Is the U.S. the Most Anti-science Country?

Its been a tough week for science in the U.S. from both the left and the right.  We’ve learned that vaccination rates against diseases like measles are lower in the U.S. than many poor third-world countries, with some of the richest and best-educated areas among the worst at vaccinating (Colorado, for instance, is #3 in percentage of college educated adults and #50 in measles vaccination rate, though that widely cited number is based on a very small survey, and Silicon Valley daycares have surprisingly low vaccination rates). We continue to have arguments over global warming (here in Boulder, a former President of the University of Colorado claimed that global warming was unlikely to be due to human activity, which elicited a response from the climate science community; contrast this with the pledge by the main three political parties in the UK to pursue policies to reduce carbon emissions regardless of the outcome of upcoming elections). And just to drive home the point and restore to prominence an older science belief controversy, when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker allowed himself to be interviewed while visiting Britain, he was asked if he believed in evolution; Walker said that he would “punt,” his non-answer (reinforced by a later press release) clearly attempting to avoid alienating a large fraction of his party’s faithful who will choose a presidential nominee next year (whether it was the fraction that doesn’t believe in evolution or the one that does is a bit unclear). (One can only hope that the NFL’s penetration into Britain is sufficient to avoid the impression that by “punting” he is gambling on evolution).  The BBC-employed moderator then noted that any British politician would have readily accepted evolution.

Sigh. We seem to like science except when it tells us ways to stay healthy, protect the planet, and combat evolving diseases.

Last year’s NSF science literacy report included the amazing number that a quarter of Americans think that the Earth does not orbit the Sun (perhaps even more distressing: more than 10% of those with advanced degrees think the Sun orbits the Earth; you have to drill down into the appendices to find this). You can find several other depressing statistics in there (astrology as a science, for instance, is accepted as strongly scientific by 10% of Americans, and nearly half–and a quarter of those with graduate degrees–think it is at least somewhat scientific; in contrast, less than 20% of Chinese accept any of a number of fortune-telling devices and only 8% would believe horoscopes).

Well, on the bright side, the NSF report claimed that overall science literacy was comparable to Europe and better than much of the rest of the world, and Americans are more accepting of nuclear power and genetically modified organisms (though both of those issues are a risk-reward calculation and not really science literacy). In earth science, continental drift (plate tectonics–the question would apply to either) is understood to have happened by 83% of Americans. And roughly a third of respondents felt that more money should be spent on scientific research.


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