American Ignorance

February 24, 2006

It’s not just intelligent design that scientists need to worry about -- it’s witches.

K-12 science achievement has stagnated, according to the National Science Board’s "Science and Engineering Indicators, 2006" report, issued Thursday. Witches, however, staged a big comeback in the '90s before slipping a few notches.

According to a section of the report on pseudoscience, only around 14 percent of Americans believed in witches in 1990, according to a Gallup poll. Witches rallied for a decade, convincing over a quarter of Americans of their existence by 2001, before about 4 percent of those reneged, putting the believers at just over 20 percent in 2005.

Jo Ann Vasquez, a National Science Board member and the lead author of the report, said that science teachers are in need of professional development to combat misinformation. According to the report, as of 2002, nearly one-fourth of science teachers and one-fifth of math teachers did not have certification in the field they were teaching. “A lot of junior high teachers still think that the Earth tilts back and forth to create the seasons,” said Vasquez, a former curriculum developer for Mesa Public Schools in Arizona.

Of course, witches in tough economic times, like teachers, still need a roof over their heads. About 29 percent of Americans believed in haunted houses in 1990. Perhaps bolstered by a strong real estate market, Americans figured more ghosts would invest, and, by 2001, 42 percent of Americans believed in haunted houses. As witches moved out of American minds, they may have moved out of their houses too. The percentage of haunted house believers dropped to 38 in 2005.

Nearly all of the paranormal beliefs surveyed -- from ghosts to communing-with-the-dead -- followed the same pattern: lower in 1990; peaking in 2001, and falling back a bit in 2005, while still above the 1990 level. Reincarnation, however, is no longer in vogue, and the future is a bit cloudy for extrasensory perception. Fewer Americans believe in those two paranormal phenomena than in 1990. Still, 41 percent of Americans believe in ESP, and 20 percent in reincarnation. Telepathic messages sent to dead people seeking comment were not returned.

People communing with Darwin might want to translate the depressing news that only about 42 percent of Americans said that the statement, “human beings are developed from earlier species of animals,” is true. That percentage tied for lowest with those in Russia among seven regions represented – China, European Union, Japan, Malaysia, Russia, South Korea, U.S. – represented in the report. Additionally, only about 35 percent of Americans said the “universe began with a huge explosion,” tied for second lowest with Russia, and nearly double China. In most of the scientific literacy questions, Americans did well compared to the other countries, taking home the gold in knowing that antibiotics don’t kill viruses -- over 50 percent knew – and in answering that not all “radioactivity is man-made,” -- over 70 percent.

While well educated men who live near the coasts were most likely to say that Darwin’s theory of evolution has been well supported by evidence, a survey released this year of 439 college students in Texas and Oklahoma should chill the hearts of academics. Bryan Farha, a professor of education at Oklahoma City University, and Gary Steward, associate dean of the College of Liberal arts at the University of Central Oklahoma, found that the students surveyed with more education -- 23 percent of freshmen, compared to 31 percent of seniors and 34 percent of graduate students -- were more likely to believe in paranormal phenomena.

"As people attain higher college-education levels, the likelihood of believing in paranormal dimensions increases," Farha and Steward wrote in the January-February issue of the Skeptical Inquirer magazine. Still, college students were less likely than the general public in nearly all of the 13 categories to say they believe in various paranormal phenomena. Those pesky witches, however, captivated 26 percent of the college students surveyed, identical to the general public.

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