NPR: Americans are ignorant; Employers should hire us

A friend pointed out an NPR story titled “1 In 4 Americans Thinks The Sun Goes Around The Earth, Survey Says”:

In the same survey, just 39 percent answered correctly (true) that “The universe began with a huge explosion” and only 48 percent said “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”

Just over half understood that antibiotics are not effective against viruses.

As alarming as some of those deficits in science knowledge might appear, Americans fared better on several of the questions than similar, but older surveys of their Chinese and European counterparts.

In other words, Americans are, from the perspective of NPR reporters, woefully ignorant. But at the same time NPR talks about employers’ unwillingness to hire certain Americans as though it were a problem that could easily be solved with simple top-down directives from Washington, D.C. (example story).

Is there not an inconsistency here? If we are as ignorant as NPR says we are, why would employers be lining up to hire us, even with the pressure that NPR considers appropriate for politicians in Washington, D.C. to apply?

Related: August 8, 2010 posting asking whether unemployed = 21st century draft horse


  1. Molly

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:34 pm


    Maybe because ignorance of science is not a liability in most jobs?

  2. philg

    February 15, 2014 @ 4:46 pm


    Molly: Knowing astronomy is not usually an important job qualification, of course, but it indicates that a person sat through K-12 without retaining very much. So an employer might be concerned that the person would have difficulty learning and/or retaining the information required to do his or her job.

    [And I am not enthusiastic about the people who didn’t know about antibiotics being hired by my doctor!]

  3. Skeptical Boi

    February 15, 2014 @ 5:36 pm


    I can’t find the list of questions published anywhere. I wonder why…

  4. Ronald Pottol

    February 15, 2014 @ 6:17 pm


    We do suck less than most though

    Scary thought, I know.

  5. paul kramarchyk

    February 15, 2014 @ 9:03 pm


    brief rant —- For me the biggest danger with scientific ignorance is public policy in the energy area. While this topic deserves a book, suffice it say that wind and solar will not power this economy. And it’s not even close. Not to mention the hideous change to the landscape it would take for “renewables” to make a serious dent in our power generation pie chart. And it appears the President is amongst the woefully clueless when it comes to making megawatts. (I voted for this President, twice. I had to choose and it wasn’t even close.) —- end of rant

  6. philg

    February 15, 2014 @ 9:15 pm


    Paul: Thanks for your comment, but it isn’t responsive to the original posting. The question is not whether or not scientific ignorance is good, bad, or indifferent (where “ignorance” is defined as “people who don’t believe what I believe”). The question is whether it can make sense to say (a) Americans are ignorant, and (b) it is just kind of an accident that employers don’t want to hire some fraction of working-age Americans.

  7. paul kramarchyk

    February 15, 2014 @ 9:31 pm


    Phil, I think the inconsistency you point out is unambiguously self-evident. And yes, NPR should acknowledge that a scientifically ignorant labor force will have a difficult time finding employment in a world that grows more technologically sophisticated and competitive each day.

  8. Russil Wvong

    February 16, 2014 @ 2:34 am


    Skeptical Boi: the NSF report (PDF) is linked from the NPR blog post. For the questions, see Table 7-8, on page 7-23.

    It looks like education helps. From the report:

    A primary indicator of public understanding of science in the United States comes from a nine-question index of factual knowledge questions included in the GSS [General Social Survey]. …

    Factual knowledge of science is strongly related to people’s level of formal schooling and the number of science and mathematics courses completed. For example, those who had not completed high school answered 45% of the nine questions correctly, and those who had completed a bachelor’s degree answered 78% of the questions correctly. The average percentage correct rose to 83% among those who had taken three or more science and mathematics courses in college….

    If you look at the year-to-year changes in the US unemployment rate, it doesn’t look like a long-term mismatch problem. It looks like a macroeconomic problem: when there’s a sudden shock like the 2008 crisis, people stop spending money.

    If I understood the other NPR story correctly, Obama wasn’t pushing for employers to hire more people–he was pushing for employers to not discriminate against the long-term unemployed when hiring. It’s a coordination problem: if you’re hiring and you’re flooded with applications, an easy filter is to drop any applicants who have been out of a job for a while. But when you’re coming out of a severe recession, at the level of society as a whole you end up with a kind of first-in-last-out queue. The people who were unlucky enough to be hit by the mass layoffs at the start of the recession, as opposed to later, will be out of work for the longest, and if their skills deteriorate, they may never be able to work again. Something more like a first-in-first-out queue, or at least a more random selection of applicants without filtering out people based on how long they’ve been unemployed, would do a better job of keeping the workforce from shrinking.

    Matthew Yglesias on the problem of long-term unemployment:

    The high-status thing to say is always that politicians focus too much on the short term and we ought to be worried about the long-term fundamentals. And back in 2009 and 2010, you certainly heard a lot of this kind of rhetoric that was aimed at establishing the seriousness of the speaker by disparaging the idea of juicing the economy in favor of the need to work on the long-term economic fundamentals. But six months is a relatively short span of time in the course of human history. And it turns out that a six-month spell of unemployment leads to a significant decrease in a potential worker’s attractiveness to employers. That means a six-month spell is relatively likely to turn into a yearlong spell or a two-year one. And that kind of prolonged absence from the labor force doesn’t just represent lost income and economic output for two months or 24 months. It represents lost opportunities to learn on-the-job skills and build organizational capital. It represents a worker who’ll probably drop out of the workforce altogether….

    Consequently, 10 or 20 years from now, we’re going to be poorer than we would’ve been had we responded more effectively in 2009 and 2010 to restore full employment. The failure to adequately and appropriately address the economic short term is proving to be a long-term disaster.

    On a more individual level, a New York Times article on the long-term unemployed includes the story of an MIT administrative assistant laid off in 2008 who applied to thousands of jobs with no success, ran out of savings, went bankrupt, and has been couch-surfing for the last two years, at the age of 53.

  9. SK

    February 16, 2014 @ 4:29 am


    Vaguely related: Obama recently raised min wage for federal workers. I was thinking why? And came up with nice conspiracy theory: fed are trying to somewhat unsuccessfully induce slight inflation for last few years, what is better way to induce inflation than to raise min wage?

  10. Vince

    February 17, 2014 @ 1:14 pm


    A simpler way to look at this is to keep in mind the fact that the unemployment rate was a lot lower just a few years ago. In other words, a large majority of the long term unemployed were working. So what explains the sharp rise in unemployment and especially long term unemployment? I doubt that it was caused by a sudden increase in ignorance regarding things that people should have leanred in school.

  11. patrick

    February 19, 2014 @ 12:25 pm


    I think Molly was actually on to something there. Holding up astronomy factoids as the standard of enlightenment itself suggests a different kind of ignorance. I wonder how many NPR commentators know how to change the oil in a car, shoot a gun, or catch, clean, and cook a fish. Aren’t Americans supposed to be self-reliant, rugged individualists, rather than effete mandarins?

  12. Daniel

    February 20, 2014 @ 2:17 am


    Perhaps there are good candidates, besides the ignorant, who still cant find jobs? Perhaps american workers are more speciliazed?

  13. David N

    February 20, 2014 @ 11:02 am

  14. jay c

    February 20, 2014 @ 3:47 pm


    I think Figure 7-7 of the PDF document Russil linked to and this chart:
    Earnings and Unemployment by Education tells you all you need to know for Phil’s question B.

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