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June 16th: Education, Illiteracy, and Hoaxes, Oh My!

Date: June 16, 2010

Title: Education, Illiteracy, and Hoaxes, Oh My!


Podcaster: Emily Temple-Wood

Links: http://www.calacademy.org/newsroom/releases/2009/scientific_literacy.php

Description: Astronomy education, scientific illiteracy, and various astronomical hoaxes are all commonplace in America today. Education in astronomy can be lackluster, and one of the world’s largest countries has shockingly low understanding of basic astronomical facts. Unfortunately, this leads to the propagation of hoaxes (2012, anyone?) that can be difficult to shake. It’s also not an American problem – scientific illiteracy is spreading worldwide. Why is this happening, why is this such a big deal, and is there any hope for the future?

Bio: Emily is a high school student from Illinois who loves astronomy and plans to be a physicist.

Today’s sponsor: This episode of “365 Days of Astronomy” is sponsored by Angela Johnson Meszaros. Happy birthday, Maximilian. Wow—this is your seventh trip around the sun. How cool is that!

Additional sponsorship for this episode of 365 Days of Astronomy is provided by Chuck McCorvey.


This is the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast for June 16, 2010. My name is Emily Temple-Wood, and I’m a high school student from Illinois. Today, I’m going to be talking about one of the more insidious problems facing the global community: scientific illiteracy, which is defined as an inability to understand rudimentary science, such as that in a newspaper science section.

On the surface, it doesn’t seem to be a big deal – there are far greater problems in the world. Like crazy dictators and oil spills. Nevertheless, citizens of any country, big or small, should know the basics of science, from chemistry to, yes, astronomy. Students from most every country in the world are expected to learn the basics of astronomy – the structure of the solar system and universe, the workings of gravity, etcetera. Some countries do better than others, though. Here in the United States, the GED, a high school diploma equivalent, has a science section composed of 45% life sciences, 35% physical sciences, and 20% earth and space sciences – astronomy falls into the last category. The standardized tests that allocate funds to schools focus on reading and mathematics, so the sciences, astronomy included, often only appear as “flavor text”. The Advanced Placement program, often representative of a school’s higher level coursework, does not have an astronomy test or an earth science test, just a physics test that asks questions about the laws of gravitation and basic nuclear physics. In the United Kingdom, the upper-level physics programs are along the same lines, but they feature quite a bit more astronomy.

The question we need to be asking isn’t if students are being taught the basics of astronomy, because they clearly are. The relevant question is if students are retaining this knowledge, and unfortunately, the answer seems to be no.

One study by the California Academy of Sciences found that only 53% of American adults knew how long it took the Earth to orbit the Sun. This is bad enough, but Michigan State University professor Jon Miller found in his own study that less than a third of American adults understood DNA to be integral in heredity, that about 10% knew what radiation was, and a shocking 20% thought that the Sun went around the Earth, not the other way around. His ultimate conclusion? About 28% of American adults are scientifically illiterate. Other countries fare no better – Professor Miller estimates similar numbers for Europe and Japan.

This is a big deal! Science education exists for a reason: so that each successive generation doesn’t have to rediscover the heliocentric solar system, along with everything else we’ve learned since Aristotle. Our scientific knowledge is our collective legacy, the inheritance that we leave to our children. We can’t afford to lose it.

It’s also true that in the short term, scientific illiteracy isn’t particularly problematic. There are bigger things to worry about – wars, shortages, economic troubles. However, science has the potential to alleviate some of these problems, if only citizens of the world’s countries understood it! Astronomy gives us the entire aerospace industry, which provides money for countries’ GDPs and jobs for workers all over the world. We wouldn’t have those jobs or that money if people didn’t understand astronomy.

A lack of astronomy education also causes widespread hysteria about the end of the world on a regular basis. Hoaxes occur across all disciplines, causing panic, but astronomy is a common culprit, particularly because people don’t understand it. Take, for example, the 2012 hoax. It contains pretty much every astronomical misconception ever elucidated in a doomsday prediction: magnetic pole reversal, black holes, planetary alignments, the sunspot cycle, star formation, Kepler’s laws, brown dwarfs, outer solar system objects, and the list goes on. Granted, some of these concepts take a bit of thinking, but it’s not terribly complicated. A little common sense and a quick read of Phil Plait’s Bad Astronomy would set anyone straight. 2012 isn’t the only one, though, astronomical doomsday predictions have been around since people have been looking up.

My point here is that astronomy education, and science education in general, is important for both the high-minded, romantic reasons, and the practical, pragmatic reasons.

But I’ve painted a pretty dire picture. Is there any hope for the future? Fortunately, the answer is yes. Our good friend Dr. Miller reported that the number of scientifically literate adults rose by 10% in about 20 years. We must be doing something right! Also, though the rise of the internet has given a voice to crazy doomsday prophets, it’s also given a voice to reasonable, articulate science educators who refute spurious claims and set the public straight.

So, what can you do? For starters, make sure you’re scientifically literate. Read the science section of a newspaper like the New York Times. Look up anything unfamiliar. Educate yourself. The world will be better for it.
Thank you for listening to the 365 Days of Astronomy podcast.

End of podcast:

365 Days of Astronomy
The 365 Days of Astronomy Podcast is produced by the Astrosphere New Media Association. Audio post-production by Preston Gibson. Bandwidth donated by libsyn.com and wizzard media. Web design by Clockwork Active Media Systems. You may reproduce and distribute this audio for non-commercial purposes. Please consider supporting the podcast with a few dollars (or Euros!). Visit us on the web at 365DaysOfAstronomy.org or email us at info@365DaysOfAstronomy.org. Until tomorrow…goodbye.

2 Responses to “June 16th: Education, Illiteracy, and Hoaxes, Oh My!”

  1. Gronk says:

    Congratulations, Emily – you should be very very proud of what you have produced here.
    The problem of scientific illiteracy is equally prevalent here in Australia, and it is perplexing when you look at how fundamental science and engineering are to peoples’ everyday lives.

  2. Herman says:

    “About 28% of American adults are scientifically illiterate.”

    Sadly, this is exactly backwards. In truth, only about 28% of adults in the US are science literate. There are several references on the ‘net to corroborate this fact. Here is but one example:

    Many more can be found by using the search parameters, “science literacy 28%”.

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