:Well-Informed Citizens Increasingly Rare in Information Age
By Gary Chapman :Copyright 2000, The Los Angeles Times, All Rights Reserved, Monday, July 17, 2000
Last month, the National Science Foundation released its report "Science and
Engineering Indicators 2000" (http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind00/), which
revealed some data about Americans' understanding of the world that are
strikingly at odds with the ubiquitous hype about our "Age of Information."
"Most Americans," the report says, "know a little, but not a lot, about
science and technology." Given some of the findings, even that may be
While more than 70% of the people the NSF surveyed knew that the Earth
revolves around the sun and not the other way around, and that humans and
dinosaurs did not coexist, only 16% could define the Internet and only 13%
could accurately describe a molecule. At least those numbers are going up,
the report's authors noted diplomatically -- five years ago, only 11% could
define the Internet and only 9% could describe a molecule.
"Science literacy in the United States [and in other countries] is fairly
low," says the report with typically measured understatement. Only about a
fifth of the Americans surveyed could describe what it means to study
In a classification of the level of interest in science and technology among
Americans, the NSF study used a category labeled "the attentive public,"
meaning people who "express a high level of interest in a particular issue,
feel well-informed about that issue, and read a newspaper on a daily basis,
read a weekly or monthly news magazine, or read a magazine relevant to the
issue." A mere 10% of Americans fit this description, according to the
About 40% of the survey population reported being very interested in science
and technology, but only 17% thought they were personally well-informed.
About 30% thought they were poorly informed.
These discouraging data fit with other patterns in Americans' knowledge
about things, like current events. In 1997, researchers at the Pew Research
Center for the People and the Press in Washington said, "An analysis of
public attentiveness to more than 500 news stories over the last 10 years
confirms that the American public pays relatively little attention to many
of the serious news stories of the day."
Last month, the Pew Research Center reported that 84% of people surveyed
"are not paying a lot of attention to the Microsoft breakup," perhaps the
most important antitrust case of the last 80 years. Over 70% were unaware
that there is a federal budget surplus, and 56% had "no idea who Alan
Greenspan is." (Greenspan is chairman of the Federal Reserve Board.)
Ten years ago, Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Center, said, "The ultimate
irony of [our] findings is that the Information Age [has] spawned such an
uninformed and uninvolved population." There doesn't appear to be sufficient
reason to change this assessment even five years into the boom of the
Such surveys of American knowledge seem to paint a picture of us that is
reflected in many of our more popular political leaders: optimistic,
generally untroubled by the world's woes, but manifestly ill-informed. We
have tended to accept this because of our faith in native pragmatism and
common sense. But with the world getting increasingly complex, technologized
and competitive, such faith may verge on the delusional.
"After a steady series of breakthroughs in information technology," wrote
David Shenk in his 1997 book "Data Smog," "we are left with a citizenry that
is certainly no more interested or capable of supporting a healthy
representative democracy than it was 50 years ago, and may well be less
Improving education is the most common knee-jerk plan of action for
perceived deficits in American understanding and knowledge, especially in
math and science. No doubt there is vast room for improvement in U.S.
education. But as political philosopher Benjamin Barber of Rutgers
University has pointed out, young people tend to learn what society teaches
them to value.
The simple truth is that deep study of science, math, history, literature,
art or familiarity with current events cannot compete with celebrity gossip
and scandals, large calamities, TV and video games, voyeurism, consumerism,
instant fortunes, advertising and popular but ephemeral fascinations.
University educators, like me, are constantly astonished at the depth and
breadth of students' knowledge about popular culture and consumer products
and by the weakness of their grasp on valuable and vital subjects. They are
learning, but not what we usually think of as "learning." Too many are
learning answers to the questions on the runaway hit TV quiz show "Who Wants
to Be a Millionaire," instead of the answers to life's most important
Studies have shown that U.S. parents have much lower expectations of their
children and much higher opinions of their children's educational
achievements than parents in other countries. It's very common for American
parents to mistake their child's deep knowledge of some idiosyncratic
fixation for general educational competence.
This is perhaps the true ultimate irony of the Information Age: As high-tech
leaders persistently, almost desperately, call for more educated workers,
the "info-tainment" business that is rapidly absorbing the Internet and all
other media makes well-informed citizens even more rare and unusual. The
constant "dumbing-down" and vulgarization of the culture industry, driven by
mass marketing and profits, is clearly at odds with educational excellence,
but few high-tech leaders can bring themselves to admit their role in this
Until we sever education from beeps, clicks, dancing cartoons, games,
celebrities, ads, trivia and marketing hype, the idea of living in an Age of
Information will continue to be something of a cruel joke.
Gary Chapman is director of the 21st Century Project at the University of
Texas. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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