Try out this riddle: If you could double over a piece of normal notebook paper 42 times, how thick would it be?
The answer, though fanciful, illustrates just how hard it can be to understand exponential growth and doubling, two pieces of math that explain the spread of viruses like Covid-19.
Because by the time you made the 42nd fold, your stack of paper would reach the moon. It’s not just a handy fact for trivia night: It shows how exponential growth can result in numbers that are nearly incomprehensible.
“There’s so much in the news that takes a better understanding of math concepts than what we all seem to have,” said Pam Wasserman, the senior vice president for education at the nonprofit Population Connection. Working with university faculty who train new teachers, Wasserman sees firsthand how challenging the ideas can be.
“Math concepts are really hard,” she said. “It’s not a surprise that the general public has a hard time grasping these.”
Americans scored an average of 63% on a series of questions measuring factual scientific knowledge in the most recent report on public understanding of science and technology put out by the National Science Board. We’re also not very good at math.
And now, with a pandemic dominating global headlines, Covid-19 is putting Americans’ knowledge to the test.
Classroom educators and education activists have said they’re concerned by some aspects of the public response to the virus, including angry reactions to the guidelines designed by epidemiologists to keep America safe.
“If people understood how an outbreak could take off so quickly, and it does get back to this concept of exponential growth, they might be more careful about how they go about their day,” Wasserman said.
Learning to think like a scientist
While the basics of viral spread, infection and other scientific ideas can help decode stories about Covid-19, many science educators say there’s a broader perspective required when it comes to understanding what’s happening in the world.
“It’s impossible to teach students about everything,” said Blake Touchet, who teaches biology at North Vermillion High School and Abbeville High School in Louisiana.
There’s simply too much to know, he said. And the frontiers of scientific knowledge are always changing as theories get updated and revised. Instead, Touchet teaches his students to think like scientists.
“It’s important that they understand how the process of science works, so that they can continue growing and learning even when they’re out of school,” he said.
One skill that Touchet emphasizes in his high school classes is called source evaluation, which can be applied to news articles, podcasts or even a study from a scientific journal.
“Analyzing and evaluating it to see if it has bias, or whether it’s containing accurate information or whether it’s reliable,” he said.
Touchet teaches his students to use a list of questions created by librarians at California State University, Chico, weighing factors of currency, relevance, authority, accuracy and purpose. It’s known as the CRAAP test. (Insert joke here.)
In teaching students about the process of science, Touchet also emphasizes the significance of scientific consensus, which can bring clarity to contentious topics.
“There was a study that was published showing that 97% of scientists agree with anthropogenic climate change — that humans are causing climate change,” he said, offering an example of a clear scientific consensus.
In the news, Touchet said the situation is sometimes represented as an unresolved debate, despite the fact that most experts actually agree on the facts.
To illustrate the point, Touchet shows his class a clip from the show “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver,” where a “debate” is staged between three climate-change deniers and 97 scientists who believe human activity drives global warning. (“I show that on mute, because John Oliver is kind of a potty mouth,” he explained.)
“That was a really good visualization of what we’re thinking about when we’re looking at scientific consensus,” Touchet said. “We’re not talking about people who are agreeing or disagreeing with each other. We’re talking about data.”
It’s an idea that Touchet said is directly applicable to understanding news about Covid-19, especially when a lone scientist goes on television to tout a so-called cure with little support in the broader community.
A recent example is hydroxychloroquine, a drug that San Diego physician Dr. Jennings Staley pushed as “almost too good to be true.” Experts agree that taking the unproven drug can be risky, and Staley was charged with fraud.
America’s education gap
Those skills of evaluating scientific ideas are more essential than ever, but Americans’ grasp of science varies widely.
Americans with a post-graduate education — think master’s or doctorate — did the best on a recent Pew Research Center study evaluating science knowledge. Seventy-one percent of them scored “high” in scientific knowledge. In contrast, fewer than one in five Americans with a high school degree or less did that well.
Where you went to school matters, too.
“The public school system in the US is completely decentralized,” said Ann Reid, the executive director of the National Center for Science Education. “The science education that kids get can vary enormously from one place to another.”
Students in some areas have few opportunities to engage with science outside of school, Reid said. She called these places “science deserts,” and while the NCSE works in many rural areas, Reid explained that some urban students also lack access to learning opportunities.
Not only that, there’s a wide range in the way science is taught in different places. The NCSE has found that access to accurate information about evolution and climate change, two areas supported by a broad scientific consensus, varies from classroom to classroom.
Where science meet politics, that information gap feeds a dangerous division.
“Teacher education programs should anticipate, and equip future teachers to deal with, the politicization of science,” the report found.
And while the challenges of understanding math and science are not limited to the United States, Americans’ competencies in these subjects often fall far behind other developed countries.
In the most recent figures from the Programme for International Student Assessment, students from the United States ranked 37th in math among participating education systems. We did a bit better in science, coming in at 18th place.
The issue extends beyond the classroom. The State of US Science and Engineering 2020 report found that the United States historic leadership role in science and engineering is slipping away.
Learning more about science at any age
Just because Americans lack some basic information about science doesn’t mean they’re not interested.
“The term ‘anti-science’ is thrown around a lot, and I don’t think it captures the situation very well,” Reid said.
“There are certain areas of science where there’s a lot of misinformation pumped into the system, and people accept that information because it’s coming from people they trust. But I don’t think that makes them anti-science.”
In fact, some of the same polls that revealed gaps in Americans’ understanding of science spoke to their desire to learn more. A 2016 National Science Board study found that 95% of Americans were interested in new medical discoveries, and 84% were interested in scientific discoveries.
“That Tony Fauci should become a rock star suggests to me that there’s a lot of hunger out there to have good, accurate, understandable science information,” said Reid, referring to the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. (Fauci has hit peak stardom with a bobblehead and cupcakes.)
If you’re one of the Americans who wants to learn more, there are plenty of free resources for brushing up on your understanding of science.
The nonprofit Khan Academy, which has partnered with institutions including NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has a wide range of free classes. Its Intro to Biology covers the scientific method, one of the foundational ideas emphasized by education experts.
And you don’t need to be sitting in a classroom to apply the principles of the CRAAP test used by many science teachers.
It’s a set of criteria you can employ for websites, Wikipedia pages, open-access resources and more. It’s a neutral tool that helps reveal the reliability of the information you encounter in daily life.
You can even use it when you’re reading this story.