47% of Americans need to be launched into a heliocentric orbit

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March 13 2009 8:16 PM

47% of Americans need to be launched into a heliocentric orbit

Sigh. I should be surprised by stuff like this, but the most damning thing about it is that I'm not surprised.

Only 53% of adult Americans know it takes the Earth a year to go around the Sun. The reason it's not surprising to me is that that's how many Americans couldn't ask Oprah or Dr. Phil about it first.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death from the Skies! Follow him on Twitter.

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This is the result of a survey done by the California Academy of Sciences. The other results aren't a whole lot more encouraging. What slays me is that the vast majority of Americans think that science is important to their lives:

Despite this lack of knowledge, U.S. adults do believe that scientific research and education are important. About 4 in 5 adults think science education is "absolutely essential" or "very important" to the U.S. healthcare system (86%), the U.S. global reputation (79%), and the U.S. economy (77%).

I guess that's a start; at least people know it's important. The thing is, they don't act like it! Just knowing science is critical hardly matters if people don't a) understand it, and b) vote about it.

And it's not like this is new. I have a book called Worlds Apart (available as a free PDF from The First Amendment Center, and well worth reading if you're as concerned about this as I am), loaded with studies that have pretty much the same results as this recent survey, except this book came out more than ten years ago. Nothing has changed, really, and I suspect nothing will for a long time. The system is broken, we're not teaching our kids good science, and how to fix it is a mystery. I think a lot of what we're doing is right -- science is exciting, and a lot of outreach does a good job of showing that -- but somewhere in our educational system the ball is being dropped. People have devoted their careers to studying this, and I wonder how much closer we are to a solution.

I honestly don't know. I don't mean to be bleak or anything here, but I know there are no quick solutions. But I'm not even sure we have a slow one. Obama has talked about overhauling the educational system, but I'll believe that when I see it. The last overhaul -- No Child Left Behind -- is an unmitigated disaster, which was no surprise to those of us in the education field when it passed. I'd love to see that torn down first, but what to build in its place?

I wonder if there are people out there with the right ideas, something that we can implement to mitigate this. I suppose that's a rhetorical question, but with surveys like this showing we're not getting any better, it's an increasingly important one.