Moon landing conspiracy theories, anti-vaxxers, and climate change deniers. It seems like all sorts of established scientific knowledge is called into question because of bad information on the Internet.

Have you noticed that the misinformation seems directly proportional to the amount of people on the Internet? What’s happening that people can’t separate facts from rhetoric? Why is it that people on the Internet deny even the most basic scientific principles? Why is it that people on the Internet will believe anything with the word “science” anywhere near it?

Apollo 11 Crew During Training Exercise

In order to understand scientific knowledge, one has to have a certain amount of scientific literacy. The established definition of scientific literacy is, “…the knowledge and understanding of scientific concepts and processes required for personal decision making, participation in civic and cultural affairs, and economic productivity. It also includes specific types of abilities.”

Is the information on the Internet lowering society’s general ability to use science to evaluate the veracity of factsThat’s what we’re here to find out. First, we need to understand where the world is at with scientific literacy.

How Scientifically Literate Are We?

According to one study of science literacy levels, only 42% of people in the most scientifically literate country in the world, “… have a basic level of scientific literacy necessary to understand media reports about science…”.

To find this number, researchers surveyed a sample group of 2,000 people using a test developed by Professor Jon D. Miller. The test contains questions like, “Does the sun go around the earth or does the earth go around the sun?” or “Human beings as we know them today developed from earlier species of animals. True or false?”

The percentages of people that got those wrong are in the double digits. Based on this report, it appears that humanity isn’t very science literate, doesn’t it?

comparing-public-science-knowledge-worldwide

Would you be surprised that the U.S. ranked third in science literacy, in that same study? Some will know the U.S. is a hotbed for science, but the American media would have us believe that the U.S. is generally stupid. So if the top country for science literacy, Canada, is only two places ahead of the U.S., you may be thinking society’s science literacy is pretty low. There’s only one way to tell if our science literacy is dropping though – compare today’s results to results gathered decades ago.

How Scientifically Literate Were We?

Canada was in a bad way in 1990. According to a survey conducted then, “Only about half the respondents knew that the Earth revolves around the sun”. Seeing as that was established as a scientific fact about 500 years ago, that sure makes Canadians sound really uneducated. Perhaps more condemning is that 50% of them believed that dinosaurs and early man lived together.

public-science-knowledge-1989-2014

In 1988, only 10% of Americans were found to be scientifically literate, based on Dr. Miller’s test – meaning only 10% of Americans had the ability to comprehend the science section of the New York Times. For those of you that regularly read that section, you may find that to be a shockingly low number. Some of you may even be flustered, thinking that the science section is already ‘dumbed down‘.

So, Are We Better or Worse?

Overall, the trend is that we have become more science literate. A 2008 survey found 28% of Americans met or exceeded the threshold. An 18 point jump is significant by any standard.

Meanwhile, in Canada, the numbers moved from half of all people thinking the sun revolved around Earth to only 13% believing so. That’s a 37 point drop in ignorance, so to speak. Pretty impressive gains.

Exam TIme

The trend to better scores also appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. According to the same study that determined Canada to be the most scientifically literate country, there’s a report from the National Science Board that shows, “…an improvement in European performance between 1992 and 2005. Other countries therefore would likely see improvements in their scores.”

All this establishes that science literacy is not dropping – meaning the theory of the Internet making us less knowledgeable is wrong. Why, then, does it seem like there are so many more people contradicting fact? And how does the Internet play into this?

What is the Internet’s Role in This?

The Web was born out of a need to make it easier to do scientific research, and to jump from one scholarly paper to another. Seriously: Tim Berners Lee was not thinking of a faster way to distribute porn or increase the profile of cute kittens. But it didn’t take long for the Internet to be used for more than scientific research.

It’s not unusual for a new technology to become more popular than intended. Still, why does the Web seem to be so full of misinformation?

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The Web as the Ultimate Soapbox

It used to be that to get your message out, you had to get your message into print or on TV. To do that took a lot of work and years of establishing yourself as an expert in your field. It even took some luck to get on the good side of the newscaster, or to get your book in front of an editor. Even then, you’d be lucky if your message reached a few hundred people, let alone a nation.

Outside of that, you would set up a soapbox in a busy public place, stand on it, and shout your story to the sky, hoping it doesn’t fall on nothing but deaf ears. (This, kids, is where the soapbox reference comes from.)

Soapbox

Now, the Internet and Web gives us a soapbox in front of billions of people with just a few keystrokes. We can all have our time on the soapbox and potentially convert thousands, or at least find thousands of people who agree with you. With that kind of exposure, it’s no wonder we see new “experts” popping up every day.

The Rise of the False Expert

With billions of people spending hours online daily, the Web is the perfect forum for anyone to promote themselves. Often this is done by creating the appearance of being an expert in a specific topic.

It’s relatively simple to do. Start a blog – that’s basically free. Maybe throw in a weekly or daily podcast. Again, free and easy to do.

Then one just reworks the information they got off the Web to make it sound like their own, or at least to support their opinion. Then, one spreads the word through social media like Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, YouTube, whatever. Before long, they’ve got a thousand people buying into their “expert” advice. One can achieve expert status in just a few months, if not a few weeks or days.

Because Aliens

But, are they really experts? Maybe, but most likely not.

Many who do this build their reputation on the backs of others. That free blog they created was only made possible because creating a website was made easy because hundreds of people, over several years, put together software that makes this easy. The research these experts paraphrased, or even blatantly copied, may have been done by academics who spent years in university.

Surely, false experts are easy to spot and easier to ignore. Aren’t they?

The New Car Syndrome

Once upon a time, Kia was an obscure brand in North America. Even once they were established, lots of people still thought of them as a marginal brand.

But those people that did buy a Kia, however, suddenly noticed that Kia had become a top selling foreign brand – all of a sudden! Every second or third car they saw was a Kia.

Of course, they were always there. You just didn’t notice because you weren’t looking for them. This “new car syndrome” is also known as the the Baader-Meinhof Phenomenon.

Lots of Kias

The Web does a similar thing. You might have heard somewhere that the moon landing was faked. You weren’t around when it happened, but you’re 99% certain it did actually happen. That one percent of doubt just keeps nagging at you – or, at the very least, you’re curious why people would think that way.

On to Google you go, and search for evidence of moon landing being faked. After all, you want to know what’s wrong with these crackpots.

Whoa. 792,000 results. You already know that most people think the moon landings are real, so you skip over those articles to find the ones that tell you why it’s faked. Already you’re setting yourself up to see more “evidence” by “experts” of it being faked than of it being real.

All of a sudden, it seems like there’s nothing but ignorance on that highway.

So Now What?

The illusion of exposure, the illusion of authority, the illusion of omnipresence – perhaps it’s these illusions that make us think that the Internet is making more people scientifically illiterate. But perception is reality; especially for the science illiterate. So how do we change that perception?

To change the perception of the misled – well, that’s a Sisyphean task, isn’t it? There’s a saying:

“For the non-believer, there will never be enough evidence, and for the believer no evidence is necessary.”

Hopefully, at some point in our lives, the scientific method will prove itself. At some point, we may start to ask questions of ourselves. We may start to wonder why things in our lives seem to get no better. Or why our cause isn’t gaining ground. Perhaps we will accidentally use logic and reason to identify that it has been our lack of the same logic and reason that creates our untenable situation.

After we get a taste of the effectiveness of science in our own life, we may come around to recognize it formally. Maybe.

Image Credits: confused scientists Via Shutterstock, Apollo 11 Crew, Bunch of Kias, Internet Population 2011 via Wikimedia, Soap Box, Exam Time, via Flickr, Science Literacy Graphs via Council of Canadian Academies