The Five Dumbest Science 'Facts' Believed By Australians

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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.

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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.)

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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.

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Comments

    I LIKE TURTLES !

    here is another Awesome science source listing his awesome sauses, Minute Physic's :The BEST Science Online":
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8t53Ak_yrQ

    365.25 in a year the question needed to be phrased correctly

    subsets...clades...etamology...extant...
    what is all this crazy talk.

    As far as i'm concerned....the Land of the Lost tv series of 1974 is a historical document
    I wont have any of you part-time professors dissing the Sleestaks.
    Remember when they battled the fire-breathing Dimetrodon.
    Bless.

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    Last edited 18/08/16 1:40 am

    "The Earth does not take a year to go around the Sun (believed by 41% of respondents)"

    You can't prove this answer was 41% stupid, it could be 41% smartass.

    A calendar year (365 days) is shorter than the time it takes to go around the sun (365.25 days)

      Nice try, but wrong.

      A year, by definition, is the amount of time that the earth takes to orbit the sun. It just happens to be 365 and a bit. If the earth took 17 days to orbit the sun, it would still be 1 year, just that a year would now be equal to 17 days.

      A CALENDAR year is a different thing to a year.

        The Oxford English Dictionary defines the word "year" as either a tropical/solar year as you described or, just as reasonably, as a calendar year.

        I would blame the 41% fail rate on poor wording of the question over participant stupidity.

    I see that Michael Behe's pseudoscientific argument of irreducible complexity central to the creationist concept of intelligent design didn't get a mention in the comments section.

    Many christians thought that Behe's humble mousetrap disproved the theory of evolution until comprehensibly refuted in peer-reviewed research papers and rejected by the scientific community at large.

    Still, you have to hand it to them for continuing to come up with fiction to try and disprove evolution.

    Didn't you watch Jurassic Park 4? Did those dinos have feathers? Stop spreading misinfo.

    At first I thought that people thinking something along those lines might have skewed the results, but I looked at the report (had to search because broken link), and it looks like it was a multiple choice question, with the options being 'A Day', 'A Week', 'A Month', 'A Year', and 'Not Sure'.

    1. Humans are dinosaurs...they just dont like being refered to as dinosaurs.
    2. Evolution is provably false because at superposition all organisms are the same organism and the only thing separating a superpositional organism is possibility...like which side of the peg the falling marble rolls off.

    "It's basically one of those trivia questions that you either know or you don't."

    Fresh water knowledge is trivial? I'm surprised at your take on that one. It's only the amount of water we can actually drink!

      I agree with the statement, like everybody should know there is vastly more sea water than fresh water, but if nobody has told them the exact percentage I could see an answer like "Less than 10%" being fine.

    Personally I blame Smashed Avacado on toast for fostering this derp-iness.

    "...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."

    The scary part is a great many of the ignorant occupy postions of power in politics both here and overseas.
    They gravitate to politics because they failed at science and technology and talking BS is the only thing they are good at.

    Rehashing again ? 2013 and twice this year (if not in 2016 as well) ? Are you sure this is still accurate, perhaps in the last 4.5 years people have got smarter, unlike LH regurgitating out of date stories.

      The thing I hate most about rehashed articles is responding to a comment that is over 4 years old without realising it. This one has been rehashed multiple times, so the comments section is a mish mash of then, other then, and another then and now.

      I hope the author doesn't get paid again for recycled content.

        I can top that, i nearly posted a nearly identical comment years after the original because it was rehashed, only found out when doing a last minute comment scan.

        Infact i actually have a niggling feeling that i was writing the reply, found the old comment, went to reply saying how much i agreed with the commenter, only to find it was my own comment.

        Last edited 03/01/18 5:09 pm

    How did God come into existence? What was before God? Did he/she/it appear out nothing before putting all the stuff in the universe and making earth and various bits and bobs like cells, bacteria, diseases to name a few...and while he was making all that, did he think...mmm yes this Ebola virus might come in handy one day, so I will make it to kill humans in a particular way so if they chose not to follow the book of which I did not actually write but just sort of past on the info through various men, who wrote various versions into various books, which is then interpreted by various "scholars" that are heads of various rich religious organizations that still have not many answers to why God has just left us to do our own thing for so long after spending what must have been some considerable effort to make all the various bit and bobs that went into the universe, including that Ebola virus, surely just watching and being everywhere at the same time but only now and again throwing a miracle or two at us would not satisfy the God of everything, surely if we have not quite lived up to the initial draft involved in the making of the universe and we made that mistake with the apple right at the start of it all for pete sake!, he/she/it would have just made a better version without all the problems we have today?...maybe I digress a little, so lets get back to whats really important...a debate about religion and science.

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