American Stupidity

(without permission)Associated Press

Friday, May 24, 1996

WASHINGTON - Less than half of American adults understand that the Earth orbits the sun yearly, according to a basic science survey. Despite flubbing such questions, there is enthusiasm for research -except in some fields such as genetic engineering and nuclear power that are viewed with suspicion.

Only about 25% of American adults got passing grades in a survey by the National Science Foundation of what people know about basic science and economics. Even fewer of those surveyed felt they were well-informed about technical subjects.

The worst showing came when those surveyed were asked to define scientific terms. Only about 9% knew what a molecule was, and only 21% could define DNA.

But even more fundamental questions stumped man: Less than 1/2 knew that the Earth orbits the sun annually. In a test of environmental understanding, 1/3 of Americans surveyed understood the effects of a thinning ozone layer, 14% could identify locations of ozone holes, and only 5% could give a scientific explanation of acid rain.

Even money questions stumped most Americans. A 10-point quiz on economics showed that only 22% could correctly answer 7 or more of the questions. "Only 10% feel feel very well informed about science and technology, and studies show that only a small segment of the population has a strong grasp of basic scientific ideas," according to a report released yesterday by the foundation. On a 10-part quiz testing scientific understanding, only 27% of the American adults surveyed could answer 7 or more questions.

Despite a fundamental lack of understanding, the survey found that 72% of American adults think science research is worthwhile. Only 13% took the opposite view. Among college graduates, 90% thought the benefits of research outweighed the risks, while only 48% of those who did not complete high school felt that way. The survey, however, found many Americans fearful of some aspects of science. Support for nuclear power was about evenly split, with 43% saying its benefits were greater than its risks, and 42% taking an opposite view; 14% were uncertain. Genetic engineering fared only slightly better. 43% saw it as beneficial, but 35% said the dangers outweigh benefits. About 20% were undecided. Medical discoveries were rated the most interesting science topics in 69% of those who took the survey. Space exploration scored the lowest - just 25%. About 40% of those surveyed expressed high confidence in scientists and medical workers. The rating was only 25% for leaders in education, religion, and corporations.


1. The center of the earth is very hot. (True/false)

2. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants (true/false)

3. Electrons are smaller than atoms (true/false)

4. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (true/false)

5. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (true/false)

6. The earliest human beings lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (true/false)

7. Which travels faster: light or sound?

8. How long does it take for Earth to go around the sun: one day / one month / or one year?

9. Tell me, in your own words, what is DNA?

10. Tell me, in your own words, what is a molecule?


Answers, along with the percentage of correct responses:

1. True - 78% 2. True - 85% 3. True - 44% 4. True - 79% 5. True - 44% 6. False - 48% 7. light - 75% 8. one year - 47% 9. DNA, or deoxyribonucleic acid, is a large molecule in the chromosomes which contain the genetic information for each cell. 21% 10. Molecule is the smallest unit of a chemical compound capable of existing independently while retaining the properties of the original substance. 9%