October 2, 2006

New Survey Shows Americans Know Very Little About Science

NEW YORK -- When the results of its latest survey came back, officials at the American Museum of Natural History were hardly astonished.

The survey was trying to find out how much people know about water. Turns out, not much.

Fewer than half of those surveyed answered correctly when asked how much of the planet is covered in water (about three-fourths). Hardly anyone knew how much of that water is drinkable (about 1 percent).

It's not the first time a survey has shown how little the public knows about science; the results of one museum survey in 1994 were so woeful, museum President Ellen Futter barely raises an eyebrow anymore.

"I haven't been surprised by the public's reaction since our first survey, when I saw that 35 percent of the adult population thought that humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs," she said.

But the survey, which will lead to an exhibit on water next year, does serve as a reminder of a critical part of the museum's mission: educating the public.

As issues such as global climate and evolution increasingly become part of public discussion, institutions like the Natural History museum are finding their roles as educators expanding.

"We have the opportunity to educate the public about issues of profound concern to them," Futter said. "We're not just looking back, we're looking to the moment ... and trying to understand from that, 'What does that mean for the future?'"

Lately, that new strategy has meant that displays on Native American jewelry and the ever-popular dinosaurs have been side-by-side with exhibits on genomics and more recently, Charles Darwin and evolution.

Next year brings the water exhibit, shaped in part by the survey's findings and what people are interested in finding out.

The museum has scientists on staff who are leading researchers in water conservation science, said Eleanor Sterling, director of the museum's center for biodiversity and conservation. The museum has also reached out to schools, partnering with other science institutions to provide research help to students and training opportunities to teachers.

It's what the museum needs to do at a time when science education in schools is lacking, said Futter.

"There is no area of education that is probably worse taught than science," she said. "I am deeply concerned about the competitive capacity of this country going forward in terms of education generally and in the areas of science, math (and) engineering particularly."

Institutions such as the American Museum of Natural History and the Field Museum in Chicago have the collections and staff necessary to educate museum visitors, said Neil Shubin, provost at the Field.

"We have the ability to do this when other places don't," he said. "It's important that this happens."

In the past, museums were hampered by a lack of technology that might have allowed them to reach a broader audience, said Robert Sullivan, associate director for public programs at the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History.

"In the past it was easier for us to duck our responsibilities because we didn't have the means to do it," he said. But that has changed with the Internet, allowing institutions to reach people far beyond their immediate vicinity.

Jeff Rudolph, president of the California Science Center in Los Angeles and a former head of the American Association of Museums, said he thinks many institutions are getting better at making their programming relevant to current events.

"I think there is a clear understanding in museums that our role in education is significantly expanding, particularly within science institutions," he said.


On the Net:

American Museum of Natural History: http://www.amnh.org

Field Museum: http://www.fieldmuseum.org

California Science Center: http://www.californiasciencecenter.org

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History: http://www.mnh.si.edu/