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Science news: Why Americans know so little

Science reporting has fallen off a cliff, and the results are clear: Average Americans know little about science. How about you? Take this quiz.

In 2004, NASA's Sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft imaged a large solar prominence hovering over the surface (upper right).
NASA
In 2004, NASA’s Sun-orbiting SOHO spacecraft imaged a large solar prominence hovering over the surface (upper right).

Two years ago, when I was applying for a science journalism fellowship at England’s Cambridge University, my screening interview halted briefly after I dropped a comment that American newspapers were abandoning science coverage.

Could that be possible in the United States — the world’s capital of scientific discovery — wondered Sir Brian Heap, a prominent Cambridge biologist who was on the screening panel for the Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellowships.

Oh yes, indeed, Americans on the panel told him sadly.

The demise came even faster than those of us sitting around that table expected. As print journalism saw itself falling off a cliff, it pushed science coverage over the edge first.

This week, the British journal Nature published an obituary of sorts, making some disturbing points about the implications for our knowledge about science.

Before discussing the highlights, let’s consider the context. Truth is that the United States never has been a wellspring of scientific knowledge, even given its great achievements in that regard.

We wring our hands over low math and science test scores, but few adults bother themselves with the details. We get steamed over the politics of stem cells and global warming, but few voters know even the basics of cellular development and carbon emissions.

One in four Americans surveyed in a recent test of scientific literacy did not correctly answer the question, “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” Nearly half were wrong on the question of whether antibiotics can kill viruses as well as bacteria. Sixty percent could not say whether the North Pole marks an ice sheet on the Arctic Ocean.

At the end of this article, you can test your own answers to the science literacy survey conducted in conjunction with the National Science Board’s 2008 report on Science and Engineering Indicators.

Dismal track record
The point of my digression was to say that most Americans need all of the accessible science news they can get just to inform their own decisions about health care and science-based public policy. They still will be able to find it online — if they bother. But that is a big if, given the country’s dismal track record.

Now, highlights from the Nature article:

• The traditional media are shedding full-time science journalists and the workloads of those who remain are on the rise.

• Researcher-run blogs and Web sites are growing apace, as are the public relations departments of scientific organizations.

• Under more deadline stress, science writers increasingly turn to the press offices and researchers’ sites for their information.

Bottom line: Scientists and the institutions at which they work have more and more influence over what the public reads about their work with less filtering through watchdogs and critics.

Readers who search for it can find lively commentary and sharp criticism on science blogs such as the popular Pharyngula blog run by PZ Myers, a biology professor at the University of Minnesota, Morris.  Seed magazine publishes links to Pharyngula and more than 100 other science blogs here.

But as science and environmental coverage moves to the blogs, it is being “ghettoized and available only to those who choose to seek it out,” Peter Dykstra told Nature. He was executive producer of CNN’s science, technology, environment and weather unit until it was closed down last year. Now he is at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

Further, what we know so far about online information is that its users tend to seek news they agree with, the reports that make them comfortable and don’t rattle their attitudes too much.

Hence, the same concerns that apply to our civic knowledge hold for science news too. In the online marketplace of ideas, chances drop dramatically that minds will be expanded by the evidence on climate change, evolution and a long list of other subjects.

Many of us saw this coming as newspapers began retrenching a few years ago. Here is Nature’s summary of what happened:

Science journalism boomed in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the United States — where by 1989 some 95 newspapers had dedicated science sections — and elsewhere, the field’s precipitous rise was supported by buoyant profits in the media sector. “The model of a major paper was that they did really serious science coverage,” says Deborah Blum, who won a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her reporting in the Sacramento Bee on the use of animals in research, and who now teaches at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But there was a problem with the science sections, she says. “They didn’t make money.”

Most papers were willing to support their sections, even at a loss, because science was the thing to have. Today, in a harsher mass-media landscape, that has changed. Across the United States, newspaper science sections have been shut down.

Internet factor
Some MinnPost readers may remember the Star Tribune’s science page. When I wrote for it during the 1990s, I often heard from students working on class projects. And teachers told me they relied on the news articles for information about genetic discovery because the field was moving too fast for their textbooks to keep pace.

Now those students and teachers have far greater access to breaking science news and information than ever before, thanks to the Internet.

But I share a worry Blum expressed in Nature: that they will get fewer perspectives and a far less questioning approach.

“Science is like any other enterprise,” Blum told Nature. “It’s human, it’s flawed, it’s filled with politics and ego. You need journalists, theoretically, to check these kinds of things.”

Amen.

The quiz
Now, as promised, here is the National Science Board’s literacy quiz. You can compare your answers with the national sample. The first 11 questions have been asked repeatedly over the years, and the scores have changed very little. 

Answer true or false unless otherwise indicated.

1. The center of the Earth is very hot.

2. All radioactivity is man-made.

3. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.

4. Electrons are smaller than atoms.

5. The universe began with a huge explosion.

6. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.

7. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

8. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month or one year?

9. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.

10. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.

11. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.

The latest survey included new questions about nanotechnology and the Earth’s polar regions. Here are a few of them:

1. The North Pole is on a sheet of ice that floats on the Arctic Ocean.

2. Hunting is more likely than climate change to make polar bears become extinct.

3. The sun never shines at the South Pole.

4. The properties of nanoscale materials often differ fundamentally and unexpectedly from the properties of the same materials at larger scales.

There is no prize except for pride in your correct answers. And hopefully, the ones you got wrong will motivate you to seek high quality science news even as it fades from the daily papers.

Answers:
1. True, answered correctly by 80 percent of adults.
2. False — 70 percent got this one right.
3. False — 45 percent correct.
4. True — 53 percent.
5. True — 33 percent, but this dismal score no doubt reflects religious thinking as well as knowledge.
6. True — 80 percent.
7. Earth around Sun — 76 percent.
8. One year — 55 percent.
9. True — 64 percent.
10. False — 56 percent
11. True — 43 percent. Is religion a factor here too?

1. True — 41 percent.
2. False — 36 percent.
3. False — 67 percent.
4. True — 39 percent.