Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Science Literacy Falling

By Ian Lowe

It’s little wonder that climate change science is misunderstood when nearly one-third of Australians believe that the Earth takes only a day to orbit the Sun.

The results of the latest survey on science literacy in Australia make depressing reading. The percentage of adults who know that the Earth takes a year to go round the Sun has fallen further since the previous survey 3 years ago. Only about 60% of Australians know that basic fact, while 30% think it takes 1 day for us to orbit the Sun.

It is unsurprising that younger people and graduates are more likely to know how long it takes to go around the Sun than older people and those with only school education – although it is the sort of thing that is in everybody’s basic science at school. In my age group, those over 65, only 46% knew the right answer, with an incredible 41% opting for 1 day.

The most worrying feature of the survey was that the greatest drop in the percentage getting the right answer was in the youngest age group, 18 to 24. Whereas 74% knew the answer in 2010, only 63% did this year.

The responses to other questions are no more reassuring. Only 9% know that the share of the Earth’s water that is fresh is about 3%, compared with 13% getting that right 3 years ago. Most people either over-estimate the amount of fresh water (50%) or just don’t know (25%).

About 70% of Australians think that evolution is still occurring, but about 10% don’t think it is, while about 10% say they don’t believe in evolution and about 10% say that they aren’t sure.

In similar terms, 73% accept that humans are influencing the evolution of other species, but the remainder either aren’t sure, don’t believe in evolution or don’t think humans are affecting it. While the better educated are more likely to understand evolution and our role in it, the greatest fall in knowledge was among young people. And while there has been a slight drop in the number who think that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, it is still nearly 30%.

So I don’t suppose we should be surprised by the failure of many people to understand the complexity of climate change when nearly one-third think that we orbit the Sun every day and a similar fraction think we co-existed with dinosaurs.

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The change in the Prime Ministership has put the response to climate change back on the agenda for the 2013 election. Whereas Julia Gillard was not saying very much about her government’s response package, probably because it allowed the Opposition to accuse her of having broken faith with the electorate, Kevin Rudd announced a significant change that put the Opposition on the back foot. The shift from a fixed price to an emissions trading scheme was due to occur in 2015, but Rudd has brought the change forward to 2014.

A significant share of the resulting Budget shortfall has been found from current subsidies for fossil fuel supply and use, the fringe benefits tax concessions for car use and the hand-outs to coal-fired power stations. But some of the savings have come from cuts in other climate change response measures like the biodiversity fund and the carbon farming initiative, opening the government to criticism from the Greens.

Opposition leader Tony Abbott seemed to panic when deprived of his long-standing line of attack on the government for introducing a “carbon tax”. Even though the fixed price did not produce his threatened “wrecking ball to the economy”, he was scoring political points by blaming it for the rising electricity charges.

His response to the early move to an emissions trading scheme was to belittle it as “a so-called market in the non-delivery of an invisible substance to no one”. Within minutes the web was alight with responses making the obvious points about oxygen being invisible but essential, carbon monoxide being invisible but lethal, and so on. And, of course, all futures trading is a market in invisible substances.

Are simple slogans supposed to appeal to the scientifically illiterate among the voters?

Ian Lowe is Emeritus Professor of science, technology and society at Griffith University.