Scientific literacy -- How do Americans stack up?

February 17, 2007

SAN FRANCISCO -- Having a basic knowledge of scientific principles is no longer a luxury but, in today's complex world, a necessity.

And, according to a Michigan State University researcher, while Americans are holding their own, they are not even close to where they should be.

Participating at 3:45 p.m. PST today in an American Association for the Advancement of Science symposium, titled "Science Literacy and Pseudoscience," MSU's Jon Miller said that Americans, while slightly ahead of their European counterparts when it comes to scientific knowledge, still have a long way to go.

"A slightly higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than European or Japanese adults, but the truth is that no major industrial nation in the world today has a sufficient number of scientifically literate adults," he said. "We should take no pride in a finding that 70 percent of Americans cannot read and understand the science section of the New York Times."

Approximately 28 percent of American adults currently qualify as scientifically literate, an increase from around 10 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, according to Miller's research.

A professor in political science, Miller said one reason for the Americans' slim lead is that the United States is the only major nation in the world that requires its college students to take general science courses.

"Although university science faculties have often viewed general education requirements with disdain," he said, "analyses indicate that the courses promote civic scientific literacy among U.S. adults despite the disappointing performance of American high school students in international testing."

Adding to the United States' relatively good showing is Americans' use of informal science education resources, such as science magazines, news magazines, science museums and the Internet.

Why is it important to have a population wise in the ways of science? Miller listed several reasons, including the need for a more sophisticated work force; a need for more scientifically literate consumers, especially when it comes to purchasing electronics; and, equally as important, a scientifically literate electorate who can help shape public policy.

"Over recent decades, the number of public policy controversies that require some scientific or technical knowledge for effective participation has been increasing," he said. "Any number of issues, including the siting of nuclear power plants, nuclear waste disposal facilities, and the use of embryonic stem cells in biomedical research point to the need for an informed citizenry in the formulation of public policy."

To be classified as "scientifically literate," Miller said one must be able to understand approximately 20 of 31 scientific concepts and terms similar to those that would be found in articles that appear in the New York Times weekly science section and in an episode of the PBS program "NOVA."
-end-
Miller is the Hannah Professor of integrative studies at MSU. He has appointments in the Division of Mathematics and Science Education and the Department of Political Science.

For photos, links and full coverage of MSU at AAAS, see http://special.newsroom.msu.edu/aaas/index.html. NOTE: Jon Miller can be reached Feb. 15-19 at AAAS on his cell phone at (312) 399-6189. Tom Oswald can be reached on his cell phone at (517) 775-7394.

Michigan State University

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