In January 2018, The Levada Center conducted a poll on the topic of scientific literacy and pseudoscience using a representative sample of the Russian Federation’s adult population consisting of 1612 respondents.

Scientific Literacy

Table 1: Scientific Literacy of Russians (percent of respondents)

Please indicate whether each of the following statements is true or false: True False Don’t know
Electrons are smaller than atoms 55 16 29
All radioactivity is man-made 40 44 16
The father’s genes decide whether a baby is a boy or a girl 36 35 29
Lasers work by focusing sound waves 30 32 38
Antibiotics kill both viruses and bacteria 46 34 20
The continents on which we live have been moving and changing their locations for millions of years, and will continue to move in the future 70 9 21
Ordinary plants do not contain genes and genetically modified ones do contain genes 42 30 28

A testing method was used to measure levels of scientific literacy. Respondents were given with a series of statements that presented the central concepts behind theories from a wide variety of scientific fields. These statements could be either true or false (Table 1). Respondents could, of course, simply guess whether the statements were true or false, and we can see how many people agreed with false statements (Fig. 1). Nonetheless, if the tests are absolutely identical, changes in scientific literacy can be observed and comparisons can be made between different socio-demographic groups or even different countries.

Fig. 1 Scientific Literacy of Russians, 2009* and 2018 (percent of respondents)

In 2018, only 2.3% of respondents gave the correct answer to all seven questions, and an additional 7.2% gave the correct answer on six tests. This means that 9.5% of respondents demonstrated a “high” level of scientific literacy (6-7 questions; such respondents were fewer in 2009 at only 6.7%). 30.5% reached a “moderate” level (4-5 questions; 28% in 2009). Accordingly, 59.9% of respondents had a low level of scientific literacy (0-3 questions; 65.2% in 2009).

Thus, a positive trend of increasing levels of scientific literacy can be observed from 2009 to 2018, although when one takes into account the fact that all questions were of a high school level, the situation appears quite depressing. The only positive trend over the past nine years is the fact that an increasing number of respondents correctly answered the question on how antibiotics function: 23% in 2009 versus 34% in 2018 (13% in 1996).

The average number of correctly-answered questions has increased slightly over the past nine years from 3.9 to 4.0 (out of 7). This indicator was higher than 5 for only one of the socio-demographic groups studied: Muscovites (5.4). After Muscovites, the groups that scored highest were people working at various levels of management and professionals (4.7), as well as students and respondents with a higher education (4.5).  The lowest scores were observed amongst respondents with less than a highschool education (3.1), and the elderly (older than 55) (3.6).

Russians stood out only in relation to how well they knew the structure of an atom—Russia came in 4th out of the 40 countries where the survey was conducted. The rest of the questions, however, paint a sad picture: Russia came in 24th place in terms of knowledge of antibiotics, 27th on the nature of lasers, 28th on the theory of radioactivity, 34th on the theory of continental drift, and 39th on human genetics (Fig. 2).

Data on Russia from 2018, the US – 2014, Korea – 2004, China – 2010, Japan – 2011, Malaysia – 2014, (surveys of people aged 18 and older); European countries – 2005 (survey of people aged 15 and older; bear in mind that young people usually have higher test results).

*In China and European countries, this question was presented in a format that required a negative answer (“false”): “A child’s sex is determined by the mother’s genes.”

Science and Pseudoscience. Only a quarter of Russians (24%) clearly understand that astrology is not a scientific discipline, although that percentage was even lower in 2006 (18%). This means that a positive shift can be seen over the past 12 years (Fig. 3).

Sources: Eurobarometer-224: Europeans, Science and Technolgy, Luxembourg, 2005; Science Indicators – 2007, Statistical handbook, Moscow, 2007; National Science Board: Science and Engineering Indicators-2016, Washington, 2016.

Respondents in European countries were asked to evaluate how scientific astrology is on a five-point scale. The percentages of those who chose one point (not at all scientific) and five points (very scientific) can be seen in the figure.

The social groups who understood this best were Muscovites (38%), the wealthy (34%), entrepreneurs (32%), people working at various levels of management and professionals (30%), respondents with a higher education (29%), and people aged 40-54 (28%). The group with the lowest indicator was respondents with less than a high school education (18%).

According to this indicator, Russia was 15th out of the 34 countries that conducted this survey[1]. As demonstrated by the surveys, only people in the United States and Finland can clearly distinguish science from pseudoscience. The overwhelming majority of respondents from these countries—65% and 57%, respectively—were sure that astrology is not science, while only 5% considered it to be science. It is interesting to note that in all former Communist bloc countries, the number of those who supported astrology’s “scientificness” was two to three times greater than those who opposed it. The European survey, however, was conducted a number of years ago (2005), and it is quite possible that the situation there has evened out much the way it has in Russia.

[1] It is crucial to note that in European surveys, only half of the respondents (about 500 in each country) were asked about astrology, while the other half were asked about horoscopes. This methodological experiment showed that across the 25 EU member countries, the proportions of those who disputed and supported the scientific nature of astrology were, on average, 23% and 25%, while horoscopes were 55% and 6%.

Translated by Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey (formerly Monterey Institute of International Studies).

The ANO Levada Center has been forcibly included in the registry of non-commercial organizations acting as foreign agents.  Read the Director of the Levada Center’s statement of disagreement with this decision here.


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