Tom Tritton Op-Ed in Atlanta Journal Constitution

February 2, 2011 - Atlanta

Americans' Scientific Knowledge Doesn't Have to Be Declining

By Thomas R. Tritton

Knowledge of general scientific matters, even among the well-educated, is dismayingly bleak. All the comparative evidence suggests that Americans know less and less about science, and news accounts abound that we increasingly, in some quarters of our society, reject science altogether.

National Science Board polls show that nearly a third of Americans are willing to admit they are poorly informed, and less than 15 percent feel they are well-informed about scientific subjects. Majorities in such surveys are familiar with basic facts such as the production of oxygen by plants and the path of the Earth around the sun. But only 10 percent can give an adequate definition of a molecule or confidently conclude whether atoms or electrons are larger. And, 41 percent believe astrology is “somewhat scientific,” a third think extraterrestrial spacecraft have visited Earth, and increasingly large numbers think the word “theory” when applied to evolution is a disdainful characterization.

Collectively, our young people are not doing better. In the 2006 Program for International Student Assessment, American 15-year-olds ranked 24th of 57 countries in science and 32nd in math. Right smack in the middle of the pack for students in developed countries. Not very distinguished, and no improvement nationally was seen in the recently released 2010 survey.

That said, high school students in Georgia, particularly African-Americans, are scoring better in science than any time in the state’s history. Data released in May 2010 from the Georgia High School Graduation Test shows that the percentage of rising seniors passing the science exam increased 88 percent to 90 percent in 2010. This is the first time in the state’s history that science scores have hit that mark. Additionally, the findings point out that the percentage of African-American students passing the science test rose from 41 percent in 2003 to 79 percent in 2010. The difference equals nearly 20,000 students.

We can all learn something from Georgia. And, perhaps coming to the rescue of other states, the United Nations has deemed 2011 as the International Year of Chemistry. Anyone can partake in this yearlong celebration that features all manner of activities from the participatory to the cerebral.

The U.N. has been endorsing topical years regularly since 1959. The U.N. does this to draw attention to major issues. I think there is an even better reason: Focusing a large number of people’s attention to a single subject encourages learning about new things, exchanging ideas in unfamiliar territory, and raising the general level of thoughtful engagement with the world.

Chemistry is at the heart of solving many of our most daunting problems—imagining new medicines, inventing useful materials and technologies, sustaining food production, creating innovative energy sources. Chemists—scientists of all variety who work with molecules—are doing these things whether or not the general public is aware or interested. But having widespread citizen interest is uplifting for scientists laboring diligently in laboratories, and public engagement produces more informed decisions on matters of public policy.

Thomas R. Tritton is president of the Chemical Heritage Foundation.



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