It’s International Science Week. To “celebrate”, we thought we’d revisit this timely article about science literacy in Australia. [Warning: it makes for cringe-inducing reading — especially the bit about dinosaurs.]
The national science literacy survey produced some embarrassing results back in 2013, including the whopper that more than 25% of Australians think humans co-existed with dinosaurs. Here are five shocking misconceptions unearthed by the survey (along with some essential links to help you bone up on your science knowledge).
Caveman picture from Shutterstock
Researchers from the Australian Academy of Science have reported a marked drop in the nation’s science literacy levels compared to the last time the poll was conducted in 2010.
The survey asked 1515 Australians questions on basic scientific facts from a cohort segmented and weighted to be nationally representative of Australia’s population by gender, age and residential location.
“We had an expectation that maybe we should have seen some improvement over time [but] the results indicate that we haven’t moved all that much in our basic understanding of science,” Professor Les Field, the Australian Academy of Science’s secretary for science policy said.
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“In some areas it was surprising that we have moved backwards. The results are very much a reality check: there is a significant fraction of the population that really don’t have a basic understanding of science and technology or know how the world works around us.”
Here’s how the nation fared in the five key areas of the poll:
The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs (believed by 27% of respondents)
Of all the misconceptions flagged in the survey, this is probably the most surprising. Only 73 percent of the Australians surveyed realised that humans did not walk the Earth at the same time as dinosaurs.
Sadly, we can’t even blame crazy creationists for skewing the results. According to Professor Field, the main culprit isn’t religion but Hollywood.
“This is probably the legacy of Jurassic Park and TV shows like Terranova which show humans running alongside dinosaurs and use great special effects, which really makes it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction,” Field said.
“I think this has contributed to the fact that there is a certain proportion of the Australian population which still believes that dinosaurs and humans co-existed in time.”
I suspect that a lot of respondents were just taking the piss. At least, I hope they were.
Evolution has stopped occurring (believed by 30% of respondents)
According to the survey results, more than a quarter of Australians don’t realise that evolution is a continuous, ongoing process. The poll showed that males and people with higher education levels were more likely to think that evolution is currently occurring.
Around 35% of 18-24 year olds did not think humans were influencing the evolution of other species. 9% of respondents said they didn’t believe in evolution at all.
The Earth does not take a year to go around the Sun (believed by 41% of respondents)
This is pretty embarrassing. A little under half of respondents didn’t actually know how long the Earth took to orbit the sun. Apparently, the seasons aren’t enough of a clue.
“It’s a concern to me that 40 percent of the population doesn’t realise that it takes a year for the Earth to travel around the sun,” Field said.
The greatest fall in knowledge for this question was among cohorts in the 18-24 age bracket, which probably says something about modern schooling. Curiously, 68 percent of men knew the Earth takes a year to orbit the sun compared to just 50 percent of women.
More than 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh (believed by 91% of respondents)
This was easily the most popular misconception, with only 9% of respondents giving the correct answer. This was down from 13% who gave the correct answer in 2010.
“The overwhelming majority of Australians — in fact, almost all of them — overestimate the amount of fresh water we have on the planet,” Field explained.
We’re not terribly surprised by this one, to be honest. Off the top of our head, we probably would have guessed around 10-15% of the Earth’s water is fresh. (It’s basically one of those trivia questions that you either know or you don’t.)
Science education isn’t important to the Australian economy (believed by 2% of respondents)
Amusingly, it seems that many Australians hold science in high esteem despite knowing very little about the basics, if this poll is anything to go by. 79% of respondents said that science education is absolutely essential or very important, while only 2% said it wasn’t at all important; around the the same proportion as in 2010.
“It was very gratifying to see that the overwhelming response was yes, science education is extremely important to the economy of Australia,” Field said. Clearly however, a lot more work needs to be done.
“As the world becomes more technologically advanced the average person in Australia needs to have on board a sound understanding of basic science simply to survive and to actively contribute to the community. If nothing else, our education system has to factor this in.”
We’re guessing most of our readers are pretty cluey when it comes to basic science, but if you fear for the future of your children, here are a few websites that are well worth book-marking:
How Stuff Works: Wonderfully exhaustive website that covers almost every conceivable topic in easy-to-understand language.
Wikipedia: While unfairly maligned for its questionable accuracy, the world’s most popular online encyclopedia is pretty hard to fault when it comes to scientific factoids. This is thanks to the tireless editing efforts of armchair experts who really know their stuff. We’d be a bit leery of pages relating to global warming though (mind you, the same thing could be said about nearly every published article on this subject).
I F***ing Love Science: If you’re into the cooler aspects of science, this Facebook page provides daily missives detailing the weird and wonderful.
Questacon: The National Science and Technology Centre represents one of the few reasons to visit Canberra and contains lots of hands-on exhibits aimed at children and students. If you’re after a fun approach to scientific learning, it’s well worth a visit.
The Australian Academy of Science notes that the accuracy of the results at an overall level is +/-2.5% at the 95% confidence interval. (“This means, for example, that if the survey returns a result of 50% to a particular question, there is 95% probability that the actual result will be between 47.5% and 52.5%.”)
Science literacy in Australia [Australian Academy of Science]
This story originally appeared in July 2013.