Scientific Illiteracy: An Analysis of America’s Silent Epidemic

Every week, millions of people around the world tune into the show “Cosmos,” presented by Neil Degrasse Tyson, which compiles scientific discoveries and theories spanning from our own planet to the known universe, and presents them to the viewer in a seamless flow of visuals and commentary from Tyson himself. Thirty-four years prior, astrophysicist and science popularizer Carl Sagan presented the same show. These two scientists have many things in common, such as hosting the same show, and both have been vociferous at one time or another about the silent epidemic that has seemed to been affecting America for decades: scientific illiteracy. In order to achieve deep comprehension of the problem at hand, one has to look at both the infrastructural and societal factors that contribute to the epidemic.

Sagan said in his book, The Demon-Haunted World, “I know that the consequences of scientific illiteracy are far more dangerous in our time than in any time that has come before. It’s perilous and foolhardy for the average citizen to remain ignorant… How can we affect national policy—or even make intelligent decisions in our own lives—if we don’t grasp the underlying issues?” [5] The Demon-Haunted World, one of Sagan’s most widely-praised works, was published in 1995, but yet in the past nineteen years since the book has been published, while scientific literacy has increased from 10 percent to the current 28 percent [2], the need for scientific literacy to be instilled in the majority of Americans has grown more dire, with threats such as global warming, ozone depletion, tropical deforestation, and exponential population growth all becoming more and more ominous by the day. Dr. Jon D. Miller, director of the Center for Biomedical Communications, asserted that only 20 to 25 percent of Americans are scientifically savvy and alert, and that “people’s inability to understand basic scientific concepts undermines their ability to take part in the democratic process [1].”

How lacking is the American public’s understanding of basic scientific concepts in order to receive such condemnation? According to Dr. Miller, the majority of American adults do not understand what molecules are, what radiation is, and, most shockingly, one in five believe that the sun still revolves around the earth [1]. When compared to education systems that represent 80 percent of the global market, approximately 34 countries, the United States ranked 26th in math and 21st in science; these rankings are shocking for a country that was a leader in both of these categories in the years that followed World War II [6]. Regardless of these telling statistics indicative of the state of science literacy in the United States, Dr. Miller does not blame individuals, but rather the educational system as a whole. “Our best university graduates are world-class by any definition,” Dr. Miller said. “But the second half of our high school population – it’s an embarrassment. We have left behind a lot of people [1].”

While one side of this epidemic could be blamed on the lack of efficient math and science curriculum at the elementary and secondary level of education, the media that influence the priorities we have as a society are not blameless. For every five hours of news on the air, only one minute of that air-time is dedicated to a science-related topic, and the amount of newspapers with a science section has shrunken by two-thirds [4]. Even the little science that is reported about in the media tends to be either one extreme or the other, from the “Cancer cure around the corner” to the “They’re killing our babies” headlines, as said by David Duncan in a series of articles he writes about the topic. When news stories only report in one extreme or the other, the stories begin to lack credibility because they have been reported on so many times before. The media’s cycle of “hype and fear-mongering” has created the allusion that there is nothing else more to be reported in the science-realm, because editors and producers feel as if they have heard and broadcasted the same story multiple times before. Duncan reiterates that science journalism pieces should be written as in-depth and often as pieces written on politics in the capital. Only writing about science for the “wow” factor is ultimately an outdated practice, and does nothing to increase scientific literacy [3].

With a problem so widespread with so many intricately changing parts, how do we as a nation begin to tackle the problem of science illiteracy? Should we start an aggressive scientific literacy campaign, which when done in the mid-20th century nearly tripled scientific literacy [2]. When condensed down into one concise statement, the problem with science illiteracy seems to stem from an outdated and dysfunctional school system, the rejection of fundamental scientific discoveries, based both on misinformation and religious beliefs, and apathy in regards to the severity of the looming consequences that threaten us of this gap in scientific knowledge is not resolved. Hopefully, with this latest installment of the Cosmos, science can be made “cool” again to a new, fresh-faced generation, that holds the future of this planet in their hands. Maybe if we had more news stories and popular shows that talked about scientific breakthroughs than the Kardashians, we could see that 28 percent in scientific literacy start to trickle up, surely and steadily. All of this being speculation, the only way this epidemic will be resolved is with America’s own self-inflection about the core of the problem, and an organized effort to remedy it.


  1. Dean, Cornelia. “SCIENTIST AT WORK — Jon Miller; Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 29 Aug. 2005. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  2. Duncan, David E. “216 Million Americans Are Scientifically Illiterate (Part I).” MIT Technology Review. N.p., 21 Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  3. Duncan, David E. “216 Million Americans Are Scientifically Illiterate (Part II).” MIT Technology Review. N.p., 19 Mar. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  4. Mooney, Chris. “From a Scientist and a Writer: A Plea to Change Our Science-Anemic Culture.” Unscientific America. N.p., 2009. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  5. Morrison, David. “Carl Sagan’s Life and Legacy as Scientist, Teacher, and Skeptic.” CSI. N.p., Feb. 2007. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.
  6. “US Teens Lag in Global Education Rankings as Asian Countries Rise to the Top.” NBC News. N.p., 3 Dec. 2013. Web. 22 Mar. 2014.

Image credit: The Toronto Star,

Tatiana is a junior at Georgia Tech majoring in Biomedical Engineering and minoring in Spanish and Biochemistry, with an interest in systems biology. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.