Proportion of ‘Scientifically Literate’ U.S. Adults Is Less Than 6 Percent, According to New Survey

January 25, 1989 2 min read

San Francisco--Only about one in 20 American adults is “scientifically literate” and can answer such basic questions as whether the earth revolves around the sun, whether antibiotics kill viruses, and whether astrology is scientific, a federally funded study has found.

The findings, released here last week at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, are similar to those of two previous U.S. studies, in 1979 and 1985, and match responses from a comparable survey of British adults.

“In two of the world’s oldest and most prominent democracies,” said Jon D. Miller, the study’s author, “at least 9 out of 10 citizens lack the scientific literacy to understand and participate in the formulation of public policy on a very important segment of their national political agendas.”

“This was not a test of what people ought to know,” added Mr. Miller, director of the public-opinion laboratory at Northern Illinois University. “This is a minimal measure, a floor as opposed to an ideal circumstance.”

Mr. Miller and his British counterpart, John Durant, deputy director of the department of external studies at the University of Oxford, said the study found “good news” in the relatively high levels of interest in science, medicine, and technology.

But, Mr. Durant pointed out, the “dismally low” levels of knowledge about science suggest that there are “not too many ways of making good news” out of the data.

Although differences in performance were related to the number of college science courses respondents had taken, Mr. Miller said, “it is clear that the scope and quality of the precollegiate science experience must be improved substantially if the proportion of Americans who are scientifically literate is to increase.”

As further evidence, he pointed out that, while Americans performed better than their British counterparts on questions related to computers and heart disease--areas which have received much media attention--Britons outperformed Americans on questions that demonstrated learning in school settings, such as those on probability and radiation.

Survey Results

The study, based on a survey of 2,000 adults over the age of 18 in both the United States and Great Britain, was conducted for the National Science Foundation.

It found that 12 percent of Americans--up from 9 percent in 1979--displayed a “minimally acceptable” level of understanding of the process of science, such as knowing that astrology is not scientific.

Among British respondents, 10 percent showed a similar level of understanding.

At the same time, the study found, 28 percent of the respondents in both countries could correctly identify scientific concepts and terms. And 50 percent of Americans and 58 percent of the Britons showed an understanding of the impact of science on society.

When the three indices were combined into a single measure of scientific literacy, the study showed, 6 percent of the Americans, and 7 percent of the Britons could be classified as scientifically literate.--rr

A version of this article appeared in the January 25, 1989 edition of Education Week as Proportion of ‘Scientifically Literate’ U.S. Adults Is Less Than 6 Percent, According to New Survey