Perhaps the only positive note that can be sounded on the Australian science literacy survey results, released on Wednesday by the Australian Academy of Science (AAS), is they are somewhat better than those from a similar study done in the US.
The Australian survey involved 1,515 respondents segmented and weighted to be nationally representative of the country’s population by gender, age and residential location, and asked a handful of questions on basic science.
It is similar to an AAS survey conducted in Australia in 2010 and was based on a 2009 survey conducted in the US by the California Academy of Sciences (which was obtained by the present authors from the CAS).
The questions in both countries included the following:
- How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun?
- Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
- What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered with water?
- What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water?
- Do you think evolution is occurring?
- Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species?
- In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?
How Australians fared
Some 59% of those questioned responded correctly that Earth takes a year to orbit the sun, while some 30% responded it takes only a day.
Newspapers and radio commentators had a field day pointing out that the percentage of right answers to this question actually declined from the 2010 Australian survey, in which 61% of respondents got the right answer. Although, in fairness, the accuracy of the results, at an overall level, is listed on the AAS website as “+/- 2.5%”, which must be taken into account.
What is slightly concerning, in terms of overall trends, is that the greatest drop in correct answers occurred among the youngest respondents (aged 18-24 years), which from 74% correct in 2010 to only 62% in 2013.
Is it possible a similar decline happened in the US over the corresponding time period? We don’t know. But we do know the percentage of Americans surveyed who knew the answer to the Earth/sun question in 2009 was 53% – a truly dismal figure for a nation that fancies itself as the world’s high-technology powerhouse.
For Question 2 (Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs), 73% of Australians questioned for the latest survey knew this was false, a small increase from 70% in 2010; and maybe there is some room for optimism here, as a higher percentage of those aged between 18 and 24 years (80%) knew the correct answer.
How Americans fared
Only 59% knew the statement in Question 2 (The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs) was false, which gives Australia a clear lead in this regard.
Just 39% of Australians correctly stated the percentage of Earth’s surface covered by water, the subject of Question 3, is 70%, compared with 42% of Americans.
But the multiple choices provided for this question in the Australian survey differed from those in the US version. The Australian survey included 70% and 71-80% as two separate possible answers, whereas the US survey incorporated the correct answer into the broader option 70-79%. If we include the proportion of Australians who answered 71-80%, the percentage of respondents who answered “correctly” (when compared with the parameters given in the American survey) increases to 73%.
Question 4 (What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water?) proved - quite understandably - to be the most difficult of the lot. Only 9% of Australians gave the correct percentage (3%). The remaining responses ranged rather widely between 0% and 100%. By comparison, only 1% of Americans knew the correct answer.
Australians did much better on the questions about evolution (Do you think evolution is occurring? and Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species?). Some 70% acknowledged (correctly) that evolution is occurring (but 9% said they do not believe in evolution, and 10% said it’s not occurring).
And 73% of Australians correctly agreed humans are influencing the evolution of other species. The corresponding US percentages on these two questions are 62% and 70%.
Along this line, according to a 2009 poll by the National Center for Science Education in the US, 39% of Americans think Earth, the sun, moon, stars, plants, animals and the first two people were created in the past 10,000 years.
Finally, responding to Question 7 (In your opinion, how important is science education to the Australian economy?) 81% of Australian men and 78% of Australian women agree that science education is absolutely essential to the future of the Australian economy.
In the 2009 US survey:
- 86% of respondents thought science education was essential or very important to the US healthcare system
- 79% agreed that it was essential or very important for America’s global reputation
- 77% thought it was essential or very important for the US economy.
Of course, there’s more that one way to read the results of the latest Australian survey, and the validity of its questions and approach, as argued earlier this week on The Conversation.
But assuming both the Australian and US versions reveal, in some broad sense, an underlying trend, the results make for grim reading.
A version of this article appeared on Math Drudge.
Further reading: Australians seem to be getting dumber – but does it matter?