Americans: Almost as Dumb as the Rest of the World


To avoid the charge that I’m only ever saying disparaging things against conspiracy theorists and homeopaths, I can occasionally level a strike against the other side – the aggressive skeptics and science nerds who constantly wring their hands (often with a self righteous smirk) about the intelligence level of mainstream society in general and Americans in particular. And it’s always about general intelligence, ignoring the fact that there are multiple literacies. I know some very intelligent people who can’t spell, and I don’t feel like that counts as a strike against them. It’s not their field. I’m a writer, and I need a calculator to add numbers greater than one digit. (For single digits I can just use my fingers.)

So this article has been going around the social media as an example of how depressingly stupid everyone is. It’s The Atlantic reporting on the results of a survey conducted by the National Science Foundation which revealed, among other things, that “just 74 percent of Americans said that the Earth revolves around the sun.” How abysmal! But I’d like to take a more optimistic view and say that this actually kind of impresses me, and it wouldn’t really bother me if the number was a little lower. I’ll explain my heresy by going through the survey point by point:

1. The center of the earth is very hot

Correct answer: True

There’s no evidence of American bone-headedness straight off the bat. They’re about equal with Europe. I figure that the Earth being hot is probably one of the most widely accepted geological facts, on par with the Earth being round, simply because these are things that we never had to “discover” so much as we always knew. And make no mistake, the myth that we ever used to believe the Earth was flat is just that – a myth, arising from the assumption that ancient people were lunkheads who needed aliens to build the pyramids for them. We’ve always known that the Earth was a ball due to its movement among the cosmos, and we’ve always known that it was hot due to the fact that it occasionally vomits part of itself up and wipes out one of our entire civilizations. This is knowledge that predates religion (lakes of fire and brimstone, anyone?) so there’s no surprise here. The fact that 10-15% of people disagree doesn’t bother me. 10-15% of people think that the media is controlled by shape-shifting reptilians from a base on the moon. (As an aside, no, I can’t speculate about what the heck is going on with India and China, here.)

2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move

Correct answer: True

Here is one that actually quite impresses me, because I don’t necessarily expect that many people to know much about continental drift. Then again, though there were many theories about continental movement, there has never really been a strong push to accept any kind of static Earth model (since you know we saw that all the coastlines seem to match up like a jigsaw anyway) so maybe this one is mostly intuitive. I suspect that the sharp decline in places like Malaysia and India has a lot to do with large impoverished populations who have never seen a globe. Again, no shame on America here. But here come the interesting questions:

3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Correct answer: Earth around Sun


It’s the infamous Earth-Sun question that people have been getting on their high horse about. How can Americans be so stoopid? Well, even beyond the fact that America is still beating everyone except South Korea on this point, I’m going to argue that this is neither particularly surprising, nor a cause for alarm. Because what we’re starting to get into here is the realm of trivia.

I know what you’re thinking – pretty basic goddamn trivia, right? But when you think about it, people don’t answer this question wrong because there’s any significant geocentrist movement pushing back on them. They’re answering wrong because it’s relatively inconsequential. If you ask people whether the Earth is round (which this survey doesn’t) then I suspect the very vast majority would know the answer, because everyone travels. It’s important to our lives in a way that the relative size and configuration of objects in the solar system simply isn’t. I’ve met plenty of people–skilled, intelligent professionals–who might not immediately know the answer to this because they might get confused or simply have forgotten, just like if you asked them to order the planets in terms of size. It’s not a slight against their intelligence so much as their trivia memory. If this were a survey of scientists, or of young people, I’d be more alarmed, but given a true cross section of the population, including the older generations, this sounds about right to me.

4. All radioactivity is man-made

Correct answer: False

This is the one question where America truly shines, and Japan isn’t too far behind. It doesn’t take a nuclear scientist to figure out why the two nations most affected by the atomic age might know a little something about radioactivity. As for Russia’s dismal performance… well, maybe that’s why they lost the Cold War.

5. Electrons are smaller than atoms

Correct answer: True

6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves

Correct answer: False

survey6Who cares? This is where scientific literacy is at its worst and generally its most inconsequential, which is why I’d expect the answers to hover around 50%–as they do–due to all the random guesses that people are putting down. Sure, I know that an electron is a component of an atom, but I’m not sure I could explain to my mother with any confidence what an electron is. I don’t know what the difference between a watt and a volt is, and you might mock me for that, but I’m not an electrician. Subatomic physics and lasers and that kind of crap are some of the newest sciences (hell, we only found the Higgs boson like a week ago) so I expect knowledge about any of this to drop off sharply for anyone older than me. Again, if you want a better understanding of scientific literacy, ask younger people.

7. The universe began with a huge explosion

Correct answer: True

Here’s an interesting one, not just because South Korea is giving the rest of the world a giant middle finger. The universe didn’t actually start with a huge explosion, not the way we think of an explosion. It started with a rapid expansion of space-time that scientists sometimes refer to as an explosion for simplicity. This question is weirding me out because it’s declaring a simplified half-truth to be “true,” presumably to catch out people who don’t believe in the Big Bang. So are people answering inaccurately here because they know more or less about the subject than the survey writers?

8. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl

Correct answer: True

I have to admit, I would have had to guess at this one, which goes to show that I’m not exactly Professor Smarty McSmarterson either.

9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria

Correct answer: False

It doesn’t surprise me that most people in the world would get this wrong. The difference between bacteria, viruses and other tiny meanies is a complicated thing to try to explain. I’d argue that it’s also one of the few results on this survey that reveals a genuine problem, because it is highly consequential. Even this is not necessarily a problem with intelligence, per se, but bombardment of information. Not only do people have to understand the bizarre nature of a virus as opposed to a bacterium or a parasite, and that very similar diseases (such as whooping cough and influenza) are caused by one or the other, but there is a significant and occasionally tax funded pushback by various alternative therapies who would want you to believe that none of these things are the cause of disease at all. This one is not just the responsibility of the education system, but of medical professionals.

10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals

Correct answer: True

And this is it: The most interesting question on the survey, because it’s the one where America does worse than anyone even including China and India (but not Russia… poor Russia). It highlights the fact that evolution is the one thing that Americans specifically have an issue with. But, interesting also, the Atlantic article does specify that the issue here is not one of scientific literacy. When the question was reworded to say “According to the theory of evolution, human beings developed from other species of animals,” the affirmative answer for the States shot up to 60%, indicating that people know the answer to the question, they just believe the question is false, for all sorts of America-specific social reasons.

The article also reminds us at the end that this is not a very good survey for judging scientific literacy. Which is… what I just spent the afternoon explaining. If you would like to read the full report, which will take you approximately 17 weeks if you forgo sleep, the link is here. In any event, I think you’re doing okay, America. If the aliens gave our planet a science exam tomorrow under the threat of extermination, I’d rather have you representing me than India.