with ten science questions. Let's see how you do on
that same quiz. This will be your last quiz. I'll let you keep your own score,
and I'll give you only eight of the questions.
1. How long does it take Earth to go around the Sun? One day, week, month
or year? Forty-seven percent knew it took a year. The other choices,
however, did not add up to 100%, because some people (15 percent)
thought that no answer was correct, because the Sun goes around the
2. The oxygen we breath comes from plants. Eighty-five percent agreed,
and it's right, and I have no idea how they knew that one.
3. All radioactivity is man-made. Seventy-two percent agreed but you know
4. Humans lived with dinosaurs, and I don't mean birds, I mean T. rex.
Forty-eight percent of Americans agreed, and every single one of you
graduates know it is wrong. Interestingly, that percentage is identical to
what newspaper editors believe! And they control our news.
5. Cigarette smoking causes cancer Ninety-one percent agreed, and it is
true, yet 30 percent still smoke! Why is this question answered so
positively? Because it is an issue that has been in the press and on TV for
years. Advertising works!
6. 6. Earth's core is very hot. Seventy-eight percent agreed. As a geologist,
I was especially happy about this, because I thought we must be doing a
good job teaching about plate tectonics, convection, and Earth structure.
I said so at a talk on this same literacy topic at UCLA to over 1,000
people. At the end, someone stood up and said, "Jere, you are so naive the
reason that so many people agree with that is because that is where
they think Hell is!"
There were two short answer questions:
1. What is DNA? Almost any definition was acceptable. The NRC would
accept answers like "the blueprint for life," but only one out of five
Americans were even that close. Every one of our graduates knows a
much better answer for that question.
2. What is a molecule? Only nine percent could come even close to the right
answer. I thought we learned that kind of stuff in grammar or high
So the scientific knowledge of our population is pathetic. Here we are,
critically dependent in our daily lives on science, yet hardly anyone knows
how it works. I'd point out that in the U.S. Congress, the rate is probably
even lower. After all, most of them are lawyers. This general condition may
well be at the root of numerous problems in the world.
Photo: me, back in the organic chemistry days
Posted by Khalid at 5:37 PM