Per an article in MIT Technology Review America’s scientific literacy rate has improved from a pathetic 10% in 1988:
The bad news: it’s still only 28 percent. 200 million Americans cannot read a simple story in, say, Technology Review or the New York Times science section and understand even the basics of DNA or microchips or global warming.
This level of science illiteracy may explain why over 40 percent of Americans do not believe in evolution and about 20 percent, when asked if the earth orbits the sun or vice versa, say it’s the sun that does the orbiting–placing these people in the same camp as the Inquisition that punished Galileo almost 400 years ago.
Some might attribute this as the result of a poor educational system or a lack of intellectual curiosity, as exemplified by the poster child for ignorant bliss President Bush. I think there may be more to it.
In what I believe to be a related story a Newsweek poll last April (alternate link) included a variety of interesting questions about Americans and religious matters. The article cites the unsurprising fact that 91% of the public say they believe in God and almost as many (87 percent) say they identify with a specific religion. Newsweek also asked poll respondents about modern biology.
Nearly half (48 percent) of the public rejects the scientific theory of evolution; one-third (34 percent) of college graduates say they accept the Biblical account of creation as fact. Seventy-three percent of Evangelical Protestants say they believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years; 39 percent of non-Evangelical Protestants and 41 percent of Catholics agree with that view.
These poll results come just a few months after an international study was conducted to measure which countries were the most accepting on evolutionary biology. Of the 34 countries involved, the United States ranked 33rd. Only Turkey ranked lower.
These are astonishing and terrifying statistics. So while I agree that we need to look closely at our education system and make improvements, I also think we need to consider the active role religion plays in propagating misinformation and encouraging non-critical thinking. I’m not suggesting religion always suppresses critical thinking, but it is fair to say that it strongly discourages it by lauding stories of pure fantasy as true and denying inconvenient scientifically established facts that reveal their stories as fiction.
In a world facing global warming, resistant strains of bacteria, debates over stem cell research and natural selection it seems obvious that faith is not benign but is in fact impeding the majority of the public’s willingness to truly understand the issues they are asked to contemplate.