Americans' science knowledge increasing
But belief is growing in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by space aliens.
By ASSOCIATED PRESS
Published February 18, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO - People in the United States know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.
In 1988 only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller, a Michigan State University professor. He presented his findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The improvement largely reflects the requirement that all college students have at least some science courses, Miller said. This way, they can better keep up with new developments through the media.
A panel of researchers expressed concern that people are giving increasing credence to pseudoscience such as the visits of space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes.
In addition, these researchers noted an increase in college students who report they are "unsure" about creationism as compared with evolution.
More recent generations know more factual material about science, said Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University. But, she said, when it comes to pseudoscience, "the news is not good."
One problem, she said, is that pseudoscience can speak to the meaning of life in ways that science does not.
For example, for many women having a good life still depends on whom they marry, she said.
"What does astrology speak to? Love relationships," Losh said, noting that belief in horoscopes is much higher among women than men.
Miller said most readers of horoscopes are women, contributing to the listing of "female" as a leading negative factor in science literacy. Women also tended to take fewer college science courses, he said.
Belief in abduction by space aliens is also on the rise, Losh said.
"It's not surprising that the generation that grew up on Twilight Zone and early Star Trek television endorsed a link between UFOs and alien spacecraft," she said.
Pseudoscience discussion is often absent from the classroom, Losh said, so "we have basically left it up to the media."
Raymond Eve of the University of Texas at Arlington had mixed news in surveys of students at an unnamed Midwestern university. The percentage that believed aliens had visited Earth fell from 25 percent in 1983 to 15 percent in 2006.
But there also has been a drop in the number of people who believe evolution correctly explains the development of life on Earth and an increase in those who believe mankind was created about 10,000 years ago.
Miller said a second major negative factor to scientific literacy was religious fundamentalism and aging. Having taken college science courses was a strong positive influence, followed by overall education and informal science learning through the media.