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Americans Are Dinosaurs When It Comes to Science, Survey Finds

Education: Many think man and T.Rex coexisted. To more than half, DNA and molecules are mysteries. Comedians love the material.


NEW YORK — Can a nation debate the merits of cloning when fewer than half its adults can give a decent definition of DNA?

Can it render good judgment on genetically engineered food when only a quarter can define a molecule?

And can Americans assess competing medical claims when only a third show a good understanding of the scientific process?

Experts see cause for concern in the latest report card on American scientific understanding. But they aren't surprised.

Like many people, Shirley M. Malcom, head of education for the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science, has seen "Tonight" show host Jay Leno's quizzes of people on the street.


Leno: "Where would you find chlorophyll?"

Dante from Michigan: "Probably in your toilet."

(Correct answer: In plants.)


Leno broke the news about the new study to his audience last month:

"Here's something shocking. According to a study by the National Science Foundation, 70% of Americans do not understand science. Here's the sad part: 30% don't even know what 70% means."

That second statistic is only a joke. But the foundation did report that a survey of American adults turned up low numbers like these:

* 45% could define "DNA," the substance carrying the inherited genetic code.

* 22% could define "molecule," the basic unit of a chemical compound.

* 48% knew electrons are smaller than atoms.

* 48% knew it's not true that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs and humans missed each other by some 60 million years. But "we're interviewing people on the phone who grew up watching 'Flintstones,' " said Melissa Pollak, senior analyst at the foundation.

Only about one-third showed a good understanding of the scientific process, including ideas about probability and how to do an experiment.

Americans did better on some other questions. Ninety-four percent knew cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, for example, and about three-quarters knew that some radioactivity is naturally produced, that continents are moving and that light travels faster than sound.

The survey's margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points.

In its current form, the survey has been given every two years since 1979 and overall the results haven't changed much, Pollak said.

"It's discouraging," she said. "We'd hope people would know more than they seem to know about some basic science facts and concepts."

If it's any consolation, the United States did slightly better than 14 other industrialized countries in the early 1990s, ranking about equal to Denmark and the Netherlands, Pollak said. Her quick look at new survey data suggests this country is still somewhat ahead, she said.

But some see reason for hope in survey results over the years. Jon Miller of Northwestern University, who directed the survey from 1979 to '99, has his own index of scientific literacy. It includes an understanding of scientific process plus vocabulary.

By that gauge, "the trend in the last decade has been very encouraging," he said, with science literacy growing from 10% in 1988 to 17% in 1999. He hasn't calculated the number for the new survey.


Leno: "What keeps the Earth orbiting around the sun?"

Sarah from Cleveland: "The gravitational pull ... of the moon."

(Correct answer: The gravitational pull of the sun.)


What bothers Pollak the most is the finding that only about a third of adults showed a good understanding of the scientific process.

"This is where science can benefit people in their daily lives," Pollak said. People get bombarded with claims by psychics and medical quacks, she said, and if they don't understand about critical thinking and scientific evidence, they can waste time and money.

That understanding also helps citizens confront scientific political issues where the media are often content to present both sides of an argument, no matter which side has better evidence, said Malcom of the AAAS.

There's another related concern. How will the United States provide a sufficient supply of qualified workers for careers in science and technology? Nowadays, the nation is leaning heavily on foreigners.

"We could not function in our government laboratories, in our academic laboratories and in our industrial laboratories without these workers," says William Haseltine, chief executive officer of Human Genome Sciences Inc. "I would guess we would drop in productivity by about 50% or more.... We simply don't train enough [American] people."

The science foundation reports that as of 1999, about a quarter of all U.S. workers holding a doctorate in science or engineering were foreign-born.

For computer science and engineering doctorates, about 45% were foreign-born, and for biological sciences, 27%.

Some observers are queasy about the future supply of foreign expertise.

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