Published January 13, 2015
People in the U.S. know more about basic science today than they did two decades ago, good news that researchers say is tempered by an unsettling growth in the belief in pseudoscience such as astrology and visits by extraterrestrial aliens.
In 1988 only about 10 percent knew enough about science to understand reports in major newspapers, a figure that grew to 28 percent by 2005, according to Jon D. Miller, a Michigan State University professor.
He presented his findings Saturday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
The improvement largely reflects the requirement that all college students have at least some science courses, Miller said. This way, they can better keep up with new developments through the media.
A panel of researchers expressed concern that people are giving increasing credence to pseudoscience such as the visits of space aliens, lucky numbers and horoscopes.
More recent generations know more factual material about science, said Carol Susan Losh, an associate professor at Florida State University. But, she said, when it comes to pseudoscience, "the news is not good."
One problem, she said, is that pseudoscience can speak to the meaning of life in ways that science does not.
For example, for many women having a good life still depends on whom they marry, she said.
"What does astrology speak to? Love relationships," Losh said, noting that belief in horoscopes is much higher among women than men.
The disclosure that former first lady Nancy Reagan consulted an astrologer resulted in widespread derision in the media, but few younger people remember that episode today, she said.
Miller said most readers of horoscopes are women, contributing to the listing of "female" as a leading negative factor in science literacy. Women also tended to take fewer college science courses, he said.
Belief in abduction by space aliens is also on the rise, Losh said.
"It's not surprising that the generation that grew up on 'Twilight Zone' and early 'Star Trek' television endorsed a link between UFOs and alien spacecraft," she said.
Pseudoscience discussion is often absent from the classroom, Losh said, so "we have basically left it up to the media."
Raymond Eve of the University of Texas at Arlington had mixed news in surveys of students at an unnamed Midwestern university.
The share that believed aliens had visited Earth fell from 25 percent in 1983 to 15 percent in 2006. There was also a decline in belief in "Bigfoot" and in whether psychics can predict the future.
But there also has been a drop in the number of people who believe evolution correctly explains the development of life on Earth and an increase in those who believe mankind was created about 10,000 years ago.
Miller said a second major negative factor to scientific literacy was religious fundamentalism and aging.
Having taken college science courses was a strong positive influence, followed by overall education and informal science learning through the media. Having children at home also resulted in adults being more scientifically informed, he said.
Nick Allum of the University of Surrey in England suggested belief in astrology might be a simple misunderstanding of the question, with people confusing astrology with astronomy.
In one European study about 25 percent of people said they thought astrology was very scientific. But when the question was rephrased to horoscopes that fell to about 7 percent.