Friday, November 20, 2009

The State of Science

“More than half of the Canarians and almost half of the Austurians
think the Sun revolves around the Earth.”
This popped up in my inbox first thing this AM. At first I thought it was from a Spanish equivalent of The Onion, but looking around a bit more on the internet, turns out that it’s true.

The meat of the article comes from a study published by the Spanish Federation for Science and Technology in which they performed a survey of the population’s basic scientific knowledge. The questions were presented in true-false format and the results are shown below. (The original information is all Spanish, so I took the liberty of translating it to English…)

The study goes on to show that the results are “worse” among the older and immigrant populations. And why?

The issue of immigration seems an easy one to decipher. Many immigrants, particularly those arriving from Africa (many of whom arrive in the Canary Islands), come from countries with far lower standards for education and greatly increased indices of illiteracy (like the 60% illiteracy in Senegal, almost 50% in Morroco and 30% in Algeria). It should be no surprise, then, that there levels of science education are far below Western standards.

The age issue is an interesting one. There is a significant population in Spain whose education was cut short at an early age due to the economic difficulties in the post-war era and the need to make money. It’s not uncommon to find people my father-in-law’s age (65+) who left school at 13 to begin working. For that reason, is it really surprising that the percentage of right answers from people over 65 drops nearly 20 points? What is even more interesting is that the number of people who said, “Don’t know,” skyrockets. Among younger generations it might be harder to find people who will admit that they don’t know the answer to such a simple question. The older people, however, have a darn good excuse for not knowing and many of them simply aren’t ashamed of the fact. That was the way life was.

These two populations are unique to Spain (immigration of course occurs elsewhere in the world, but among the major European countries, only Germany has a higher total immigrant population). And their existence perhaps gives some indication of how Spain might compare with the rest of Europe.

Turns out someone’s already done the comparison. The European Commission requested a special Eurobarometer on Science and Technology to compare the results of the same survey in different countries.

As you can see, Spain (ES) brings up the rear, “beating out” only Greece, Lithuania, Portugal, Latvia, Romania, Cyprus, Bulgaria and Turkey (that’s a rank of 24/32). Oh, yeah, and remember that immigrant population in Spain? Two of the other biggies in the influx to Spain are Romania and Bulgaria.

But in the end, what does it matter? Is it really important if people don’t know how the solar system works or that people didn’t ever hunt dinosaurs? There are two specific reasons why it makes a difference – one affecting Spain and the other relevant worldwide.

Spain and the Spanish people suffer from a minor inferiority complex. Perhaps it’s a justified one as they seem to be the red-headed stepchild on so many occasions – getting left out of the G20, losing miserably in Eurovision, etc. So many people consider then the “last” of the five big European powers – after France, Germany, England, and Italy. They’re more backwoodsy and outdated. A poor showing on the education front does nothing to stop those stereotypes. If Spain could pull itself up 5-10 points they’d be up there with the big dogs and finally get some good international press…

The other issue that comes to mind from all of this data is applicable worldwide. Over the past few years issues of a scientific nature have become far more prevalent in the political circle. In the States evolution is a big one. Both there and here in Europe the issues of stem-cell research and genetically-engineered food are growing in importance. So on a regular basis normal citizens are asked for their opinions on major scientific advances and their legality. How are people expected to make an informed, intelligent decision about such issues when their understanding of some basic scientific facts is virtually nonexistent? Clearly dinosaurs and the solar system are not likely to show up on the ballots, but the fact of the matter is that a lack of understanding of such basic knowledge is almost certainly indicative of a far larger problem. And there’s no denying the voters make uninformed decisions all of the time. But, it’s probably safe to say that the majority of the time someone who doesn’t understand an issue is likely to vote it down. Better safe than sorry, right? If schools (and society) could bring that basic level up to a reasonable standard, giving people a greater understanding of science in general, perhaps the population would even begin to show an interest in learning more about those hot-button issues before voting.

En fin. On the surface it’s more of the same – people are more ignorant than we would like to believe. But when you delve a bit more into the problem it’s an eye-opening study on the gap that exists in Spain and many other European countries (and probably in the States – I’d love to see the results of a similar study there) in terms of science understanding. And with the current state of the world, science simply cannot be left behind.

1 comment:

Caleb said...

So what is the Spanish equivalent to the Onion? Or did I miss it in your post?