Americans want science done, but can’t name any scientists or places where science is done

A poll conducted last year and just now released by Research!America and Zogby Analytics (full results here; Zogby summary here) shows how abysmally ignorant Americans are about science, even though they trust scientists and think scientific research is important.  Here, for example, are some statistics and graphs:

Fewer than 1 in 5 Americans can name a single living scientist, while 81% are stymied. Moreover, some of the living scientists named are either science popularizers and not scientists (e.g., Bill Nye), used to be scientists but are now science popularizers (Neil deGrasse Tyson, who hasn’t published a paper in ten years), or have long ago stopped doing science (J. D. Watson). Look and weep:

I’m not a sports fan, but I can name a lot of athletes (living and inactive or active)—even though I’m a scientist! I can also name entertainers! What is going on here?

Further, only a third of Americans can name any institution (including companies and universities), where “medical or health research is conducted”.  People should know that virtually every large university, including state universities, have people doing such research. Look and weep:

 

 

Only one out of five Americans know that medical research is conducted in all 50 states. 29% say “nope”, and half of them say they’re “not sure”. Look and weep:

Despite this, 80% (43% + 37%) of Americans think that the President should assign a high priority to putting health research and innovation to work.  Clearly, Americans don’t know scientists or where science is done, but they seem to think that high-priority science involves “health research”, despite the fact that many medical advances come out of pure “non-health” research and that the intellectual benefits of science go beyond simply improving the health of Americans.

There are other results as well, including that more Americans have a “lot” of confidence in the military (37%) than in scientific institutions (25%). That disturbs me; what would engender such a low level of confidence in scientific institutions? (If you add up “a lot” and “some”, the military comes up with 75%, science with 71%.) But most Americans still consider scientists—as opposed to “health care professionals”, journalists, or “elected officials”—to be the most trustworthy spokespeople for science:

Well, to a scientist this is all pretty depressing. I guess that since most people are more interested in sports and entertainment than science, and see only the spokespeople for science in the media, it’s no surprise that they can’t name anybody other than popularizes and spokespeople. What frightens me is that only one in five Americans can name a single scientist. I’m sure a lot higher percentage of them can name an athlete or an entertainer.  And why don’t Americans know that virtually every decent university, including the state universities of all 50 states, are sites for scientific and health-related research? Do they have no idea where research is done?

My own popularization of science involves teaching people about evolution, but it doesn’t tell people where research is done or name many scientists. I’m torn between adding snippets of that to some talks, or leaving it alone because I’m already speaking to people who know this.  But I still think that the 19% figure is abysmal and embarrassing to Americans. Should we worry about it? If so, what should we do?

 

53 Comments

  1. Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:13 pm | Permalink

    It is sad, indeed. On the bright side, everyone in my family and all my friends can name at least one scientist. :-/

  2. Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

    And why don’t Americans know that virtually every decent university, including the state universities of all 50 states, are sites for scientific and health-related research?

    Many Brits are similar in that they assume that universities are for teaching undergrads (true, of course, and that’s how the public mostly interact with them), but aren’t that aware of the research side.

    Many people assume that outside of university semesters we’re all on holiday.

  3. Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    Depressing, agreed, but it is a product of our culture. From kindergarten on, we are inundated with images and stories of athletes and media stars while the nerds head off to medical and graduate school. A glance through the local paper demonstrates that plenty of ink is used to cover sports and entertainment with only an occasional drop used for science. Ditto for TV. Throw in the dismissal of science by many politicians, and the data are not too surprising. I would wager that a lot of folks know who Sheldon Cooper is, but have no clue what Francis Collins does.

  4. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    Brainstorm :

    Scientific literacy is non-trivial.

    Chomsky has bemoaned how people can be highly sophisticated with regard to sports statistics but somehow that sophistication is lost when the subject is other things.

    Health research has a “but what’s in it for me” factor.

    Scientists paid by the US government could be considered public servants.

    Something compels me to suggest Kurt Andersen’s book “Fantasyland” as some reading material.

    Now I’ve rambled.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

      Oh also

      Sports, movies, music can be consumed on a basis that require zero literacy. Cooking requires more scientific literacy than sports even by the participants.

      • Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:27 am | Permalink

        “Sports, movies, music can be consumed on a basis that require zero literacy.”

        I understand where you are coming from here, but the above statement is not exactly true (unless you meant ‘science literacy’, but even still, that wouldn’t be accurate for all movies). Many movies require (or at least would be more appreciated with) a more sophisticated understanding/literacy of history, science, and language (among other things). Sports require an understanding of the rules, at least in order to fully appreciate the game. Something similar could be said about music.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:37 am | Permalink

          Thank you

          I got this notion from Andersen’s book

          It’s interesting to think about

          It’s hard to distil into a pithy comment here

          I’m still mulling it over – probably will for a long time…

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

          … perhaps because one needs only to listen to words being spoken, look at images of objects moving around, …

          I’ll be looking up the definition of “literacy” when I get a round tuit.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted January 12, 2018 at 9:12 am | Permalink

          I apologize for the scatterbrained responses here but that life

          I’d say again that sports/movies/etc. require zero literacy with the emphasis that it doesn’t mean literacy can’t have any influence. I only mean that entry-level literacy is zero.

          For instance the entry-level literacy for being a book fan is, by definition, greater than zero…

    • Mark R.
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

      I’ll be reading that next…

  5. Liz
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:29 pm | Permalink

    “Should we worry about it? If so, what should we do?”

    Yes. It’s something to worry about. Maybe make a popular movie about evolution. Sort of like Apollo 13 but about evolution. Have scientists checking everything to make sure it’s accurate.

    • Liz
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

      I think cooperation between scientists and science communicators is very important. Some scientists are able to communicate to the public easily and well and some do well with “translators” if that’s the best word. I personally loved science writing in a class I took once and in an internship I did. I’m not a scientist but I loved that translation part. After moving from MA after many years of living there, I took a job babysitting, swearing to myself I would do that until I found something in medical, technical, or science writing. Reluctantly, I interviewed for a job I had no interest in and got it. A promotion/job change, six years later, and much, much wiser in many aspects of my life, science communication is so far off my radar. When I went back to go and find the one mentor I did have with the internship, I found she had eventually passed away from breast cancer at 38.

      What else did I learn? Mentors are extremely important. If you are interested in communicating science and have people interested in doing it, collaboration, mentoring, listening, talking to, and connecting with those interested people is going to be important.

      I think it is also important to focus on communicating science successfully without necessarily bringing in the religion/god conversation. (Although sometimes when talking about religion, evolution does come up. I usually go off of my notes from a class I took in college.) Challenging people about religion and communicating science are two different endeavors with different approaches to lead to successful outcomes. That’s what I think anyway. That’s from my experience.

  6. Randall Schenck
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:32 pm | Permalink

    It is sad, but not really surprising that science and basic understanding of it is not something the general public knows anything about. It is not stressed in school or given high priority in the lower grades. How many years of science are even required to get out of high school? Probably different depending on what state you are in, which is another big problem in this country. There are no standards.

    There is also no respect for teachers or the institutions of education. If we respect teachers why do they get such low pay? Look at what just happened down in Louisiana. A teacher was dragged out of a meeting with the Superintendent and arrested. The boss had just received a $38,000 raise. All she wanted to know what why the teachers had not gotten a raise in years.

    Most people walking down the street could not give you a definition of evolution or ever heard of Darwin. The ones who do know are the ones who don’t believe in it because g*d has another story for them.

    It is all sad but not surprising. And nothing will be done as long as we have republicans in charge.

  7. Eric Grobler
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    If anyone is interested there is a channel with in depth interviews with some great scientists like:
    Hans Bethe, EO Wilson, John Wheeler, Jeremy Bernstein, Antony Hewish, Sydney Brenner, Freeman Dyson and Watson.

  8. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Remember : science is hard :

    https://www.theonion.com/national-science-foundation-science-hard-1819566466

  9. alexandra Moffat
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    Primary education is partly to blame. Certainly by 6,7,8 grades and HS, more science could be taught, more deeply. Let’s not forget that the people who elected trump & Co were mostly educated in the US public school system- in which there are I am sure many fine teachers. But too often low standards. Could it be possible that religion is responsible for some of the dismal answers? Also – social media?
    I thank the U of Chicago for the Science Survey courses that were required of undergraduates many years ago. We had six hour exams so must have had to know something!

    • Harrison
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:26 pm | Permalink

      I would say the problem in grade school is not simply “not enough science being taught” but that it’s mainly taught as a series of bullet point facts, with only the occasional bit of context given to explain how and when someone figured it out, like Mendel’s pea plants.

      • Posted January 12, 2018 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

        Right – I wish, actually, that more *scientific method* was taught, for example.

        I didn’t really learn any in school, and I did up to undergraduate science courses in a variety of disciplines, too. I learned from watching how my father (a chemist) did things, for example.

  10. Al
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:17 pm | Permalink

    Somewhat ironically, I think Americans not being able to name a living scientist shows how much progress there has been in science. Obviously, most Americans are not scientists so the only exposure to science they had must have been in school. The fact is that scientific knowledge is so vast that you can fill a school curriculum with scientific discoveries that happened, say, before 1960 and that would still be more than enough for most people to live their lives. Of course, the scientists whose discoveries happened by 1960 are by now almost all dead. I am sure most Americans can name the great dead scientists like Newton, Einstein, Darwin.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted January 12, 2018 at 1:01 am | Permalink

      That thought crossed my mind too. Almost all the scientists (and mathematicians – the boundary is fuzzy) whose names spring to mind – Euler, Poincare, Liebnitz, Priestley, yadda yadda – are long since dead.

      Incidentally, the article – or the headline – seems to conflate ‘health research’ with ‘science’. Not quite the same thing – places where science is done? What immediately comes to mind is MIT, Cal Tech, Bell Labs (if they still operate) …

      cr

  11. Desnes Diev
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    At least, nobody seems to have named Chopra or any other promoter of pseudoscience as a living scientist.

    On the first graph, does “Me” code for “Jerry Coyne”? (Just kidding.)

    • crf
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Indeed, I’m amazed Dr. Oz, research cardiologist, didn’t make the list.

  12. Mark R.
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    In asking if Trump should assign a high priority to health research etc., why is the number of ‘not sure’ so high? ‘Not sure’ to me is a true sign of ignorance. So basically 20% of Americans don’t care about medical research. Man, that’s depressing.

    And Trump is supposed to have his first physical coming up. I read that he already waved the “mental fitness” part of the exam. This is absurd, and pretty much should tell the world that he indeed has a mental fitness problem. As far as I know, for anyone over 66 there is a battery of standard cognitive tests that are recommended by physicians. It’s extremely dangerous that a man who can start a nuclear holocaust on a whim can exclude himself from being mentally evaluated. Especially when this person has shown ample proof that something is not right up there.

    • Randall Schenck
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

      Oh, he already took the mental fitness part. It is all included in the book, Fire and Fury. He also gave all of us a taste who watched any of his televised meeting in the white house yesterday on DACA. He was in full agreement with whoever spoke last.

  13. Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

    Great post. Nye is an engineer, America. Let’s get that one straight.

    I do like that scientists are most trusted, if only by attrition.

    And I dare ask what the poll would have revealed if someone knows a very stable genius before 2018.

  14. Rita
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    This article by Victor Stenger appeared in Huffpo in 2014 (before huffpo went off the rails): https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/science-is-politics_b_5399724.html

    • Liz
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 2:29 pm | Permalink

      “Certainly scientists must do a better job in communicating science to the public in a way that’s understandable and not full of equations and other technicalities.”

  15. Craw
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 1:53 pm | Permalink

    Dissenting opinion: not so worrying (caveat below).

    It means science is accepted as a normal, routine, good thing. One day you might need a heart by-pass. Can you name a heart by-pass surgeon? Can you name where he works? I needed eye surgery. I couldn’t name a single eye surgeon (and my surgery was done under a general in a specialty facility not a hospital).

    My caveat is the 18% not so trustful. That’s rather high. But compare it to any other group. And there have been some cases of fraudulent science, right? Vaccines-autism is one example. Some people will naturally over estimate the extent because of the media play.

  16. Veroxitati
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

    Not sure what the position may be in the States but here in the UK one will not get far browsing through a decent bookstore before encountering popularisers such as Dawkins, Greene, Cox, Hawkins, Krause, Kaku etc. I must assume a lot of Americans never enter a bookstore or even leisurely voyage down the great online River.

  17. gluonspring
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 2:28 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think it’s terribly relevant that people can name a living scientist. Science already suffers in the public imagination from the impression that scientific advances come entirely from a few giants. Among the people who know who Newton is, for example, most are under the impression that we would have remained ignorant of calculus and mechanics for another two hundred years if he hadn’t been born. Similarly for Darwin, or Einstein, or Watson. The credit that rightly accrues to these names obscures the fact that if they’d been hit by a bus (or wagon) that history would only be slightly different, that the time was ripe and others were in the wings ready to give birth to these same advances.

    It does seem very relevant that people know where science is performed and by whom. Knowing that university professors don’t just teach undergrads but spend the bulk of their time doing research is a fundamental bit of understanding about how the world works that every citizen in a state with state funded universities should know.

  18. Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:12 pm | Permalink

    On the other hand, how many janitors, firemen, etc. can you name? I don’t know any by name, though I can say with some confidence that they exist in all 50 states.

    • Thanny
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

      Or garbage collectors. All people doing what everyone would agree is important work.

      I doubt anyone knows where the local sewage treatment plants, landfills, etc. are, either.

      Scientists aren’t celebrities. Their job isn’t being in the limelight, like performers or professional sports players.

      Science popularizers may be celebrities, but it’s not because of any science they’re doing.

  19. Steve Pollard
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:14 pm | Permalink

    I wonder how many scientists can hold down a full-time academic post and still have the time (and the ability, a non-trivial qualification) to communicate their science effectively to laypeople. In the UK, for instance, Brian Cox is a charismatic advocate for science, and still manages to pursue his academic career; but I don’t think there are too many scientists with both skill sets.

    Having said that, the BBC has a good record of pulling in practising scientists to talk about their specialist subjects with authority and clarity – although, sadly, much more often on serious radio than on popular TV.

    • Posted January 11, 2018 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

      +1

    • Posted January 12, 2018 at 4:05 am | Permalink

      “Having said that, the BBC has a good record of pulling in practising scientists to talk about their specialist subjects with authority and clarity – although, sadly, much more often on serious radio than on popular TV.”

      And even on serious radio — and I assume you mean BBC Radio 4 here — the arts and humanities get far more air time than science, which in the current schedule has one 30-minute weekly slot, “Science Now” at 16:30 on Thursdays. I don’t really count “The Infinite Monkey Cage”, a 30-minute slot at 16:30 on Mondays, which is more of a science-themed comedy show.

      BBC TV used to have a decent science documentary series called Horizon which looked at real research, but it’s been dumbed down considerably since its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s.

  20. Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:31 pm | Permalink

    This is a title from Nature:
    Chemists go green to make better blue jeans
    An environmentally friendly way to dye denim could usher in a long-overdue new fashion.

    Unless this was coming out of a mouth of a top fashion designer of the day, who the f**k cares, just planet friendly people?
    By the time any one realises science had a role, it is just a back story and has little to do on how sexy my arse looks when i look in the mirror.
    This, to my mind, is where science falls in the modern world, it’s as if the high tech phones we shove in our environmentally friendly jean pocket all invented themselves.
    Won’t even go into medicine, we are a short span, does it work? can i eat it? primate.

  21. Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    Well, at least my graduate alma mater came second among places where medical research is done.

  22. Posted January 11, 2018 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Love you, mostly, USA, but packed my bags and moved to Germany.

    Cowardly maybe, but we have one life live. Forgive me.

  23. Michael Fisher
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    The figures are probably worse than shown since the questions are too long winded for an accurate survey to be possible!

    I’m not concerned that the U.S. public doesn’t particularly recognise living scientists – in fact I’d rather Michio “go-to-talking-head-with scientist-hair” Kaku got LESS than his 2%. He’s the Bono-sticks-his-nose-in of the science world!

    Hawking is famous for his ALS survival, wheelchair, Dalek voice, some book from years ago that nobody has read and of course The Simpsons [multiple], Futurama [multiple], Family Guy [multiple], Big Bang Theory [multiple], Star Trek [multiple], Stargate Atlantis [twice?], Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, Conan, Seinfield [multiple mentions], The Colbert Report [multiple “Stephen Hawking Is Such An A-hole”], Discovery Channel & so on

    NdeGT is famous for waistcoats, being cuddly & smiley & a media presence that almost rivals that of Hawking

    A world survey of the public understanding of base scientific concepts would be more interesting.

    • nicky
      Posted January 11, 2018 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

      Basic understanding indeed. I read a survey a while ago where a substantial number of people didn’t even know what a year was.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted January 11, 2018 at 10:28 pm | Permalink

        Back in the 2010s I used to take my neighbour Betty Harmer [RIP 2nd January 2014 aged 96 years] shopping at the supermarket & after the checkout we’d hit the cafe for afternoon tea as we cooled our dogs ~ we’d sit in the picture window & people-watch.

        One time we were sat there & it was an unusually windless day, gloriously azure blue summer sky with fluffy, white clouds criss-crossed by jet contrails [near BHX]. She pointed at a particularly straight contrail that started at the horizon & appeared to go vertically upwards – we could see the glint of the plane itself around 70 degrees above the horizon crawling ‘up’ the sky as it flew straight towards us. She commented that “aeroplanes” didn’t do that in her day – she was convinced the plane was flying vertically & felt very sorry for the passengers having to endure that. I couldn’t convince her it was a perspective illusion – she was a world traveller by boat & plane from the 1950s to the 80s – also a keen sketcher & painter. In her mental space she didn’t grok perspective & this wasn’t an age-related thing – her excellent, vibrant landscapes from her post-war Kenya days had a flat quality like modernist art – just regions of uniform colour. She was a ‘people person’ with a lot of insights into human interactions, a deep love of nature [plant laboratory technician during WWII], but utterly uninterested in how inanimate ‘things’ worked. Other notable, extensive [sometimes dangerous] blind spots to do with the mechanics of our world. We are all blind in our individual ways of course!

  24. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted January 11, 2018 at 6:50 pm | Permalink

    I’m massively more aware of astronomy than any other science, but even I know that every University-affiliated hospital in the world is doing medical research.

  25. Posted January 12, 2018 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    Maybe I’m alone here, but I don’t think it is a tragedy that people can’t name “scientists”. As a (soon to be) science teacher, my priority is to teach students how to think “like a scientist.” That is, I’m mostly concerned that students learn to become curious, can think critically/skeptically, and can develop an understanding of the scientific method. While I will certainly mention to students famous scientists and give credit where credit is due, I will not put much emphasis on ensuring that my students know who Mendel, Hooke, or even Darwin was.

    Also, I think a problem with this survey is how the general public thinks of the word “scientist.” In fact, what does being a scientist mean? Does it mean you have a Ph D? Does it mean you do research? Do you have to be in the natural sciences (biology, physics, chemistry) to be considered a scientist? How about a psychologist? A sociologist? A historian? I’m not so sure we have a very clear definition when we talk about scientists. I think most people when asked “name a current scientist” would scramble to think of someone famous. They probably wouldn’t realize that they could simply name a professor that they had in college.

    Finally, I think we need to at least expand the definition of a “scientist” to someone is extremely knowledgeable in his/her subject and has contributed knowledge to his/her subject. I think we are being nit-picky if we don’t consider Neil Tyson a scientist.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted January 12, 2018 at 9:03 am | Permalink

      I still think everyone in the world is orders of magnitude more of a scientist than everyone in the world 1000 years ago. They’d have to be, just to get through the day.

      Then there is the mundane discrepancy between that and “professional scientist”.

      So I think it’s a matter of showing how we are already scientific about certain things…

    • Dani
      Posted January 13, 2018 at 6:13 am | Permalink

      These are good points. I don’t feel so worried about people not knowing scientists names as well. I think if I weren’t a university student, I wouldn’t be able to name scientists as well. I guess that it is because when it cames to sports and entertainment you see the same person participating in important games and movies a series of times. And science is slow and involves a group of researchers, so it is hard to find one scientist that engages in such sucessful and important research that he is always in the media. So basically only science divulgators (who I agree are scientists) will be on the media.The same goes for other areas such as architeture and engineer, people from the area will know the name of great professionals, but we won’t, and they also do important work.

      • Dani
        Posted January 13, 2018 at 6:19 am | Permalink

        important is not a good word…but I hope you can get my point…

  26. Posted January 12, 2018 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    Athletes and actors have publicists and whole TV networks for displaying their work. I have often advised people who complain about their “press coverage” that they have to “feed the beast,” by providing human interest stories, audience appropriate writing, “what if” stories. Look at the coverage technologists get (Elon Musk, Mark Gutenberg, etc.). They have publicists.

    Is anyone doing this for scientist? Maybe a few university professors could start feeding the beast, or a science society could take it on as part of its mission.

  27. mirandaga
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 12:20 pm | Permalink

    “What’s going on here?”

    What’s going on here is hardly surprising and perhaps desirable. Science has always subordinated individual scientists to the scientific method, eschewing any cult of personality. The rhetoric of science is that there is no scientist—and by extension, that there is no rhetoric.

    The fortress of objectivity that science has built is specifically designed to eliminate a subject, just as the style of scientific prose is designed to obfuscate the fact that human beings were involved in its composition. You won’t find any “I” and seldom any “we.” What you will find is a colorless progression of abstracts, methods, results, and interpretation—always presented in the passive voice. Instead of “we recommend” you’ll find “it is recommended.” The intended message is that there’s no agent responsible for these findings; they might have well just fallen out of the sky.

    This is an illusion, of course, but one that science has taken great pains to perpetuate. Given all this it is, as I say, hardly surprising that people can’t single out individual scientists. That’s the way science wants it.

    • Liz
      Posted January 12, 2018 at 3:22 pm | Permalink

      This is so well stated.

  28. Posted January 12, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

    I am thrilled and honored to live less than an hour away from the marvelous lectures and presentations put on by Fermilab.

  29. jaxkayaker
    Posted January 12, 2018 at 9:33 pm | Permalink

    Others may have already said this and possibly more pithily, but I’m less concerned that people don’t know where science is being done or the names of any scientists than with the fact that they’re so abysmally ignorant of scientific conclusions, and scientific and rational thought processes.

  30. Posted February 2, 2018 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    I join these who think that results are not discouraging. Americans trust science, not the widely touted “alternative ways of knowing”. It matters little that most do not know names of scientists or where exactly science is done.


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