Monday, February 12, 2007

Scientific literacy and pseudoscience

One of the reasons for the increasing popularity of "alternative health" movements such as homebirth advocacy is that the dreadful lack of scientific literacy among lay people leaves them unable to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. Most lay people lack basic scientific knowledge, understanding of the scientific method and understanding of statistics.

From Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding:
*Most adults pick up information about science primarily from watching television; the print media are a distant second.

*Americans score poorly on tests of basic science knowledge. This is confirmed by an independent investigation of American scientific literacy, reported here, which shows that:

Most Americans (53%) don't know that the Earth goes around the Sun once a year.
Nearly half (48%) don't know what percentage of the Earth's surface is covered by water.
And 42% don't know that no humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
Nearly 1 in 5 people (19%) couldn't answer any of these questions correctly.

*Most Americans (67%) do not have an understanding of the scientific process.

*There is widespread belief in pseudo-science. Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations suggest that at least half of the U.S. public believes in the existence of ESP, and a sizable minority believes in unidentified flying objects and that aliens have landed on Earth. In the 2001 NSF survey, 60 percent of respondents agreed that "some people possess psychic powers or ESP," and 30 percent agreed that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations."

*Most Americans do not understand even basic statistics. More than 60% of respondents could not define basic statistics terms.
It is hardly surprising that Americans have tremendous difficulty evaluating scientific claims and cannot recognize pseudoscience.


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