It May Be Time to Concede That There Is Such a Thing as Willful Ignorance

In 2012, the National Science Foundation conducted a public survey on basic knowledge of science, but the results were just released.

The survey tracked the answers provided by 2,200 randomly selected adults to ten true-or false questions. The item that has attracted the most media attention has been the stunning revelation that 26% of the respondents did not know that the Earth orbits around the sun.

Here are the other, often equally dismaying results:

16% did not know that the Earth core is hot;

17% did not know that the continents migrate because of plate tectonics;

17% did not know that a gene from the father determines a baby’s gender;

28% thought that all radioactivity is man-made;

49% did not know that antibiotics do not kill viruses;

47% did not know that electrons are smaller than atoms;

52% did not agree that human beings have evolved from other species of animals;

53% think that lasers produce energy through sound waves;

61% did not know that the prevailing explanation of the origin of the universe is that it started with an explosion.

If the survey had been a quiz, the mean score would have been about 65%.

Interestingly, 66% did not think that government should provide more support for scientific research. But 90% described themselves as being enthusiastic about science and science education.

These results cannot be blamed on science teachers or professors simply because anyone who has even casually read the daily newspaper or even watched television should know more than the respondents to this survey seem to know.

Hell, the opening theme of the very popular series The Big Bang Theory explains the show’s title and thus the origins of the universe.

Then again, perhaps the popularity of the show simply explains how 39% of those surveyed got that answer right.

4 thoughts on “It May Be Time to Concede That There Is Such a Thing as Willful Ignorance

  1. I consider myself to be above average intelligence. And I would have answered all the questions correctly. It is just beyond me that there are people that either didn’t learn or didn’t want to learn. There are lots of arguments either way, but needless to say most of this information would have been taught in elementary school. I am often offended at the way that things have to be “dumbed down”. It is just sad!

    • I’m very hesitant to attribute any of these results to the possibility that education at any level has been dumbed down.

      I am an English professor, and one of my two recurring nightmares is that I am taking calculus exam and might just as well be looking at a text not just in another language but in another alphabet.

      Yet, like you, I am certain that I would have scored 100% on this survey if it were presented as a quiz. Although several of the items might not be as obvious as the Earth’s orbiting the Sun, none of them can be described as a real brain-teaser.

      In fact, given that the questions were in a true-false format, it is even more mind-boggling that some of the results were so dismal.

  2. One must take into account the ability of the form of an answer to contribute strongly to its being answered right or wrong. For instance, consider two separate quizzes, with the first quiz having (1) on it, and the second quiz have (2) on it instead:

    1) True/False: Lasers produce energy by means of electromagnetic waves.

    2) True/False: Lasers produce energy by means of sound waves.

    I will hazard the guess that every person who would get the second quiz wrong would get the first quiz right.

    In other words: No one believes that lasers use sound waves; rather, many people know that lasers use “something scientific” and that “sound waves” are something scientific.

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