The Five Dumbest Science 'Facts' Believed By Australians

A new national science literacy survey has produced some embarrassing results, including the whopper that more than 25% of Australians think humans co-existed with dinosaurs. Here are five shocking misconceptions unearthed by the survey (along with some essential links to help you bone up on your science knowledge).

Caveman picture from Shutterstock

Researchers from the Australian Academy of Science have reported a marked drop in the nation's science literacy levels compared to the last time the poll was conducted in 2010.

The survey asked 1515 Australians questions on basic scientific facts from a cohort segmented and weighted to be nationally representative of Australia’s population by gender, age and residential location.

"We had an expectation that maybe we should have seen some improvement over time [but] the results indicate that we haven't moved all that much in our basic understanding of science," Professor Les Field, the Australian Academy of Science’s secretary for science policy said.

"In some areas it was surprising that we have moved backwards. The results are very much a reality check: there is a significant fraction of the population that really don't have a basic understanding of science and technology or know how the world works around us."

Here's how the nation fared in the five key areas of the poll:

The earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs (believed by 27% of respondents)

Of all the misconceptions flagged in the survey, this is probably the most surprising. Only 73 percent of the Australians surveyed realised that humans did not walk the Earth at the same time as dinosaurs.

Sadly, we can’t even blame crazy creationists for skewing the results. According to Professor Field, the main culprit isn't religion but Hollywood.

"This is probably the legacy of Jurassic Park and TV shows like Terranova which show humans running alongside dinosaurs and use great special effects, which really makes it difficult to distinguish fact from fiction," Field said.

"I think this has contributed to the fact that there is a certain proportion of the Australian population which still believes that dinosaurs and humans co-existed in time."

I suspect that a lot of respondents were just taking the piss. At least, I hope they were.

Evolution has stopped occurring (believed by 30% of respondents)

According to the survey results, more than a quarter of Australians don't realise that evolution is a continuous, ongoing process. The poll showed that males and people with higher education levels were more likely to think that evolution is currently occurring.

Around 35% of 18-24 year olds did not think humans were influencing the evolution of other species. 9% of respondents said they didn't believe in evolution at all.

The Earth does not take a year to go around the Sun (believed by 41% of respondents)

This is pretty embarrassing. A little under half of respondents didn't actually know how long the Earth took to orbit the sun. Apparently, the seasons aren't enough of a clue.

"It's a concern to me that 40 percent of the population doesn't realise that it takes a year for the Earth to travel around the sun," Field said.

The greatest fall in knowledge for this question was among cohorts in the 18-24 age bracket, which probably says something about modern schooling. Curiously, 68 percent of men knew the Earth takes a year to orbit the sun compared to just 50 percent of women.

More than 3% of the Earth’s water is fresh (believed by 91% of respondents)

This was easily the most popular misconception, with only 9% of respondents giving the correct answer. This was down from 13% who gave the correct answer in 2010.

"The overwhelming majority of Australians -- in fact, almost all of them -- overestimate the amount of fresh water we have on the planet," Field explained.

We're not terribly surprised by this one, to be honest. Off the top of our head, we probably would have guessed around 10-15% of the Earth's water is fresh. (It's basically one of those trivia questions that you either know or you don't.)

Science education isn't important to the Australian economy (believed by 2% of respondents)

Amusingly, it seems that many Australians hold science in high esteem despite knowing very little about the basics, if this poll is anything to go by. 79% of respondents said that science education is absolutely essential or very important, while only 2% said it wasn't at all important; around the the same proportion as in 2010.

"It was very gratifying to see that the overwhelming response was yes, science education is extremely important to the economy of Australia," Field said. Clearly however, a lot more work needs to be done.

"As the world becomes more technologically advanced the average person in Australia needs to have on board a sound understanding of basic science simply to survive and to actively contribute to the community. If nothing else, our education system has to factor this in."

We're guessing most of our readers are pretty cluey when it comes to basic science, but if you fear for the future of your children, here are a few websites that are well worth book-marking:

How Stuff Works: Wonderfully exhaustive website that covers almost every conceivable topic in easy-to-understand language.

Wikipedia: While unfairly maligned for its questionable accuracy, the world's most popular online encyclopedia is pretty hard to fault when it comes to scientific factoids. This is thanks to the tireless editing efforts of armchair experts who really know their stuff. We'd be a bit leery of pages relating to global warming though (mind you, the same thing could be said about nearly every published article on this subject).

I F***ing Love Science: If you're into the cooler aspects of science, this Facebook page provides daily missives detailing the weird and wonderful.

Questacon: The National Science and Technology Centre represents one of the few reasons to visit Canberra and contains lots of hands-on exhibits aimed at children and students. If you're after a fun approach to scientific learning, it's well worth a visit.

The Australian Academy of Science notes that the accuracy of the results at an overall level is +/-2.5% at the 95% confidence interval. ("This means, for example, that if the survey returns a result of 50% to a particular question, there is 95% probability that the actual result will be between 47.5% and 52.5%.")

Science literacy in Australia [Australian Academy of Science]

Originally published on Lifehacker Australia

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    didnt you post this story already?

      It was in Life hacker.

        yep.... and look out if ZombieJesus sees this on here

        ill be impressed if Giz gets a third of the posts and a tenth of the intelligence that LH got


            mate its fair to say there'd be very few people around that have your breadth of knowledge on.... well, most things

              I'm just good at projecting confidence about what I know, is all =P I was a bit out of my depth on that biology conversation in the other thread. I hated biology at school, give me physics any day.

              Someone said it in the other thread, but I'd be curious to see how other countries rank with these questions. I think America might not be as bad as people think.

                I have the same problem, but in reverse. I am the biology man. There are certainly pitfalls to everyone else believing you know it all, as they will not contribute their own knowledge and rely exclusively on your own ideas.

                Conversely, people will make it about a difference of opinion. That's never any fun.

                  Luckily most of my offline friends seem to take 'proving me wrong' as a challenge. It's a win for me, I get intelligent debate and I learn a lot in the process. I don't think my knowledge base is that diverse, though.

                America looking bad is a context thing I guess, depends on who is comparing and defining the sample; always tough in an enclavial society like the US

                Context- I recall the same, if not similar survey done on people in NZ and not surprisingly it was used not only in judgement of the education system there but in context to Australia & the US

                Same comments too, regarding the fact that NZ'ers scored better than the Australian and US figures... It's natural I guess to knock others after reflecting upon your self?

                  People find it easier to swallow less-than-stellar news when there's someone else they can point at and say 'at least we're better than them'.

    My problem with this is that the whole thing is presented wrongly; it's made to seem as if most Aussies mistakenly believe stupid stuff, when in actuality the results show the opposite. The only bad result is the the Earth going around the sun in a year, but even that is well bellow 50%.

    Does the Earth really take a year to orbit the sun? No.
    Well, there's leap years to compensate for a fraction of a day. So you could say it takes 4 years, to orbit 4 times.
    Wait! Every 100 years, we MISS a leap year. So it takes 100 years, to orbit 100 times.
    But no! Every 400 years, we put that leap year back in. So every 400 years, the Earth orbits 400 times.

    That's a loaded question.

      Judged on the report, the sections the responses fell into were: "One day; One week; One month; One year; Not Sure". Presumably any response between 365 and 366 days falls into "One year". The majority of incorrect responses falling into the "One Day" category, which to me suggests more of a confusion between a revolution around the sun and a rotation around the axis - i.e. the results include some people misinterpreting the question rather than not knowing the answer.

      The disturbing part was the 3% that responded with One Week or One Month. Although they could possibly just be smartarses knowingly giving a wrong response to skew the results.

      Ahhh, good ol' confounding variables, the bane of scientific hypothesis testing.

    It takes 365 days 6hrs 9 minutes and 9.54 seconds
    Hence leap years ETC

      Well that just complicates things... I was curious (and a little bored) in looking up that number. I thought it was 365.242 rather than your figure. Turns out, there are different "years", the "sidereal year", which is your figure, and the "tropical year", which gives the other.

      In short - "What kind of swallow: African, or European?"

    I thought that the very definition of a year is the period of time a planet takes to orbit a star. Like Martian year is different to Mercurian year is different to Earth year. So the Earth takes exactly a year to orbit the Sun? Which is also different to a calendar year?

      Correct, a year would be different for different planets. An actual year is a quarter day longer than a calendar year, which is why we have leap years every four years.

    This was a story on The Project a couple nights ago. Chrissie Swan was on there and didn't know how long it took for the Earth to orbit the sun, or whether humans lived with dinosaurs. She then argued this is "normal" and if you actually knew these basic science facts that somehow makes you a nerdy weirdo. FFS, people who encourage stupidity shouldn't be allowed on TV.

      I agree with you, but unfortunately the commercial stations have a vested interest in continuing to give air time to Tony Abbott.

    The one that worries me most is the belief by nearly 50% of the population that all Labor's incompetency and disasters are fixed by appointing the very person responsible for many of them as their new leader. :)

    Someone has to say it again: humans do coexist with avian dinosaurs.

    'Sadly, we can’t even blame crazy creationists for skewing the results.'

    Steady on there, Mr. Dawkins.

      As the respondents were representative samples of the population, I'm sure the creationists were represented as a proportion of the population. We can blame them for strongly held beliefs contrary to the available evidence, the scientific consensus and spreading misinformation dressed as science, but it wouldn't be the full story.

      There's just a general ignorance of this kind of stuff if it isn't covered sufficiently in the classroom and generally isn't required knowledge for day-to-day life. It's important for participation in broader issues affecting society as a whole, especially environmentalism and understanding why it's important to protect climates and species diversity.

    100 percent of the water on earth is fresh water, just most of it has salt in it. Seriously though, when they add up how much fresh water there is, do they take in account all the ice on the polar caps (and all the ice everywhere) and all the aquaducts under ground, and wouldn't the stats vary when we have floods and huge blizzards covering Europe and elsewhere. Sometimes there's more fresh water than at other times.

      Keep in mind 70% of the Earth's surface is water, most of that is ocean, and oceans are very deep. I would have guessed around 5% myself, but I'm not surprised by how little it actually is. Sea ice does lose a lot of its salt in the freezing process but I don't think it would be enough to call it 'fresh'.

      I'll take it a step further....

      0% of water on earth is fresh.... While its a fair punt to say over the past 3.5(c) billion years there's probably been a few galactic top ups along the way, the very vast majority is very very old & far from 'fresh'

      How about potable water, derived in a non mechanical method?

    98% of Americans believe Sarah Palin coexisted with dinosaurs.

    Yeah because 65 Million years of evolution got us to where we are today.

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