Each time scientists make a discovery, the rest of us have something new to be ignorant about. Therein lies an irony of our hyper-technological age: The knowledge gap between the experts and the man on the street can’t help but grow wider every day. A study by the National Science Foundation finds most Americans claiming to be interested in scientific discoveries, including 47 percent who said they’re “very” interested. But it also finds they have a tenuous grasp of the most basic scientific facts. While better than 70 percent know the Earth goes around the sun (rather than vice versa), only half know it takes a year to do so. Likewise, just half know that humans and dinosaurs didn’t live at the same time, that antibiotics don’t kill viruses and that lasers don’t work by focusing sound waves. In some cases, people’s lack of knowledge may make them more resistant to new consumer technologies. For example, most Americans believe “ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do”—a misconception that’s likely to affect their willingness to try the latter variety. While it’s true that the Internet puts vast amounts of scientific and technological lore within easy reach, just 9 percent of Americans cited it as their main source of information on these matters. Television is the most popular source (cited by 44 percent), which helps explain why scientific literacy is so spotty. Real science must also compete with “pseudoscience” for public attention. Thus, the study finds 9 percent of people saying astrology is “very scientific” and 32 percent describing it as “sort ofscientific.” Meanwhile, “one-quarter to more than half of the public believes in haunted houses and ghosts, faith healing, communication with the dead and lucky numbers.” Women are more likely than men to give credence to pseudoscience, just as they’re less likely to be interested in or knowledgeable about real science and technology. The key exception is medicine, an area in which women are more attentive to new discoveries.
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