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NATIONAL SURVEY OF AMERICAN PUBLIC BY CALIFORNIA ACADEMY OF SCIENCES AND HARRIS INTERACTIVE REVEALS PROFOUND LACK OF SCIENTIFIC KNOWLEDGE AT A TIME WHEN SCIENCE IS CHANGING OUR DAILY LIVES
Public Senses It Is Falling Behind in Scientific Understanding
SAN FRANCISCO (April 24, 2001)--A national survey developed by the California Academy of Sciences and polling organization Harris Interactive, reveals that the American public lacks basic scientific knowledge at a time when science-related issues - bioengineering, mapping the human genome, environmental problems, global climate change, cloning, the increasing extinction rate, the reliability of energy resources, and the future of science-based business and technology - have an increasing impact on daily life. The public has a distinct sense that it is falling behind in science: 43% of Americans say they understand less and less of what scientists are doing today.
While crucial social, economic, and health issues now facing the public are being profoundly influenced by new scientific research, a startling number of Americans cannot answer even basic scientific questions:
Nearly 1 in 5 people (19%) couldn't answer any of these questions correctly. Even college graduates did not fare well, just over a third (35%) were able to respond correctly to all three questions.
The survey reveals a scientific knowledge gap that is particularly distressing at a point when science literacy has become essential to participating in our democracy and supporting the economy. Recent debates over arsenic levels in drinking water, testing for salmonella in school lunches, oil-drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the Kyoto global warming agreement, as well as the California energy crisis, illustrate the type of science-based issues the country confronts every day.
"Not only is science changing dramatically, the challenges we face in our world are changing as well," says Patrick Kociolek, Curator and Executive Director of the California Academy of Sciences. "We are confronted with critical decisions on how to balance the needs of the environment with the need for continuing economic growth and prosperity, and how to meet the increasing need for reliable energy while protecting the nation's air, water, and land. Individuals need a basic grounding in science to be able to take part in the discussion of these issues. Without that knowledge, they can't participate in the democratic process and become alienated not only from the discussion, but from the community. The Academy has a profound responsibility to make reliable, accessible scientific information available to inform these deliberations and to help find sensitive and workable solutions to these pressing issues."
Who the Public Trusts to Provide Scientific Information
By giving the public the tools to evaluate scientific arguments, they gain a better ability to judge the trustworthiness of the information they hear. Such knowledge would help frame more open and productive discussions of difficult issues.
Public Expresses a Deep Desire to Learn
Large numbers of Americans say knowing more about science and the way it works would help them to:
The public strongly recognizes the ability of science to improve and enrich their lives, and demonstrates the belief that greater knowledge of science would help them be better parents, consumers, and citizens.
The Future Health of the Planet
But the public isn't sure what they can do to help. Only 23% feel very knowledgeable about environmental issues and only 1 in 5 (21%) feel very knowledgeable about what they can do personally to protect the natural world.
The Role of the California Academy of Sciences
Founded in 1853, the Academy is the only cultural institution in the United States that combines a major aquarium, planetarium, and a natural history museum. The Academy is also one of the country's premiere centers for research in the natural sciences. The Academy has a staff of 30 Ph.D.-level scientists - supported by more than 100 Research and Field Associates and over 300 Fellows - who launch dozens of expeditions each year to explore the natural world and discover more about our planet.
Given the high level of trust the public shows in information presented by scientists, the California Academy of Sciences has both an opportunity and a responsibility to interpret for the public the key scientific issues that are changing our world. In its new exhibitions and programs the Academy will use its extensive scientific expertise to bridge the scientific knowledge gap, provide reliable information to help the public understand conservation issues, reveal possible implications of human activities, and suggest positive steps for personal involvement.
The data was collected using a Random-Digit-Dial (RDD) methodology. As the name implies, the telephone numbers were generated completely at random, ensuring that all households with listed as well as unlisted numbers were included.