Russians’ Scientific Literacy on the Rise, but only a Third Know Plants Have Genes
Educational media is expanding rapidly in Russia, while scientists are giving more lectures on popular science to packed auditoriums and more scientific festivals are taking place than ever before. But do these efforts actually pay off? As part of a monitoring survey on innovative behaviour in Russia, experts from the HSE Institute for Statistical Studies and Economics of Knowledge (ISSEK) have found that over a five-year period spent measuring the scientific literacy of the Russian public, the percentage of people who find it difficult to answer ‘elementary school’ questions – for example, questions about the Earth’s core or continental drift – is steadily declining. But questions any more specific than that continue to leave people scratching their heads.
Scientific literacy, or the understanding of basic scientific concepts and facts, allows a person to draw conclusions about the world around him. This does not just mean having a better understanding of the tasks that scientists try to solve, but also making better informed decisions in everyday life.
Methods for testing scientific literacy are used in public opinion surveys on science and technology to determine how well people remember key facts from elementary school. Such observation has been underway in Russia since 1996. Experts from the Higher School of Economics work on this area in a project entitled Monitoring Survey of Innovative Behaviour of the Population, which aims to study attitudes and social models as concerns the results of scientific and innovative activities. The survey is being carried out thanks to the financial support of the HSE Basic Research Programme.
During a nationwide survey (N=1670, 16+) that was carried out in Russia in 2014, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with 12 maxims from various fields of science. Five of them were false, while the rest were true. Nearly two-thirds (65%) answered correctly on six of the 12 test questions. Most of the correct answers were to fairly simple questions from elementary school; 87% of people know that the Earth revolves around the Sun, 77% know that the centre of our planet is hot, and 71% are aware that the continents we live on have been shifting for millions of years and will continue to do so in the future.
Respondents naturally made a lot more mistakes when answering more specific questions. Only 32% understand that a laser works by focusing light waves, not sound waves, 33% know that antibiotics only kill bacteria, not viruses, 33% are aware that genes exist in all plants, not just genetically modified ones, and finally, 36% rightly believe that a baby’s gender is determined by the father’s genes. The ratio of right to wrong answers differs for different social and demographic groups. The majority of incorrect answers were given by individuals older than 55 (55%), people with only a high-school education or less (57% and 53%, respectively), and those who live in rural areas (58%).
Thus, nearly two-thirds of the Russian population do not know some of the most essential scientific facts, and some have even fallen victim to cheats who exploit the image of the scientist and use pseudoscientific ideas to promote certain types of goods or services. It is nonetheless comforting to know that the percentage of people who find it difficult to answer some of the most basic scientific questions is declining steadily year after year.
Valentina Polyakova, Konstantin Fursov