Humans

An unsettling number of Americans can’t identify a hypothesis

These days we have more information at our fingertips than ever before, so it’s a real puzzle why so many people insist on rejecting the facts.

Maybe the answer is: we don’t know how a fact comes to be.

A new survey from the Pew Research Center has found that many Americans cannot recognise the hypothesis part of the scientific method when confronted with a problem in everyday life.

“In an era of easy access to a wide array of information, along with sometimes-intense debate over what information is true and false, this survey takes stock of the degree to which the public shares a common understanding of science facts and processes,” says Cary Funk, director of science and society research at Pew Research Center.

It wasn’t all bad news – Americans’ knowledge of specific scientific facts seemed pretty good. But their understanding of the scientific method was more worrisome.

With more than 4,000 respondents, only 52 percent could correctly identify a scientific hypothesis about a computer slowing down.

The authors of the findings said this was one of the most challenging questions for participants to answer, showing “wide educational differences on science knowledge” overall.

You can be imagine that the ramifications go beyond a bad trivia score. If roughly half of Americans cannot identify a hypothesis, the very start of the scientific method, how are we to know when we’ve finished the race?

Put simply: how do we know when we’ve passed beyond the hypothetical, into the factual stage?

Sure, a hypothesis is an educated guess, but a theory is a well-substantiated explanation, repeatedly tested and confirmed through the scientific method – a process so rigorous it can sometimes be called a fact.

Without being able to decipher between these two crucial concepts, it would be extremely hard to understand just about any scientific study put in front of you, let alone read it without bias.

As Charles Darwin put it: “I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved… as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.”

The good news is that there were some areas where respondents performed well – this survey found most Americans can correctly answer a question about antibiotics overuse or the definition of an incubation period.

There’s also the argument that improving scientific knowledge more broadly wouldn’t solve many of our big, political problems.

But scientific literacy has never been, nor never should be, just about the facts. Instead maybe we need to teach people more about how those facts come to be in the first place. 

The report has been published by the Pew Research Centre.

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