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: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 generous.

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 something scientifically.

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 report.

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 Internet.

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 capable."

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 questions.

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 depressing decline.

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 gary.chapman@mail.utexas.edu.




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