Web Culture

Climate and Vaccines: Is The Internet Lowering Our Scientific Literacy?

Guy McDowell 05-05-2015

Moon landing conspiracy theories Learn All About The Moon Landing Conspiracy Theories On The Web Man first landed on the moon, that celestial body that is our constant orbiting companion, on July 20, 1969. Neil Armstrong recently passed away, which prompted an article all about him and the Apollo missions... Read More , anti-vaxxers 6 Sane Online Resources For The Latest On Ebola And Other Outbreaks Are you concerned about the recent Ebola outbreaks that are spreading across the globe? Do disease outbreaks cause you great alarm? Avoid the media entirely, and get the latest pandemic information from official sources. Read More , and climate change Can We Engineer the Planet to Fight Global Warming? If we can reverse global warming by engineering the planet... should we? Read More deniers. It seems like all sorts of established scientific knowledge is called into question The 8 Best Fact-Checking Sites for Finding Unbiased Truth This is the age of misinformation and fake news. Here are the best unbiased fact-checking sites so that you can find the truth. Read More because of bad information on the Internet Top 9 Conspiracy Web Sites Conspiracies refuse to die away even in this day and age. Here are the top conspiracy forums and conspiracy websites out there. Read More .


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 10 Best Channels for STEM Education on YouTube STEM is not just an acronym but an idea that could help transform how our children are taught. These ten YouTube channels not only teach but also inspire to study STEM subjects better. Read More . 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 facts How To Debunk Online Rumors & Urban Myths Have you ever seen a post on the Internet and your only reaction was "what? That can’t possibly be true". It’s happened to me lots of times and I’m always sent on a wild goose... Read More That’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 Stay Up To Date With Science News With These Sites If you're wondering what's up the sleeve of the sciences, make it a habit to read one of these top 3 science news pages on a regular basis. Read More …”.


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?


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 Create Your Own Dinosaur Theme Park With Jurassic Park Builder Building a real-life dinosaur theme park seems like a bad idea, especially if you've ever seen Jurassic Park. Sometimes it's better to pretend. Read More .


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 Is Smarter Technology Dumbing Down the Human Race? As a child, you memorized your friend's phone numbers; now you just add them to your phone. You used to memorize directions; now you just use your GPS. Are humans becoming stupid? Read More ‘.

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 8 Weirdest Conspiracy Theory Websites On The Planet Isn't it crazy how few skeptic, fact-checking sites there are out there, yet there is such an abundance of crazy, poorly-researched conspiracy garbage sites ? I've decided to share a few of my top selections... Read More ? And how does the Internet play into this?


What is the Internet’s Role in This?

The Web was born The Web Is 25... So Let Us Celebrate [Weird & Wonderful Web] The Web recently turned 25, with this incredibly dense and diverse set of online destinations having been born in 1989. I think it's time to celebrate the Web in all its different forms. Party, anyone? Read More  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 [Broken URL Removed] 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 4 Reasons You Should Never Trust Social Media You just got burned in an argument because, once again, you quoted something you saw on social media. Why does this keep happening? Read More ?


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 5 Sites To Learn How To Write A Book And Get It Published There are millions of people all around the world who want to be professional writers, yet only a tiny fraction of them ever make enough money to write full-time. It’s a market that is saturated... Read More . 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.)


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 10 Essential First Steps When Starting A Wordpress Blog Having created quite a few blogs, I'd like to think that I have a good system down for those essential first steps, and I hope it can be of use to you too. By following... Read More  – that’s basically free. Maybe throw in a weekly or daily podcast 4 Tips for Producing a Professional-Sounding Podcast They say content reigns king when producing a podcast, but it's not the only thing that matters. Read More . 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 How To Kickstart Your New Social Media Accounts Ah, the smell of a new social media account. Take a moment to pop the bubblewrap and kick the tyres. Looking good? Excellent. Now we have to rev it up and get the motor purring. Read More like Twitter More Than Updates - 5 Creative Twitter Marketing Campaigns Social media has a reputation for serving narcissistic purposes, encouraging users to share minute details about their day that no one really wants to know. The fact of the matter is that social media tools... Read More , Facebook 4 Easy Steps To Promote Your Business On Facebook Read More , Pinterest Double The Social Power: How To Integrate Pinterest And Facebook Most curators of visual content have a Pinterest account and either a Facebook account, page or group. Today we'll focus on connecting Facebook Pages and Pinterest accounts; however many of these ideas could be used... Read More , YouTube How To Make A Documentary Online That Will Spread Like Wildfire Read More , 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 4 Reasons to Switch to Managed WordPress Hosting for Your Site Managed WordPress hosting removes all the hassle of running a WordPress site. Here's how you can benefit by switching hosts. Read More  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

Related topics: Education Technology, Geeky Science.

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  1. Deere
    May 6, 2015 at 6:09 am

    > Have you noticed that the misinformation seems directly proportional to the amount of people on the Internet?

    Not at all.

    > What’s happening that people can’t separate facts from rhetoric?

    Laziness. Also "I think it's like this, therefore that's how things are, besides, constructing a simple Google query is for geeks. USA! USA!"

    > Why is it that people on the Internet deny even the most basic scientific principles?

    Because way too many people/corporations/movements turned to be either scams or having an additional agenda to "we're gonna make the world better".

    > Why is that people on the Internet will believe anything with the word “science” anywhere near it?


    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 7:03 pm


      That about sums it up! Would have made for a very short article though. :)

  2. dragonmouth
    May 5, 2015 at 11:38 pm

    In the past 150 years the sea levels have risen and fallen four times and, in spite of what the eco-nuts are predicting, the world and civilization that we know and love have not come to an end; no cities have been swept away.

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 2:57 am

      That's reasonable to say.

      My thoughts are that the only way we'll know what will happen 100%, no room for error or doubt, is to be there when it happens. Even then, perception can do funny things to how we'll see reality.

      Would it make the world that much of a worse place for us if we all put a little effort into shrinking our 'eco-footprint'? I don't think so.

      Yet I also don't think it's time to declare that the sky is falling. I'm also reasonably certain that we can't tax away the problem. Didn't work against alcoholism. Didn't work against smoking. Ain't going to work against CO2 production.

    • Tina
      May 6, 2015 at 8:45 am

      "the world and civilization that we know and love have not come to an end; "

      I bet the woodland bison (extinct), the Merriam's elk (extinct), the baiji (extinct), the polar bear (endangered), and around 20,000 other species under threat would disagree. It's considered the sixth mass extinction and it's caused by humans.

      "[T]he rate of extinction had reached 100-1,000 times that suggested by the fossil records before humans."
      Humans driving extinction faster than species can evolve, say experts

      "[T]he total number of such invertebrates [insects] fell by half over the past 35 years while the human population doubled."
      Fact or Fiction?: The Sixth Mass Extinction Can Be Stopped

      Those are symptoms.

      We're at the end of the food chain and we haven't evolved enough to innovate ourselves out of replacing Planet Earth. If we continue at this rate, however, we'll have to figure this out very soon. Of course it might take another 100 years until even the last person can see and feel what's going on for sure. Let's wait it out, shall we?

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 7:03 pm

      Hey Tina,

      To be fair, dragonmouth was talking about sea levels.

      I have no doubt that humans in general have caused a lot of damage, some of it irreparable, but some of the examples you give have neither correlation to, or causation by, climate change. I think that's the point dragonmouth and bnjohnson are trying to make.

      Not that I agree with them completely! It's an odd day when I defend my favourite troll. ;) NDP are in power in Alberta, though. Anything can happen I suppose.

      Part of the trouble of discussing things like this on the Internet, is that it can go in tangents too easily. Sometimes the tangents come back to the discussion point, sometimes they veer off into another dimension where the Leafs win the Cup this year. :)

  3. Petru
    May 5, 2015 at 8:33 pm

    Great article.
    Don't be discouraged to post similar things by those that have seen to much misinformation.

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 2:51 am

      Hi Petru,

      Thank you.

      I don't get discouraged at all.

      If the criticisms were valid, and based on facts, I'd think about them and give them due consideration.

      If, objectively, I see that the criticisms are valid I would adjust my mindset accordingly and grow from there.

      What more can anyone do? :)

  4. makeuseofsux
    May 5, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    thanks I will unsubscribe from this site now. what an idiot of a author and dumb website.. Hope this disinfo misinformation shithole of an internet site goes in the garbage

    • Jessica C
      May 6, 2015 at 12:18 am

      Bye! :)

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 2:48 am

      Still, glad you read the article. Thank you for the input.

  5. Chris
    May 5, 2015 at 3:03 pm

    People now a days tend to mix up charisma and knowledge.

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 2:47 am

      I agree. We also confuse charisma with authority, leadership, capability, all sorts of things.

      Maybe that's why we get the elected officials we get. Too busy admiring the fist-bump they just gave, or how they ate a sandwich, instead of their performance record.

    • Deere
      May 6, 2015 at 6:25 am

      > People now a days tend to mix up charisma and knowledge.

      Rest assured, it's not particularly new attitude. Since ancient times people used their charisma-based skills to support whatever their model of reality was.

      The best example for that would be probably Niels Bohr.

    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 6:54 pm

      Deere, I haven't read that story about Bohr. I don't remember much from university chemistry about him. Long time ago. I'll have to check that out.

  6. bnjohanson
    May 5, 2015 at 1:33 pm

    "Climate Deniers"....well, there is a mug illustrating the author of this page, A REAL LIFE ILLITERATE OF SCIENCE ladies and gentleman.

    Is there such a thing as a, "Climate Denier"? I'll tell you what, I'll start to panic when the climate STOPS changing after 4.5B years of peaks and troughs in climactic change. During times of massive O2 levels, insects were the size of shoe boxes; during times of heavier vulcanism, CO2 levels soared to a point where giant ferns permeated the planet. In fact, the last 10,000 years, since the end of the last of thousands of Ice Ages in Earth's history, an extremely rare moderation in climate change has occurred that has brought homo sapiens from hunters and gatherers in several-member tribes to farming, forming communities, and discovering religion, to look at us now; IN 10,000 YEARS !

    In terms of Anthropogenic Climate Change, that is spikes in climate caused by man, one relatively significant volcanic eruption that average once a decade belches more CO2 than everything caused by man since the Industrial Revolution in the 1800's.

    So McDowell- either LEARN SCIENCE pal or just admit that because of your lack of courage to admit that you support policies that seek to tax the heck out of everything that exists, you instead want to point to "climate change" as your ruse to raise these funds fbo the government along with your leftists buddies Obama, Kerry, Gore, et al.

    Otherwise, you're all laughably making fools of yourselves and losing credibility every single day that goes by...

    • Bruce E
      May 5, 2015 at 9:00 pm

      Have a quick read: http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hazards/gas/climate.php

      Man pumps more than 100x more CO2 into the atmosphere every year (about 35 gigatons, or about 0.004 gigatons/hour) than ALL volcanoes on the planet, including submarine (estimates range from 0.13 to 0.44 gigatons/year).

      The Mount St. Helens eruption in 1980 pushed out about 0.01 gigatons (in its entirety) and the Pinatubo eruption in 1991 emitted around 0.05 gigatons. Those emissions aren't even coming close to what you are claiming above since both of these were significant (not even relatively) eruptions.

      Would you care to revise your statement?

    • Ekus
      May 5, 2015 at 9:26 pm

      That's a popular myth, @bnjohanson, but in reality all volcanoes on the planet (including undersea ones) emit around 0.2 gigaton of CO2 per year, while human civilization released 35 gigatons in 2010 alone: http://volcanoes.usgs.gov/hazards/gas/climate.php

    • khendar
      May 6, 2015 at 1:42 am

      The whole "volcanoes produce more CO2 than humans" is nonsense. Multiple studies have shown that volcanoes produce between 65 and 319 million tons of CO2 per year, whereas human contributions are in the order of 30 billion tons per year. That's orders of magnitude greater.


    • Guy
      May 6, 2015 at 2:44 am

      Yet your assessment of me suggests you believe you're psychic. ;)

      At what point in this article did I say what I believe, feel, or know about climate change?
      Absolutely nowhere.

      Did you read this sentence? "Why is that people on the Internet will believe anything with the word “science” anywhere near it?"

      That's just as much an issue as people not knowing basic scientific facts. Blind faith in anything, including science, can be bad.

      Reading just one thing and believing you're informed is part of the science-literacy issue. In fact, if you did just a quick search on the Web, you'd probably find out that I worked in the oil and gas industry for several years. If you knew just that little bit more about me, you might be able to better guess my opinion about climate change and humankind's role in that.

      Which illustrates my point - people will believe what they want to believe, or only pay heed to research that supports their initial opinion. If they do any research at all, of course.

      Advice - the wise don't need it, and fools don't heed it. ;)