THEGREENGROK

Is Scientific Ignorance Environmental Bliss?


by Bill Chameides | April 30th, 2009
posted by Erica Rowell (Editor)

Permalink | Comments Off on Is Scientific Ignorance Environmental Bliss?

A new international survey shows that the teens who are most optimistic about the environment have the lowest test scores in science. Go figure. (Getty Images)

When asked why we work so tirelessly on environmental issues, old fogies like me often respond that we’re concerned about the world we’re handing off to its youth. But what about the young people themselves? What do they think about the environment? A new report surveying teens from 57 countries has some surprising answers.

When I first saw the report’s cover, the title’s “PISA 2006” jumped out at me, making me first think it was some convocation of scientists and engineers in 2006 deciding how to save that famously leaning tower. Course, I knew that couldn’t be the real subject because I’d asked my researcher to send me the report because of some interesting findings on scientific achievement I’d heard about.

Turns out the full title of the report, which was released a month ago, is Green at Fifteen? How 15-Year-Olds Perform in Environmental Science and Geoscience in PISA 2006. PISA, short for the Program for International Student Assessment, is a survey conducted every three years by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental research and policy group of 30 countries that assesses economic and social indicators of democratic nations around the world, and develops policy recommendations based on their findings. According to the group’s web site, the latest report is

“[an] assessment of the science competencies of 15-year-olds … the first comprehensive internationally comparative knowledge base of what students know about the environment and environment-related issues.”

The study included more than 400,000 students from 57 countries. Student proficiency and attitudes were gauged toward a wide-array of issues related to geosciences and the environment ranging from nuclear waste and energy shortage to air pollution. OECD then analyzed the findings with respect to various socio-economic and demographic factors.

The Envelope Please … Or, Less Hollywood, Some of the Results

  • Basic Proficiency: 84 percent of the kids showed at least a basic level of proficiency in the environment — that’s a lot better than I’d expected. The highest levels of proficiency were found in Canada, Finland, Chinese Taipei, Estonia, Hong Kong, and Liechtenstein (note which country is missing, America). As in most things educational, economically disadvantaged kids and kids in immigrant families did not do as well as the rest, on average.
  • High Proficiency: Highly proficient students “can handle the most complex tasks and represent a pool of young people equipped with a high level of understanding of the environment, who may make a difference in helping to address environmental issues.” There’s pretty good news here as well: almost 20 percent of the globe’s kids scored at the highly proficient level. Students in Chinese Taipei did the best with just over one-third of students achieving high proficiency rankings. Countries that scored the next highest proficiency levels were, in order, Hong Kong, Finland, Japan, Canada, Slovenia, Korea, and Estonia — all with over 25 percent of the students achieving highest proficiency. The students from the United States did not.
  • U.S. Kids Leave Room for Improvement: The percentage of Americans kids who performed at the basic level or better was statistically the same as the global average (84 percent). But U.S. students did worse than the average in the high-proficiency level for the environment (17 percent versus 19 percent). They fared even worse in the geosciences, where the high-proficiency average for all nations was 14 percent compared to the U.S. average of only 11 percent.
  • Oh Canada: While U.S. performance indicates the strong need for an environmental studies makeover, our neighbors to the north are looking pretty pretty. Canadian students performed near the top in most categories. It will be interesting to see how this foundation in geosciences and environmental issues will influence the choices facing Canadians over the coming decades as they grapple with tough decisions on how to address climate change. Will their proficiency translate into more efficient, better climate policies?
  • Science Proficiency: Not surprisingly, the kids with the best grasp of science tended to achieve the highest proficiency levels. This finding illustrates a basic failing in the United States: more than 90 percent of the U.S. students surveyed indicated they were familiar with a wide range of environmental issues but their results demonstrated a below-average understanding of them.
  • The Optimism Conundrum: Perhaps most fascinating of all was the finding that students with the lowest environmental proficiency tended to have a more optimistic outlook “that the environment will improve in the future.” The study’s writers concluded that the less proficient students “may need more information about the environmental risks that lie ahead.”

    But who knows? Maybe those environmentally challenged students know something the rest of us don’t. Maybe they understand that all the work the enviro’s are doing is going to make a difference and things will be just fine. But I don’t think that a “don’t worry, be happy” attitude is such a good idea. Scientific knowledge or lack thereof will likely determine our country’s economic future. This is one more report that suggests it’s time to get current with science and may I suggest a daily helping of The Green Grok….

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