Image: Africa Studio
With stuff like the “I fucking love science” Facebook superpage and a certain sound effects-heavy public radio show, science has become a particular sort of cultural identity. That identity, or fashion, is kind of smarmy, a bit condescending, and is communicated most often in meme terms or otherwise with disproportionate emphasis on novelty or the sense of novelty. It’s not interested in trifling things like statistics, engineering, or the difference between social science and physical science. And, as a cultural force, it might also be more interested in the identity of science than its actual results (on, say, GMO safety or the dispersal of radioactive material across an ocean).
With this in mind, it’s not particularly surprising to see results from a biennial National Science Foundation survey, just titled Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, suggesting that Americans are short on actual science knowledge, but long on esteem for scientists and highly interested in learning about new scientific findings. The results were presented yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and offer the hopeful results that 90 percent of Americans think that scientists are "dedicated people who work for the good of humanity" and another 90 percent think the benefits of science outweigh the dangers of science.
There’s a flipside to that and it’s kind of bleak. For example, only 74 percent of respondents knew the Earth revolved around the Sun, while 48 percent knew humans evolved from other species of animals. 39 percent of respondents thought the universe began with “a big explosion,” and in both the evolution and Big Bang questions, scores went up dramatically when the questions were prefaced with an “According to astronomers … “ or “According to the theory of evolution …” The science quiz asked nine questions and the average score was 6.5, which is … passing.
The press release from Michigan State University, which compiled the study’s chapter on public attitudes and knowledge, tries to bury the actual most alarming result at the end: “About a third of the respondents think science and technology should get more funding.” Note that the study was conducted in the midst of the “sequester” period of extreme funding cuts; in 2013, research was just gasping for air. It’s safe to assume your average American wasn’t very up on budget sequester effects—across the board cuts of about 7 percent—but allowing those cuts to persist would have choked American science to the point that science-loving Americans would be searching elsewhere for their research news.
One final result to keep in mind as the American oil boom continues to unfold: two-thirds of people queried in the survey supported an increase in offshore oil and gas drilling, up from just under half in 2010 following the Deepwater Horizon accident. Meanwhile, just three in 10 Americans thought climate change should be a priority for the president, but a majority said they were worried to some degree about its effects. In summary: fuck yeah, science, but whatever.