Flunking science

U.S. adults flunk a basic science test given by the California Academy of Sciences:

* Only 53% of adults know how long it takes for the Earth to revolve around the Sun.
* Only 59% of adults know that the earliest humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time.
* Only 47% of adults can roughly approximate the percent of the Earth’s surface that is covered with water.*
* Only 21% of adults answered all three questions correctly.

Less than 1 percent of U.S. adults know what percent of the planet’s water is fresh. Count me among the 99 percent.  (The correct answer is 3 percent).

Some four in five adults say science education is “absolutely essential” or “very important” to the U.S.

About Joanne


  1. The humans/dinosaurs question is a little tricky because I think there are a sizable number of people who know that scientists would say humans and dinosaurs did not live at the same time, but who disagree for religious reasons. (They felt the need to make their own museum for that reason.) Maybe it’s worth including them in the survey anyway, but it might mean you can’t directly compare it to the other questions.

  2. Donalbain says:

    Being wrong is being wrong, even if you are wrong for religious reasons.

  3. Physics Teacher says:

    You mean the various arts and crafts projects they do nowadays in schools don’t help?

    You mean people don’t learn anything when they’re deciding what font to use for their Einstein poster?


  4. Doug Sundseth says:

    “Being wrong is being wrong, even if you are wrong for religious reasons.”

    ‘God the deceiver” is not a falsifiable proposition. As Wolfgang Pauli said, “It’s not even wrong.*”

    * Hmm, are quotes really appropriate for translations? I know they’re traditional, but there’s a fairly significant philosophical problem there.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    So are adults dumb or did schools do a lousy job?
    Seems to me the implication of the test is that adults are dumb because they haven’t picked this stuff up on their own.
    So what we need is more money for schools.
    Just for grins, see if you can get a McGuffey Reader from the library.

  6. I agree that a number of the questions on the quiz would be disputed by many Americans who take a literal reading of Genesis 1. I happen to personally believe in evolution, albeit a theistic version, but those questions are not good assessments of American’s scientific knowledge.

  7. Oops, that should be Americans’ scientific knowledge.

  8. So, was the “how long does it take the earth to revolve around the sun” question a trick, somehow? How do you get that wrong?

  9. Doug Sundseth says:

    Since the answer is 365 days(1), 366 days(2), 365.24 days (3), or 366.24 days (4), getting it wrong isn’t surprising. Add in the facts that rotation and revolution are easy to confuse, that people will often look for the trick in really simple questions (and sometimes find it even when it doesn’t exist), and that these responses are from people who have so little to do that they are willing to spend time answering a survey, and the result is even more understandable.

    (1) Solar days, common approximation
    (2) Sidereal days, nearest day
    (3) Solar days, close approximation
    (4) Sidereal days, close approximation

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    —or many of these factoids were learned long ago, and having very little use in day-to-day life have passed from immediate recall.

  11. Andy Freeman says:

    Umm, one year.

  12. “many of these factoids were learned long ago, and having very little use in day-to-day life have passed from immediate recall”…might be true of something like whether the world is 80% ocean or only 70% ocea..but the identity of the *year* and *the earth’s orbit around the sun* is pretty fundamental to one’s conceptual model of the universe.

  13. Apparently, “one year” was not one of the choices.

    Just goes to show one of the limited uses of multiple choice Joanne could have chosen to say “100% of test takers know the Earth’s revolution period to within a 99.99% accuracy rate” and still have been correct.

    Being a charter/voucher/standardized testing supporter she chose to phrase it differently

  14. Margo/Mom says:

    MiT (and david): I just checked the actual “test.” In fact it did include “one year” as one of the choices. Included in the others were 1 day (as well as, I believe, 1 week and 1 month). I would suppose that the most common wrong answer was 1 day and that a good number of folks who answered that did so because they didn’t read the question carefully.

    BTW–one of the additional questions on the test concerned evolution, whether it continues, and whether humans have affected the evolution of other species. Higher numbers of respondants are reported as answering those correctly.

  15. Mike in Texas says:


    I only looked at this 365 days(1), 366 days(2), 365.24 days (3), or 366.24 days (4) from another respondant, I should have looked at the actual test iself.

    My bad.

  16. Chartermom says:

    I design and analyze surveys for a living and this survey reeked of bias. To use it to prove scientific ignorance is disingenuous. I took the test also and there were only 6 questions, two of which pertained to evolution, one was close (humans and dinosaurs living at the same time), 2 concerned water and the last was the earth’s revolution around the sun. All questions were somewhat related to environmental science with other areas of science ignored. As pointed out earlier those that accept a strict biblical view of the world would fail this test quickly yet might be very scientifically literate in chemistry or other scientific field. They also may be literate on what science teaches but just choose not to believe it. You or I may disagree with them but it doesn’t prove they didn’t know what science claims. If the question had been phrased “According to the scientific theory of evolution………” then you’d have gotten a more accurate sense of knowledge of the science vs belief. I also sensed an ecological agenda of some sort.

  17. Margo/Mom says:

    CM–but wouldn’t you expect that the rate of correct responses on the dinosaur/man question to be similar to the ones on whether evolution continues today and whether man has an evolutionary effect on animals? They were not. I was surprised.

    But–I would agree that we don’t really know a whole lot from this sample of people who showed up at the web site and took the survey. (and I took it after having already seen some of the answers–still didn’t get the percentage of water right, although I was closer than I might have guessed otherwise)

  18. Donalbain says:

    I am shocked to keep seeing “biblical literalism” as an excuse for being wrong about something. If someone believes that man lived at the same time as dinosaurs, he is wrong. It matters not if he is wrong for religious reasons, or because his imaginary friend told him the answer, he is wrong.

    Just like someone who said that the earth is a circle, or that the earth has four corners is wrong. There is something very wrong with a science education that can excuse religious idiocy as being acceptable.

  19. Margo/Mom says:


    I agree–but that doesn’t seem to be the case here, as respondents correctly answered questions about the continuing existence of evolution, as well as the evolutionary impact of man on other species. So–these people weren’t wrong due to religious idiocy. Perhaps it was too many Flintstones cartoons.

  20. Donalbain- were you there at the time of the disputed events? If not, how do you know with 100% certainty that those with whom you disagree with are wrong?

    Now you and I and Margo/Mom can look at the evidence presented by scientists and find it to be more convincing than the alternative evidence of a literal reading of the Bible. But someone else may look at the same two arguments and find the latter more convincing. It is our prerogative to disagree, but there’s no need for namecalling.

  21. Donalbain says:

    Crimson Wife: Sorry, but “were you there” is the sort of argument only someone who recieved a poor science education would ask. I wasn’t there, but because of science, I don’t need to have been. We have literally tonnes of evidence to support evolutionary biology, and to reject that and say “But my magic book says otherwise” is tragically, fundamentally, inexcusably stupid.

    Margo/Mom: Oh, yes, I know there are lots of reasons for people to be wrong about it. My point was that it was sad to see people defend the incorrect people based on religion. I think it is sad when evidence and reality are trumped and we have to go all relativist and say “well, they may be wrong, but it is their religion and we should respect that.” I wouldnt respect the wrong answer from a kid on a history test who had the religious belief that the world was created last Thursday and so the Reformation never happened.

  22. Doug Sundseth says:

    Sorry, but “God created the world last Thursday, including all the evidence you use for its longer existence” is simply not falsifiable. That I find it unlikely (to say the least) doesn’t change that. That is precisely what is meant by, “It’s not even wrong.”

    That said, when you take a class in history, one of the unstated assumptions is that you will buy into (or at least act as if you will buy into) the idea that the historical record as we understand it has some understandable and discoverable relationship to the actual history. The same would apply if you were to take a job as a company historian (or whatever).

    If somebody random calls you up while you are making dinner and wants to take up your time with intrusive questions about history, however, there should be no assumption that you have the same worldview.

    But, that said, I don’t think that possibility has much to do with the issue here. Absent more evidence, I assume that the results are mostly a result of sampling error, stupidity, and possibly a significant number of respondents choosing the most entertaining answer out of perversity. (I include that last possibility because I find it personally attractive; if I didn’t just routinely hang up on surveyors, I’d probably do it myself.)

  23. Donalbain- as it so happens, I studied science at Stanford. Scientists cannot say that something is 100% certain unless it has been observed. The evolution of peppered moths in England from light to dark and now back to light again is a fact. Macroevolution of one species into another over millions of years is not a fact but a theory. A very well-supported theory, as you noted. But no human can say with 100% certainty that it is correct. The most we can say is that the best scientific evidence supports it.

  24. Donalbain says:

    We CAN however say that humans evolved well after dinosaurs. That is just a fact. Just as it is a fact that things are made of atoms and that electricity is the movement of electrons. Sorry, but excusing idiocy on the grounds of religion is even more idiotic.

  25. Doug Sundseth says:

    “We CAN however say that humans evolved well after dinosaurs.”

    We can say anything we like, as can anybody else.

    Being a bit more cooperative with what I understand you to mean, we can say that the available scientific evidence strongly supports the evolution of humans after dinosaurs (and most other sauropods) were no longer about. We can further say that there is no credible scientific evidence to contradict this theory. (I have said that or similar things at tedious length to real, live young-Earthers.)

    All of those statements only work within the framework of the scientific method, however. It happens that I find that framework quite useful, and haven’t found any evidence that would cause me to discard it (a recursive scientific method, I suppose). But that’s (at least largely) because I think that Occam’s/Ockham’s razor is a useful and intellectually satisfying philosophical tool.

    Discard that tool (which is not, and is not intended to be, falsifiable) and you are left with a more difficult philosophical dilemma. Many people do not believe (a judgment based on my observation of their actions) that truths (or “truths” if you prefer) revealed in sacred books need to be falsifiable to be credible or important. And given arbitrarily complex starting conditions, it is impossible to prove that the universe existed in the instant before you read this, much like it is impossible to prove anything about the existence of anything outside the memory of living beings or anything that has yet to happen.

    That said, I’m willing to bet quite large sums of money that the sun will rise tomorrow even though I won’t be able to prove it will until it has, because I assign a probability to that event high enough to be functionally indistinguishable from 1.

    As noted, I find the sort of arbitrary complexity required by young-Earth “theories” both inelegant and not useful, but that doesn’t make my preferred philosophy true, just often predictive and normally quite satisfying to me.

  26. Donalbain says:

    OK.. so how would you grade a student who said that there was no Holocaust and that you can only say there was one using a particular philosophical outlook.
    I am pretty sure that you would flunk such a student if they were sitting a 20th Century History exam.

  27. Unfortunately says:

    Wow this is a fun topic!

    A fair number of my middle school students can’t tell time or multiple single digit numbers.

    Science? Hahaha! I try to teach it, but…yeah.

  28. Doug Sundseth says:

    “…how would you grade a student who said that there was no Holocaust and that you can only say there was one using a particular philosophical outlook.”

    I refer you to a previous comment of mine in this thread:

    “That said, when you take a class in history, one of the unstated assumptions is that you will buy into (or at least act as if you will buy into) the idea that the historical record as we understand it has some understandable and discoverable relationship to the actual history.”

  29. Donalbain says:

    So, you agree that such a student would flunk and the excuse of “but it’s his religious belief” would have no traction whatsoever. Thank you.

  30. That the Holocaust happened is a fact, because it was observed. There’s a member of my mom’s church who is a survivor of Auschwitz who can testify to that effect, as can many others. We don’t have to rely on indirect evidence like paleontological records and DNA mutations. The interpretation of those can be disputed; albeit in the case of “Young Earth” Creationism, they’re often disputed through the invocation of supernatural events like Noah’s flood.

    Students cannot be required to hold any particular belief about the age of the Earth and the origins of species. They can, however, be required to know what the overwhelming majority of scientists believe about those two things. They should understand the theory of evolution but whether or not to personally accept it is their own business.

  31. Crimson: In addition, no form of Creationism I’ve ever heard of teaches that cavemen coexisted with dinosaurs.