Generation X And Scientific Literacy
October 24, 2012

Generation X Report Finds That Many Adults Don’t Know Their Cosmic Address

April Flowers for - Your Universe Online

Researchers have found that less than half of Generation X adults can identify our own home in the universe, the spiral galaxy in which we reside.

"Knowing your cosmic address is not a necessary job skill, but it is an important part of human knowledge about our universe and–to some extent–about ourselves," said Jon D. Miller, author of "The Generation X Report" and director of the Longitudinal Study of American Youth at the U-M Institute for Social Research.

The National Science Foundation has funded the study since 1986. It now includes responses from approximately 4,000 adults from the core of Generation X — adults ages 37 — 40. The latest iteration of the report examines the scientific literacy of Gen Xers about their location in the universe by providing them with high-quality images of a spiral galaxy taken by the Hubble space telescope. Miller then asked the participants to identify the image, first in an open-ended response and then again by selecting from multiple choices.

Less than half, forty-three percent to be exact, of the Generation X participants surveyed were able to provide a correct answer, recognizing the object as a galaxy similar to our own. Males fared slightly better than females, with 53 percent of men answering correctly compared to 32 percent of females. Education also played a role, with 21 percent who had less than a high school degree answering correctly, compared to 63 percent of those with doctorates or professional degrees.

"One of the factors that contributes to this educational difference is exposure to college-level science courses," Miller said. "The United States is unique in its requirement that all college students complete one year of college science courses as part of a general education requirement."

"And because these courses are often taken during the first or second year of college, students who enter college but do not earn a degree are still exposed to college science and other general education courses."

More than 60 percent of the participants reported that this was the first time they had looked carefully at an image from a space telescope. Four out of five, however, said that they had seen this kind of image before, often on the Internet.

"One of the important results of the growth of the Internet and the expansion of communication devices is that it is easier today to find high-quality science information than at any previous time in human history," Miller said. "But some of the science information on the Internet is incorrect or misleading, so we asked our survey participants to indicate what sources they would trust for information about the universe."

The least trusted source of information, according to participants, is a lecture by a leader of a church or religious group. The most trusted sources included a NASA website, an exhibit or program in a museum or planetarium, a PBS Nova or Discovery Channel show, or a lecture by an astronomy professor.

The study investigated the link between knowledge about the universe as evidenced by correctly identifying the Hubble image as a spiral galaxy, and a variety of personal and policy attitudes. Participants who correctly identified the image were more likely than those who didn't to agree that "When I see images like this, I am reminded of the vastness of the universe" (70 percent vs. 53 percent) and "Images like this show how small and fragile planet Earth is in the context of the universe" (58 percent vs. 44 percent) among other beliefs.

"Unlike our distant ancestors who thought the earth was the center of the universe, we know that we live on a small planet in a heliosphere surrounding a moderate-sized star that is part of a spiral galaxy," Miller said. "There may be important advantages in the short-term–the next million years or so–to knowing where we are and something about our cosmic neighborhood."