Yes, what we don’t know about science can hurt us | John L. Micek

Damage to the a York County road following heavy flooding last summer. (Gov. Tom Wolf/Flickr)

What do most Americans know about science?

If a March 28 Pew Research Center poll is to be believed — not nearly enough. And at a time when knowledge and facts are under assault as they have not been in recent memory, that’s a problem.

On the upside, about eight in 10 respondents to the new Pew poll (79 percent) knew that increased resistance is one of the big concerns about the overuse of antibiotics.

And more than three-quarters (76 percent) know that an “incubation period” is the time when a person has an infection — but isn’t showing any visible signs of it.

Only about four in 10 people (39 percent) were able to correctly identify the main components of antacids. Those are “bases.”

And I’ll admit, I’d forgotten that one.

Between Jan. 7 and Jan. 21, Pew researchers quizzed 4,464 respondents on their scientific knowledge, asking them 11 different questions.

You can take the quiz here. Be warned: It’s humbling.

Overall, about four in 10 respondents got between nine and 11 questions correct, which gave them “high scientific knowledge.” About a third got between five and eight questions right, while three in 10 (29 percent) got between zero and three questions correct.

Source: Pew Research Center

In general, “there are striking differences in levels of science knowledge by education, as well as by racial and ethnic group,” Pew researchers found. “Men tend to score higher than women on the science knowledge scale, but gender differences are not consistent across questions in the scale.”

And here’s the finding that sticks out: Pew researchers found that “political party groups are roughly similar in their overall levels of science knowledge — although conservative Republicans tend to score higher on the scale than do their more moderate counterparts.”

That matters because scientific issues of huge importance now inform our policy debate.

In Harrisburg last week, for instance, a self-described “climate contrarian” who acknowledges that human activity is heating the Earth, but who — unlike a majority of scientists — also believes the potential consequences are overblown, got a star turn before the state House’s oversight committee on environmental issues.

Despite a scientific consensus to the contrary, Gregory Wrightstone, a geologist with ties to the natural gas industry, spent an hour arguing that increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a good thing.

Encouragingly, based on a December 2018 Morning Consult/Politico poll, more Americans find such views as Wrightstone’s total poppycock — even with that knowledge gap identified by the Pew poll. They agree that climate change is caused by human activity and they’re concerned by the consequences.

More than two-thirds of respondents to the Morning Consult/Politico poll were concerned about the results of last year’s National Climate Assessment, which says climate change could cause billions of dollars in economic losses.

But less than half the Republican respondents to the poll (47 percent) said they were worried about its findings, compared to 87 percent of Democrats and two-thirds of independents.

And Republican respondents to the poll were “about as likely to consider President Donald Trump” as credible on environmental matters as they were scientists. Trump, by the way, expressed skepticism on the study by the government’s own scientists.

The poll of 1,975 registered voters, conducted last Dec. 4, had a margin of error of 2 percentage points.

And this is where science education comes into play.

While there’s a renewed push by both policymakers and educators to stress the importance of “STEM” education (or Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), the data suggests we still have some catching up to do.

In 2017, Pew researchers found that American students tended to fall into the middle of the international pack on math, science, and reading, according to one worldwide benchmark.

Given that, it’s not surprising that the Pew poll finds that greater levels of scientific fluency correspond with greater levels of education. Americans with a post-graduate degree, for instance, got about four more questions correct than those with a high school diploma or less, Pew found.

So what’s the cure?

It’s on the media to fill in gaps in knowledge — seven in 10 respondents to a 2017 Pew Poll got their information from press accounts. And ditto for museums. Sixty-two percent came across their information that way in that same 2017 poll.

It’s often said that those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat its mistakes. The consequences of failing to pay heed to science are even greater.

An award-winning political journalist with more than 25 years' experience in the news business, John L. Micek is The Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. Before joining The Capital-Star, Micek spent six years as Opinion Editor at PennLive/The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., where he helped shape and lead a multiple-award-winning Opinion section for one of Pennsylvania's most-visited news websites. Prior to that, he spent 13 years covering Pennsylvania government and politics for The Morning Call of Allentown, Pa. His career has also included stints covering Congress, Chicago City Hall and more municipal meetings than he could ever count, Micek contributes regular analysis and commentary to a host of broadcast outlets, including CTV-News in Canada and talkRadio in London, U.K., as well as "Face the State" on CBS-21 in Harrisburg, Pa.; "Pennsylvania Newsmakers" on WGAL-8 in Lancaster, Pa., and the Pennsylvania Cable Network. His weekly column on American politics is syndicated nationwide to more than 800 newspapers by Cagle Syndicate.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here