Friday, May 05, 2006

Don't know much about geography...

The results of a Roper poll conducted for the National Geographic Society was released yesterday. The survey asked Americans between the ages of 18 and 24 a number of geography questions. 510 people were surveyed. They found the following:

  • 1/3 of the respondents couldn't find Louisiana on a map in spite of the huge Hurricane Katrina coverage

  • 48% were unable to find Mississippi on a map

  • 6 in 10 could not find Iraq on a map of the Middle East

  • 47% could not find the Indian subcontinent on a map of Asia

  • 75% were unable to find Israel on a map of the Middle East

  • 6 in 10 did not know the border between North and South Korea was the most heavily fortified border in the world

  • 30% thought the U.S.-Mexico border was the most heavily fortified in the world

  • 2/3 didn't know that the earthquake that killed 70,000 people in October, 2005 happened in Pakistan

  • nearly 3/4 thought English was the most widely spoken native language in the world

  • 14% believed speaking a second language was a necessary skill

  • fewer than 3 in 10 thought it was important to know the location of countries in the news

I'm reading A Beginner's Guide to Evolution by Burton S. Guttman. At the start of the book the author lists similar statistics. From the National Geographic Society survey in 2002, which interviewed people in the same 18 to 24 age group:

  • almost 1/3 could not find the Pacific Ocean

  • fewer than half correctly identified the U.K., France, Japan, or the state of Pennsylvania

  • 3 out of 10 thought the U.S.'s population was from 1 billion to 2 billion instead of the actual number around 280 million

In the same book, the author says that the National Science Foundation's "Science and Engineering Indicators 2000" reported that less than half of the Americans surveyed knew that:

  • the earliest humans did not live at the time of the dinosaurs

  • it takes the Earth one year to travel around the sun

  • electrons are smaller than atoms

The same NSF report said:

  • 29% of respondents could define the term "DNA"

  • 13% could define "molecule"

  • 21% knew what it meant to study something scientifically

  • just over half understood probability

  • 13% knew how an experiment was conducted

It's hard to figure out what to make of these numbers. Most Americans I know are well read and want to know more about the world around them. Yet it's obvious that there's little year-to-year difference in what young Americans know of the world today versus 2002. I don't know if the problem is the country's educational standards or if Americans are just insular (I know that Americans are not stupid), or if it's a combination of the above.

There was a big rush on books about Islam after 9/11. Americans wanted to know why Muslims would want to attack them. It's clear that most Americans didn't think about the Middle East very much prior to 9/11 while there were folks in the Middle East that not only thought about the United States but openly plotted against it.

The book on evolution brings this up because ignorance of science is fueling a huge debate in the U.S. and several other countries. While there is no concerted effort to keep the location of the Pacific Ocean away from Americans, there is a concerted effort to prevent Americans learning about evolution, certain types of genetic research, and an assault on the scientific method. This effort is largely spurred by fundamentalist Christians who believe in a literal view of the bible.

The danger with this sort of ignorance, whatever the cause, is that the world is complex with complex problems. Ignorance fuels those problems. There is an administration in Washington that largely dispels the mountain of evidence showing that global warming is caused by human activity as at best overly alarmist and at worst a myth. There are stories about the administration purging comments about global warming from the EPA's web site. The president defines policy on stem cell research based on the beliefs of a vocal religious minority. NASA's budget for real science with tangible benefits is being slashed in favour of maintaining the shuttle fleet and potentially returning to the moon and heading for Mars. Americans are largely ignorant of other countries even when India and China are reaping the benefits of outsourcing and illegal immigrants from Mexico are depressing wages for low-level domestic jobs.

Some Americans would like to live in isolation, returning the U.S. to its isolationist stance prior to the First World War. Unfortunately for this view the world has "gone global". Americans can't afford to be ignorant of the world around them for long. Soon Americans will have to decide what to do about Iran (and have to decide now about Iraq). They have to decide whether or not they will let Britain, France or South Korea take the lead in the next generation of medicines based on stem cell research. They have to know the implications of global warming, both for environmental reasons and for geopolitical reasons (will Europe sit back if global warming shifts the Atlantic Conveyer — the Gulf stream — south, plunging temperatures in Europe even as the average global temperature increases?).

America's lead in science and technology is at stake. Every world super power has collapsed, usually from internal forces. Could isolationism and ignorance be the force that brings down the U.S.? If it does then it would be tragedy, for this problem is fairly easily solved. We have the knowledge, we just need to teach it.


BeingHuman said...

Some elements of this society assert that controversy exists over matters where it in fact does not (e.g., scientists disputing the validity of evolution, global warming, etc.). That contrived and dishonest position does this country nothing but harm.

I recently read that nearly 1/3 of graduate and professional students in US schools are from foreign countries (forgive me for not being able to site the source). What I believe will occur, is that this number will continue to grow and Americans will increasingly lose the most prominent positions in science and other academic areas, within this country and throughout the world.

It is hard to say that what is occurring is not government censorship of science.

Allan Goodall said...

I fully agree with you.

I'm not sure why there isn't more of a backlash by scientists. I suspect it's because they are used to dealing with their peers, thus they are used to reasoned arguments by people who honestly want to know the truth. They aren't used to dealing with people who have an agenda while willing to subvert the scientific method.

I don't think the situation will get better until scientists fight back as aggressively as anti-science proponents. It may require scientists to learn how to communicate effectively with laymen. From my days at university I can attest that this is a very rare trait. Let's face it, Skeptical Inquirer and American Skeptic are preaching to the converted.

Since the media have this overwhelming desire to show a "balanced" reporting even when the issue isn't balanced, scientists (and by scientists I include everyone whose work is directly and indirectly attacked by pseudoscientists) will always be fighting an uphill battle.

I hope this comes out semi-coherent... I really need to get to bed!