What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.


I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

Bad Questions

I don’t often agree with Jay Mathews.

Mathews was the long time education reporter for the Washington Post and now writes a weekly column for the paper. I’ve written many posts about his adoration of KIPP charter schools, the unrequited love of the Advanced Placement program, and especially his Challenge Index, his annual ranking of high schools based solely on the number of AP tests taken by students.

However, his post from last week, which is not really about education, is one I can get behind. In it, he highlights two popular questions used by polling companies that produce little to no useful information, calling them dumb and deserving of ridicule.

One comes from the annual poll done by Gallup for Phi Delta Kappa, a professional association for educators. It asks people “What grade would you give your local public schools, the nation’s public schools and, if you have children at home, their schools?” The results are pretty much the same every year.

Since 1985, the results have been consistent. Respondents award their children’s specific schools the highest grades, with about three-quarters giving A’s and B’s. About half of them give their local schools A’s and B’s. About a fifth give A’s and B’s to the nation’s public schools.

My kid’s school is great. But those other schools, and the national education system, are crap. Of course PDK asks other questions about many aspects of education (in 2015, 64% of respondents said there was too much emphasis on standardized testing) but it’s that top number that is most widely reported by the headline driven media. And it’s too often used to perpetuate the “failing public schools” narrative. If people tell a survey taker something, it must be true.

The other poll question Mathews ridicules is even worse.

The right-track-wrong-track question is even more aggravating because it is so often extolled as a mark of voters’ desires. The latest Washington Post-ABC News poll uses this question: “Do you think in this country things are generally going in the right direction or do you feel things have gotten pretty seriously off on the wrong track?”

Over the 44 years that polling companies have asked that question “results have been on the negative side nearly 90 percent of the time”. Again, the surveys include other related questions but it’s the right-track-wrong-track number that gets put into the headlines and analyzed by pundits who probably haven’t bothered to read any of the supporting data or metrics used to select the sample.

Both of these examples are why K12 math instruction needs to include a whole lot more statistics. Maybe if more people reading these headlines actually understood something about polling methodology they might push back and question both the results and the reporting of them. Some of those better informed graduates might even become presenters on those talking heads channels and bring those questions to their jobs.

Blame the Technology. Or the Students.

From the New York Times

There is a widespread belief among teachers that students’ constant use of digital technology is hampering their attention spans and ability to persevere in the face of challenging tasks, according to two surveys of teachers being released on Thursday.

An English teacher quoted in the story complained “I’m an entertainer. I have to do a song and dance to capture their attention.” and later asked “What’s going to happen when they don’t have constant entertainment?”.

However, is technology the problem? Or what it’s “doing to” kids?

Although I can sympathize to some degree, the English teacher’s statement and the opinions of a majority in the survey are a little disturbing. The whole foundation on which these studies are based* assumes that whatever is being done in the classroom is right and the kids are “wrong” in some way, due, of course, to their “constant use of digital technology”.

I wonder if anyone – researchers or subjects – seriously questioned whether what the students were asked to learn, the assignments they were given, the instructional methods might, just might, be a major factor in their “shorter attention spans”.

Is technology to blame?

Or is a large part of the problem that our education system is largely unwilling to take a reflective look at itself, to reevaluate what today’s students need to know and how to best help them learn it?


*Admittedly I haven’t read either report so it’s possible I’m completely wrong. Wouldn’t be the first time.

Fear the Web

Journalist and media critic Jeff Jarvis has a great post on the results of a survey about privacy and Facebook from Consumer Reports. He says the magazine is suggesting that the large numbers should shock us, when they simply reflect a new openness in today’s society. And progress.

He also makes this excellent point about how our attempts to “protect” kids from the web is doing them no favors.

Last night, a good friend of mine complained on Twitter that Google had knocked his 10-year-old son off when he revealed his age. My friend got mad at Google. Oh, no, I said, get mad at the FTC and COPPA (the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) and its unintended consequences. It makes children lie about their ages and puts us in a position to teach them to lie. It has made children the worst-served sector of society online. The intentions are good. The consequences may not be. [emphasis mine]

In the end, Jeff is very correct in his belief that the fear mongering which comes from reports like this too often leads to inappropriate, overly-restrictive, and even dangerous legislation.