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New Findings Show Some Improvements in U.S. Science Literacy

News & Comment

The Editors

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 31.4, July / August 2007

A session at the 2007 American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meetings in San Francisco in February reported on research concerning cohort effects for scientific literacy in the United States and Europe, and their relation to beliefs in pseudoscience. The session was organized by Raymond Eve, professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin. He also participated in a press briefing on the session at the meeting.

For the first time, Eve and his fellow researchers have begun to examine how science literacy scores on standardized tests may be partially due to generational or cohort effects. In other words, most of our grandparents didn’t even attend college, so it would be surprising if today’s generation didn’t outscore previous ones. Such research is beginning to make it possible to separate out the effects of innovations in the teaching of science from improvements that might have occurred due to generational effects. The researchers found that in spite of the mass media’s regular litany of doom and gloom about science education in the U.S. recent innovations in teaching science seem to be paying off in somewhat better scores for students, scores that can be attributed to better science teaching—not just cohort effects. The same also applies to the recently reduced belief in pseudoscience, particularly for topics unrelated to religiously influenced pseudoscientific beliefs.

One finding by the panel was that U.S. high school students are leaving high school dramatically unprepared for scientific literacy, but that both at the high school and college levels the situation is improving somewhat. In fact, the percentage of Americans with basic scientific literacy has almost tripled in the last two decades.

As a somewhat surprising result, brand new research presented at the meetings by panel participant Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University shows U.S. adults to now be second in the world in terms of science literacy (behind only Sweden), although this still represents only 28 percent of the total U.S. population. Interestingly, since this is apparently not attributable to high-school preparation per se, Miller said it appears that taking even one course in science in college leads students to become self-educators in science throughout life. (Meaning, for example, that if one gets cancer it doesn’t take long for them to use secondary sources from the Internet and elsewhere to soon know a lot about medicine.) Hence, we now need much better understanding of how a college education can lead to lifelong learning in science and how best to integrate collegiate science learning with informal science learning once out of the academic environment.