Is Science Winning the Knowledge War?

Posted March 13, 2009

I followed a link posted by a fellow skeptic today and was particularly disturbed to discover how little American adults know about the world. According to a survey by the California Academy of Sciences last December, it is very little indeed.

  • 53% of adults surveyed knew how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the sun.
  • 59% of adults surveyed knew that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
  • 47% of adults surveyed could roughly approximate te percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered in water. (It’s ~71%; the range considered correct was 65-75%)
  • 21% of adults answered all three correctly.

However, in a search for the original study I discovered that this survey was also conducted in 2001, with slightly different results. The proportions were 53%, 42%, 48%, and 19%, respectively. We seem to be gaining some ground and the big change can be seen in the number who understand that man and dino did not share stomping grounds.

Could this reflect changing religious views?

The recently released American Religious Identification Survey, like the other survey, was also conducted in 2001, allowing us to compare the same time period. The proportion of Americans Non-Catholic Christians, a group which includes those most likely to reject evolution in favor of a young-Earth creationist view, claimed approximately 52.2% of the U.S. population in 2001, but dropped to 50.9% last year. Although this is not as sharp of a decline as in the previous decade (60% in 1990), it is significant. In contrast, the proportion claiming no religion has increased from 14.1% in 2001 to 15% last year (8.2% in 1990). Approximately 12.3% express beliefs consistent with agnostic or atheist definitions.

I must admit that I am surprised about these numbers. It has seemed to me that the Intelligent Design movement has gained a large number of supporters in recent years, and it has. However, it has not kept up with population growth. It is clear that my casual observations were biased.

The correlation between knowledge and belief seen here here could be spurious, but the finding is encouraging nonetheless.

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