Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Australia’s Scientific Illiteracy

By Stephen Luntz

A study of the public’s understanding of science has revealed how little many Australians know about the basics.

The most positive spin that the authors could put on their findings was that we were doing better than Americans.

The Federation of Australian Scientific and Technological Societies and the Australian Academy of Science polled 1515 people in July. Among their findings were:

• almost one-third believed that humans and dinosaurs coexisted;

• one-quarter did not think that humans were influencing the evolution of other species; and

• 39% did not know that it takes a year for the Earth to orbit the Sun.

Not surprisingly, the proportion of those answering questions correctly fell once one moved away from primary school science. Three-quarters of the respondents believed that more than 4% of the Earth’s water is fresh.

Two encouraging signs were that younger Australians scored better than older participants, and that the idea of science education was valued, even by those who lacked it themselves. Asked how important science education was to the Australian economy, 42% said “absolutely essential” and 38% “very important”.

Interestingly, people older than 65 placed a higher value on science eduction, with 50% considering it absolutely essential even though their answers revealed that their own education in this area was lacking.

Not surprisingly, having spent more years in education improves the likelihood that people would answer correctly, but it is not a panacea. Only 72% of those with a university education knew that the Earth takes 1 year to orbit the Sun.

“I think we all accept that a basic knowledge of science is essential for understanding the world around us,” says Scienceworks Manager Genevieve Fahey. “A science-illiterate society, on the other hand, will be seriously disadvantaged when it comes to making informed decisions around pressing issues such as climate change, water management and renewable energy.”

The recent federal election saw Labor commit to investing $21 million in programs to help scientists communicate their research, while the Coalition promised $16.7 million.