What do they know?

One of the most important things of being a journalist is knowing your audience. Especially so if you are a science reporter. Do the people you’re addressing, for instance, know what chromosomes are? And do you have to explain the theory of the Big Bang, or is this common knowledge? Explain too little, and your audience will not understand what you’re writing or reporting about. Explaining too much also doesn’t work. It may waste valuable writing space or airtime, and people may feel you’re underestimating them and therefore stop reading or listening.

But it isn’t easy to attain knowledge about what your audience knows about science. Fortunately, there has been some research on this subject. The report Science and Engineering Indicators 2008 of the National Science Foundation (NSF) of the United States offers an overview of a number of these studies. The vast, biannual report provides quantitative information about science & engineering in the United States. The report contains a chapter fully focused on public attitudes towards and understanding of science and technology (S&T). In this chapter, the results of multiple nation-wide surveys concerning this topic are combined. Also, these outcomes are compared to the outcomes of similar surveys from all over the world. The surveys were all held amongst representative samples of the general population, with the number of respondents varying from approximately a thousand till thirty thousand.

It turns out that the scientific literacy of the general American audience isn’t all that high. To measure knowledge of S&T, a standardized set of twelve questions has been designed which is used in surveys all over the world. The questions are shaped as statements which can be true or false. The scientific facts and concepts in the questions should theoretically be known by anyone who finished a normal high-school education, since they are taught here. Still, the average American only answered 6,6 out of the twelve questions correctly. This figure hasn’t changed much over the years the surveys are held (the first time was in 1992). The number of correctly answered questions was positively correlated with the level of education and young people answered more questions correctly then older people.

There was also a clear difference in the knowledge of S&T between men and women. Men tend to know more about physics, while women tend to know more about biology and health-related issues. For instance, 61 percent of the men knew electrons are smaller then atoms. Of the women, 52 percent thought it is the other way round. But while 72 percent of the women know it’s the fathers genes that determine if a baby will be a boy or a girl, just slightly over half of the men answered this statement correctly. Perhaps the most remarkable findings are that 68 percent of the American women think lasers work with sound waves in stead of light waves; and that a staggering 73 percent of the women and 60 percent of the men don’t know the universe started with the Big Bang.

Though this last result may be because of cultural or religious reasons. In other countries like Europe, Japan or China, a lot more people answered this question correctly. This also holds true for the statement that the human species developed form earlier species of animals. In a different survey, more Americans answered these questions correctly if the statement began with ‘According to scientific theory,…’.

Looking at the average score in this type of survey, no country or region notably outperforms another. Knowledge of S&T is about the same in the United States as in Europe or Japan. South-Korea also scores well. In Russia, Malaysia and China the knowledge scores are relatively low. In the report, Europe is treated as a single region, composed of 25 EU-members. But there are large differences in S&T knowledge between these 25 countries. Northern European countries score best, with Sweden taking the lead.

The NSF report also contains some potentially interesting findings concerning public attitudes towards S&T. A few examples:

  • All over the world television is considered as there main source of S&T information. In the US, the internet comes second; in other countries, newspapers are usually mentioned as the secondary source. The internet does generally score best when asked what source people turn to when to want to look up information on a scientific subject.
  • 87 % of the Americans support government funding of basic research, and 41 % think the government should spend more money on scientific research.
  • All over the world, space exploration is mentioned as the scientific topic people are least interested in. But at the same time, this is the topic which gets most airtime in the US evening news shows. The report doesn’t go into detail on this apparent contradiction.