Russians are becoming more scientifically literate, but still only a third of them remember plants have genes
New educational media are emerging in Russia one after another, scientists deliver public lectures to full houses, science festivals are being organised — but does all this effort bear fruit? HSE ISSEK experts have found out that in the five years they’ve been measuring Russians’ scientific literacy in the scope of “Monitoring innovative behaviour of the population” project, the share of people who had problems answering “secondary school” questions such as whether the Earth core was hot or continents were drifting, was steadily decreasing. However, slightly more specific questions still tend to baffle a lot of them.
Scientific literacy, or understanding of basic scientific concepts and facts, enables people to make conclusions about the outside world, and not only better realise what sort of problems scientists work on but make better decisions in the course of their everyday lives.
Scientific literacy is measured through public opinion polls on science and technology issues, to assess public awareness of key scientific facts they’ve originally learned at secondary school. In Russia, such monitoring is conducted since 1996. The Higher School of Economics experts study this topic in the scope of the “Monitoring Innovative Behaviour of the Population” project, aimed at identifying social tenets and behavioural models regarding research and innovation activities. The project is funded through the HSE Basic Research Programme.
Within a national-level poll (N = 1670, 16+) conducted in the scope of the project in 2014, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with 12 statements in various scientific subject areas. Five of the statements were false, seven were true. Almost two thirds of the respondents (65%) answered at least 6 of the 12 questions correctly.
Most frequently Russians gave correct answers to rather simple questions from the secondary school programme: 87% know that the Earth travels around the Sun; 77% are aware that the core of our planet is very hot; 71% realise that the continents on which we live have been drifting for millions of years, and will keep on drifting in future.
Answering more specific questions, the respondents were wrong much more often. Only 32% of them realise lasers focus light, not sonic waves; 33% know that antibiotics kill only bacteria, not viruses; 33% believe genes are present in all plants, not just in “genetically modified” ones. Finally, 36% justly believe that the baby’s gender is determined by the father’s genes. The right/wrong answers ratio varied in different socio-demographic groups. Respondents over 55 years old (55%), with secondary education or lower (57% and 53%, respectively), and residents of rural areas (58%) gave wrong answers more frequently.
To summarise, almost two thirds of the Russian population remain under illusion regarding a whole host of established scientific facts, or may even become victims of fraudsters exploiting the image of scientists and using pseudo-scientific ideas to promote certain goods or services. However, the share of respondents having problems answering difficult scientific questions is getting smallest every year.