Are Australians Really Getting Dumber?

The Australian Academy of Science has found that when it comes to science Australians are getting dumber in its latest report on science literacy. Compared to three years ago, less people in Australia know that the Earth’s orbit of the sun takes one year. Among 18-24 year olds 62% surveyed knew the correct answer, a fall from 74% three years ago. Other results would also send scientists into a tail spin of despair, with 27% of respondents saying that the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs, though an improvement from 30% of respondents in 2010 who thought this.

What does this all say? If you take the face value of the press release and the ensuing media coverage, Australians are getting dumber. I’m a scientist who dedicates a significant proportion of time to science outreach activities and announcements like this get sent my way. They get sent my way not because I moonlight as a science journalist but because people genuinely want to know what I think and feel about such a survey. I suspect what they really want to know is whether I feel I have wasted my time.

Here is my honest answer: There ought to be no panicking and nor should there be any despair of the results. This survey does not reflect science literacy in Australia.

This survey is asks these six questions of people:

  1. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun?
  2. Is the following statement true or false? The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.
  3. What percentage of the Earth’s surface is covered by water?
  4. What percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water?
  5. Do you think that evolution is occurring?
  6. Do you think that humans are influencing the evolution of other species?

The results of the answers of these six questions is what science literacy in Australia is measured against by the Australian Academy of Science. These questions are an exercise in recall. Some facts are bigger than others and are covered with more significance in the Australian Science Curriculum that is currently being rolled out across the nation. A curriculum I would like to point out that is formed from the basis of previous curricula from the states and territories of Australia. It is freely available to anyone who would like to see what some are demanding more science content in but not stating specifics as to what. More focus is not a sufficient demand.

As a scientist sitting here typing this article, I could not tell you what percentage of the Earth’s water is fresh water. I certainly hope no one expects me to know this fact. I have memories of teachers stating the number but I can’t recall it. Instead what I do remember from those lessons is that fresh water is rare and that it is precious and that it should not be wasted. Which is the more important science lesson?

I will go further and make a confession as a chemist. I cannot recall the first 20 elements of the Periodic Table. I know that hydrogen and helium are the first two elements and that’s where my recall is. However, place me in a chemistry lab, I can perform all manner of inorganic and wet chemical analysis. I know chemistry so well that I can tutor the subject so well that a C-grade student can become an A-grade student who no longer needs tutoring. I am not just imparting chemical knowledge but also the skills of lifelong learning and an appreciation for the reasons behind chemical relationships.

Science is so much more than recalling factoids. The only use factoid recall will ever have is winning a quiz. It won’t even guarantee you an A in an examination. The vast majority of reporting of results of this quiz has widened the divide between the scientific community and everyone else. Going on the attack labelling Australians for not only being illiterate in science but also assuming that they did nothing to improve the results three years since the last survey is not being inclusive in the lead up to National Science Week. It is frustrating to witness this communication gaffe.

I doubt many scientists or even Nobel Science Laureates could score 100% in the survey questions without any assistance. Does this diminish their ability as a scientist? Would you dare to question their interest and curiosity of science? I don’t think anyone would.

What is science? I have heard it described as a common sense approach to finding out why things work. It is also about discovering new understandings of accepted scientific understanding. It is about communicating with other people interested in the same part of the world that you are. It is about being able to gather information and use evidence to form a hypothesis for testing. It is also about telling the world about why you see the way something is based on the evidence in front of you. It is also an ability to accept new ideas when the evidence presents itself. It is also a skill to recognise when something is not what you thought it was.

Science is so many things. The practicing of observing events objectively and requiring evidence to form a conclusion is something that takes place in every science classroom in Australia. This underpins so many areas in life that require analysis. In this election year, I hope that eligible voters in Australia remember the skills of observation and reasoning from science lessons rather than factoids. It is the former that will allow them to discuss policies and make decisions.

It is time that the Australian public is given credit where credit is due. I spend time reading the comments left on news articles dealing with contentious issues like vaccination and climate change. Despite the overwhelming scientific evidence, there are people that will argue against conventional knowledge under the guises of skepticism or conscientious objection. Time and time again there are Australians who are non-scientists engaging with the discussion to explain what the scientific evidence means.

Additionally there are numerous citizen science projects dotted around the nation with armies of volunteers who don’t hold a science degree collecting and processing data for scientists to analyse. Take the time to talk to these volunteers and you will find that they are an incredible asset to Australia. They know the finer details of their local environment and add so much value to the numbers being collected.

The survey by the Australian Academy of Science does not highlight these sorts of activity and does a disservice announcing Australians to be dumber. When it comes to science literacy discussion in Australia I would like to see something more than press releases on six question survey that tests memory recall. My description of science makes it hard to measure and define because science is a combination of particular skills and understanding and the application of them. It is time that due respect be given to this and change measurement methods to reflect this if we want meaningful data about Australian science literacy.

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Cite this article:
Lum M (2013-07-23 00:00:27). Are Australians Really Getting Dumber?. Australian Science. Retrieved: Jun 17, 2024, from