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Many Americans can't answer science questions

Tuesday - 2/18/2014, 10:15am  ET

Jamie Slater, special to WTOP.com

WASHINGTON -- The percentage of Americans who believe astrology is a science has grown since 1983.

That number - 55 percent - is just one of several findings reported in a National Science Foundation survey released Friday.

Other interesting stats to come out of the study:

  • 24 percent of Americans believe the sun orbits the Earth (it doesn't);
  • 48 percent of Americans believe in evolution (although 72 percent know what it is.)

These findings are part of the NSF's attempt to determine public attitudes and understanding about science and technology, or S&T.

Although many of these percentages are lower than may be expected, they are much higher than in other countries around the world. In 2005, 66 percent of Europeans said they knew the Earth orbits the sun. Only South Korea reported higher percentages of knowledge - 86 percent on the sun question in 2004.

The reports shows that more Americans know antibiotics kill bacteria and that all radioactivity is man-made than residents in any other country.

Only 39 percent of Americans believe in the Big Bang, although this is a higher percentage than any other reported country except South Korea. But when Americans were asked, "According to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion," 60 percent agreed.

Overall, the average number of correct American answers on scientific questions is similar to that in Europe.

Where Americans fall especially behind is in understanding of environmental problems. Only 27 percent said they felt very confident about their understanding of such problems and their causes, which is the lowest of all other 31 reported countries except the Slovak Republic. The study showed similar results for understanding of the solutions to these problems, with only Russians feeling less confident of their knowledge.

Most Americans also believe the benefits of science outweigh its potential harms, with only 10 percent believing too much money is spent on research. Additionally, 60 percent of those surveyed support stem cell research.

Americans with higher degrees of education, especially in science and mathematics, understand more about science and technology and view it more optimistically.

"The pattern underscores the role of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in fostering public understanding of S&T," the study says.

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