American adults are scoring higher than they did 20 years ago on a widely used index of civic scientific literacy – but there is still room for improvement, according to a recent report from the American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

Overall, the report showed that 28 percent of U.S. adults in 2008 had a sufficient enough understanding of basic scientific ideas to be able to read the New York Times’ science section, up from 10 percent in 1988.


Among the other findings were:

  • Approximately 44 percent of American adults can define DNA correctly, but only 20 percent can define the meaning of a stem cell.
  • While 85 percent of adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA, only 27 percent of Americans think that more than half of human genes are identical to those of mice.
  • American adults who are able to define the meaning of a scientific study has increased from 22 percent to 34 percent.
  • The proportion of adults who understand that antibiotics do not kill viruses has increased from 31 percent to 55 percent.

In their conclusion, authors underscored the need to strengthen science literacy:

Scientific literacy has become an essential component of the skills that every adult needs to thrive in the twenty-first century … Looking to the future, we must increase the proportion of scientifically literate adults in our society. As the survey results presented here demonstrate, formal education and informal science learning are partners in the process of advancing scientific literacy. Without a solid foundation of basic scientific constructs, even the best science journalism and communication will fall on deaf ears. Scientific literacy is not a cure or antidote in and of itself. It is, however, a prerequisite for preserving a society that values science and is able to sustain its democratic values and traditions.

Read the entire report (pdf)

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