06/09/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Why Are Children Rejecting Science?

"The old gods are dead or dying and people everywhere are searching, asking: What is the new mythology to be, the mythology of this unified earth as one harmonious being?" (1)

-- Joseph Campbell, The Inner Reaches of Outer Space

"A radical new view of human nature has been slowly emerging and gaining momentum, with revolutionary implications for the way we understand and organize our economic, social and environmental relations in the centuries to come. We have discovered Homo empathicus." (2)

-- Jeremy Rifkin, The Empathic Civilization

It is no longer news that Americans are not very literate in science. Recent surveys are embarrassing. They show that one in five Americans thinks the sun revolves around the earth, a belief that was abandoned centuries ago. Fewer than a third know that DNA is a key to heredity. Americans in general do not know what molecules are, except that they are tiny. Only around ten percent know what radiation is. (3) Sixty-eight percent of us believe in the devil, 69 percent believe in hell, (4) and about a third believe the Bible is literally true. (5) Only four in ten believe in Darwinian evolution. (6) In fact, 34 percent of Americans cannot name the scientific theory with which Darwin's name is associated. (7) Almost half of Americans believe God created human beings pretty much in their present form during the past 10,000 years. (8)

Geographic literacy, a close cousin of scientific literacy, is also dismal, particularly among young Americans. According to a 2002 National Geographic-Roper survey of 18 to 24-year-olds in nine Western countries, 83 percent of Americans could not find Afghanistan on a world map and 63 percent could not locate Iraq. More of them knew that the island featured in the Survivor television series was in the South Pacific than could locate Israel. Three in 10 could not find the Pacific Ocean, which covers a third of the globe. Eleven percent of young Americans could not even locate the United States, and fewer than half could identify France, the United Kingdom, or Japan. Half could not locate New York or Ohio on a map of the United States. Particularly humiliating was that subjects from all other countries were better able to identify the total population of the U. S. than could our own young citizens. The U. S. scored next to last in the survey. (9) This was an improvement compared to a similar poll in 1988, in which Americans came in last. (10)

Young Americans tend to take a "whatever" attitude toward their geographic disabilities. Only 43 percent think map reading is "absolutely necessary" in today's world. (11) This is strange, since the 18 to 24-year-olds are prime warrior age at a time when wars are in progress in Iraq and Afghanistan, which eight out of ten could not locate. As John Fahey, president of the National Geographic Society, said in a whopping understatement, "If our young people can't find places on a map and lack awareness of current events, how can they understand the world's cultural, economic and natural resource issues that confront us?"(12)

Teaching Science in a Plugged-in World

Scientific organizations for years have raised the alarm over the appallingly low level of scientific literacy in the United States, but efforts to correct the situation have achieved only minimal success. Why aren't young Americans more interested in science, and why don't more of them wish to become scientists? It's obvious that science has transformed their lives -- all those smartphones, video games, PCs and TVs. Why aren't youngsters as dazzled as their elders about these contributions? Why don't they find the scientific report card more compelling? Science advocates pull their hair out over these questions.

A poster child for the problem might be Dylan, a sixteen-year-old boy in an Albuquerque, NM, public school who is making plans for college. His father is an aerospace engineer and his mother is a computer scientist. I interviewed them for this article. Dylan, they said, is a gifted student who excels in all areas. He was fascinated with science in his early teens, which delighted his parents, but his interest waned as he progressed through school. I asked why Dylan drifted away from science. His mother explained, "What happens to kids like Dylan who have an intuitive sense about the greater aspects of life is that they go elsewhere, often to religion and philosophy, to try and get a more accurate picture of reality. The narrow view taught in schools breeds distrust of everything they are taught, including science." She describes how Dylan discovered Buddhism on his own, which, she says, "was like fresh air to him." Dylan confirms his mom's view. He isn't sure what he'll focus on in college, but he says it won't be science. (13)

A major problem is the way science is presented and taught in our schools, says Jeremy Rifkin, the economist, activist, and founder and president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Washington, DC. Rifkin is an advisor to heads of state and companies around the world. He is author of the just-published book The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis, a sweeping new interpretation of the history of civilization. Rifkin examines the evolution of empathy and the profound ways it has shaped the human story. He presents compelling evidence that we are an empathic species -- Homo empathicus.

This has far-reaching consequences for society, he suggests, and may well determine our future survival on Earth. Rifkin believes that human empathy is increasing and is being extended globally to all life in the biosphere. But time is not on our side. He says, "The irony is that just as we are beginning to glimpse the possibility of a global empathic embrace, we find ourselves close to our own extinction. Can we reach global empathy in time to avoid the devolution of civilization and save the Earth?" (14)


1) Campbell J. The Inner Reaches of Outer Space. 3rd edition, revised. New York, NY: New World Library; 2002: xix.

2) Rifkin J. The Empathic Civilization. New York, NY: Tarcher/Penguin; 2009: 43.

3) Dean C. Scientific Savvy? In U.S., Not Much. New York Times. August 30, 2005. Accessed February 16, 2010.

4) The Religious and Other Beliefs of Americans 2003. The Harris Poll #11. February 26, 2003. Accessed February 26, 2010.

5) Newport F. One-third of Americans believe the bible is literally true. Accessed March 8, 2010.

6) Newport F. On Darwin's birthday, only 4 in 10 believe in Evolution. February 11, 2009. Accessed February 16, 2010.

7) Newport F. On Darwin's birthday, only 4 in 10 believe in Evolution. February 11, 2009. Accessed February 16, 2010.

8) Newport F. Almost half of Americans believe humans did not evolve. Accessed March 8, 2010.

9) National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs. 2006 Geographic Literacy Study. Accessed February 16, 2010.

10) Young Americans still in dark on geography, survey shows. Accessed February 16, 2010.

11) National Geographic-Roper Public Affairs. 2006 Geographic Literacy Study. Accessed February 16, 2010.

12) Fahey J. Survey: young people lack geography skills. November 20, 2002. Accessed February 16, 2010.

13) Personal communication to Larry Dossey. March 28, 2010. Names and identities have been changed to protect privacy.

14) Rifkin J. Press release. December 7, 2009.