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Is That A Fact?

Human - Dinosaur Coexistence?

The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.

Until recently it would not have occurred to me to include such a statement in a list of possible facts.  However, after reading a news release from the National Science Foundation (NSF) on its survey of public attitudes from the Science and Engineering Indicators, I was shocked to learn that nearly one half of adult Americans (49%) believe it to be true.  Since evolutionary evidence (from the fossil record and DNA studies) clearly shows that dinosaurs died out about 66 million years ago, and modern humans did not appear until approximately 120,000 years ago, this is a startling misconception.  But it is not the only one.  Only 45% know that antibiotics do not kill viruses, and 49% that it takes a year for the Earth to make one circuit around the Sun.  Two thirds fail to know that the universe began with a huge explosion (the so-called Big Bang).  When we are asked to define scientific and technical terms in our own words, we do even worse.  Only 29% could adequately explain DNA, 16% the Internet, 13% a molecule, and 11% radiation.  On the other hand, 93% knew that cigarette smoking causes lung cancer, 85% that the oxygen we breathe comes from plants, 81% that the center of the earth is very hot, 75% that light travels faster than sound, and 72% that the Earth goes around the Sun. (Addendum 6-6-02: the 2002 Indicators have been released; and the news is, for the most part, only incrementally better.)

In April 2001, the California Academy of Sciences reported the results of its poll on the scientific knowledge of the American public.  As you'll see, it confirms the NSF results described above.

It does not appear that things will improve anytime soon.  On May 24, 2006, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reported that only 18% of high school seniors are proficient in science; and only half demonstrated a basic grasp of scientific information.  Click here for the NAEP data page.

Scientific illiteracy has social and political consequences too.  George Dvorsky identifies some of them in his essay, Scientific Ignorance Dooms Democracy.

To illustrate the vast span of evolutionary time between dinosaurs and humans, let your students work out a "calendar" from the activity Putting Time in Perspective.  When the scale is 230 million years (the approximate time since dinosaurs appeared on Earth), the dinosaur die off occurs on September 17 at 3:01:33 pm (66.4 million years ago); while modern humans appear on December 31 at 7:25:46 pm (120,000 years ago).  When the scale is 4.5 billion years (the approximate geologic age of the Earth), dinosaurs appear on December 13 at 8:16 am (230 million years ago).  They die off on December 26 at 2:44:28 pm (66.4 million years ago).  Humans appear on December 31 at 11:45:59 pm (120,000 years ago).  The closest known relative of humans (and all other modern mammals) alive at the time of the dinosaur die off was a small, furry, rodent-like animal about the size of a rat.

Should you and your students want to explore an elegant, rich and understandable explanation of the scientific evidence for human evolution, go to Becoming Human, an incredible web site created by Donald Johanson's Institute of Human Origins.  Short of actually participating in an archaeological dig, I can think of no better introduction to this field of knowledge.  You can also read an announcement for the site, published in The Chronicle of Higher Education.  Also, if you'd like to read a clear response to creationist arguments, see John Rennie's 15 Answers to Creationist Nonsense (Scientific American, July 2002).

In April 2004, the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology put up Understanding Evolution: an evolution web site for teachers.  Whatever time you can devote to exploring it will be very well spent.

The National Science Foundation's Science and Engineering Indicators has many parts.  Here are relevant links to those from the most recent survey.

Appendix table 8-9 (which is in PDF format) shows the questions asked in the survey and the responses broken down by overall educational attainment, level of science and math education, gender, and attentiveness to science or technology.  (The equivalent table in the 2002 edition is Appendix 7-10.)

The authors' explanation of the results from the survey questions reported in Appendix table 8-9.  (Here is the authors' explanation from the 2002 report.)

Not everybody believes that results like those from the Science and Engineering Indicators survey actually demonstrate scientific illiteracy.  Click here to read why.

So what do we need to know, and when do we need to know it?  

The National Academy Press has published the National Science Education Standards as a model for individual teachers, and for use by state and local school boards.  Reading them is the best place I know of to begin the search for an answer.

Project 2061 of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) has published Science for All Americans, "a set of  recommendations on what understandings and ways of thinking are essential for all citizens in a world shaped by science and technology."  It too is worthy of your time.  As are their reviews of science and math textbooks.

Project 2061's reviews show that textbooks are often part of the problem.  A rigorous examination of 12 middle school physical science textbooks was published in 2001.  In an article summarizing his findings, John L. Hubisz, author of the study done under the auspices of the American Association of Physics Teachers (which also produces a great web site for science teachers - the Physical Sciences Resource Center), writes as follows, "What I found was horrifying: None of the books - not a single one - was deemed adequate by nine primary reviewers and a host of other experts who offered comments. Each contained hundreds of factual errors, as well as experiments that couldn't possibly work and diagrams and drawings that represented impossible situations. .... Our students, this country's future, must learn how to raise questions like, How do we know ... ? Why do we believe ... ? What is the evidence for ... ? Our current crop of textbooks teaches them only that such questions can be answered incorrectly, and that no one seems to mind."  He is not alone in his critique.  Here is another man's list of some of the misconceptions perpetuated by science textbooks.

If you want background or suggestions for teaching evolution, don't miss the UC Berkeley Museum of Paleontology's Understanding Evolution: an evolution web site for teachers.  Whatever time you can devote to exploring it will be very well spent.

It might also help if more of us kept track of what was going on in the scientific community.  A good way to start is by looking regularly at the science news sites to which I've set up links.  Another would be to consider the efforts of Lucy Shapiro, as well as those of the late Carl Sagan.

Writing for the non-scientists among us

Individuals and society pay a high price when education fails to take root.  In February 2001, the Washington Post published an article documenting some of the costs of innumeracy's revenge.

There are many very good books that clearly explain ideas in modern science and the consequences of scientific illiteracy.  Here are some with which to begin.  Clicking on a title will open a new window to that book's page at Amazon.com.  Several of the books have excerpts available for reading.  If available, I have included links to them below.

Bad Astronomy: Misconceptions and Misuses Revealed, from Astrology to the Moon Landing "Hoax"
by Philip C. Plait
Paperback: 288 pages; 1st edition (March 1, 2002)
Publisher: John Wiley & Sons
ISBN: 0471409766

Read an excerpt from the book.

Visit Plait's BAD Astronomy web site.

Sleeping with Extra-Terrestrials : The Rise of Irrationalism and Perils of Piety
by Wendy Kaminer
Hardcover - 278 pages (October 1999) 
Pantheon Books; ISBN: 067944243X

Click here to read a review by physicist Robert Park.

Read an excerpt from the book.

The Demon-Haunted World : Science As a Candle in the Dark 
by Carl Sagan
Paperback - 457 pages Reprint edition (March 1997) 
Ballantine Books (Trd Pap); ISBN: 0345409469

View excerpts from the book.

Did Adam and Eve Have Navels? : Discourses on Reflexology, Numerology, Urine Therapy, and Other Dubious Subjects
by Martin Gardner
Hardcover - 320 pages (October 2000) 
W.W. Norton & Company; ISBN: 0393049639 

View excerpts from the book.

The Whole Shebang : A State-Of-The-Universe(s) Report
by Timothy Ferris
Paperback - 393 pages Reprint edition (July 1998) 
Touchstone Books; ISBN: 0684838613

View excerpts from the book.

Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos : The Story of the Scientific Quest for the Secret of the Universe
by Dennis Overbye
Paperback - 464 pages 1st Back b edition (November 1999) 
Little Brown & Co (Pap); ISBN: 0316648965

View excerpts from the book.

How to Think About Weird Things : Critical Thinking for a New Age
by Theodore Schick and Lewis Vaughn
Paperback - 368 pages 4th edition (August 2004) 
Mayfield Publishing Company; ISBN: 007287953X

View excerpts from the book.

Tower of Babel : The Evidence Against the New Creationism
by Robert T. Pennock
Paperback - 456 pages Reprint edition (April 2000) 
MIT Press; ISBN: 0262661659

View excerpts from the book.

Darwin's Dangerous Idea : Evolution and the Meanings of Life 
by Daniel Clement Dennett
Paperback - 672 pages Reprint edition (June 1996) 
Touchstone Books; ISBN: 068482471X

View excerpts from the book.

Why Things Bite Back : Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences 
by Edward Tenner 
Paperback - 368 pages Reprint edition (September 1997) 
Vintage Books; ISBN: 0679747567

Click here to read a review by James Trefil

View pages from the book.

Read David Gergen's interview with Edward Tenner on the NewsHour, September 5, 1996

More food for thought

For years, a relatively widespread conspiracy theory has claimed that NASA faked the Moon landings.  In July 1999 (the 30th anniversary of the first moon landing), the Gallup Organization asked adult Americans (ages 18+) if they believed that NASA had faked the moon landings; 6% responded, "Yes".  6% may seem like a small number, but given the size of the population of the U.S., it translates into more than 12 million people.  The Internet Archive has preserved the Gallup Poll results for posterity.

Gallup has also reported that only one third of Americans are aware that the Theory of Biological Evolution is both a theory and a fact.

Is it true that glaciers have been growing, not shrinking?

Finally, if you've ever wondered why it is that so many people believe so many irrational things, you must read, The Cell Phone Scare: when fear is the opponent, science doesn't stand a chance by Gary Taubes in the Nov/Dec 2000 issue of Technology Review.


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original web posting: Tuesday, July 4, 2000
last modified: Friday, April 10, 2009