Are the Russians keen on science? – The Times of Moscow


Down with Galileo

I graduated from high school in Russia and grew up with an atheist version of the Galileo story. According to Soviet tradition, he was punished for his theory that the sun was at the center of the universe, not for valuing experimentation over the word of God.

Perhaps this is why investigations in Russia constantly focus on the question: “Does the earth revolve around the sun?” In 2022, according to VTSIOM, 35% gave the wrong answer to the question. The figure was a little better some time ago: in 2007, only 28% were wrong.

Is it a lot or a little? Neither, based on available data from some other countries. US National Science Foundation survey (2014) showed that 25% of Americans think the sun revolves around the earth. The data available from the EU is somewhat outdated: in 2000, 17% of Germans thought that the sun revolves around the earth, as 26% of Europeans did (2001). In Israel only 19% of respondents gave the wrong answer. While in India (2006) only 52% of respondents said that the earth revolves around the sun.

State Exams vs TV

“A third of Russians believe the sun orbits the earth” is good clickbait, and as with clickbait headlines, it doesn’t quite represent the survey results. First, although the percentage of people who believe the Earth is the center of the universe has increased since 2014 (from 28 to 35%), the percentage of correct answers to the majority of questions has also increased. In fact, VTSIOM concluded that “the general level of scientific culture of the population is gradually increasing”.

Other questions people asked were about radioactivity, GMOs, and human evolution, suggesting that Russians give correct answers to questions that pertain to their daily lives. This is another positive sign.

More importantly, scientific illiteracy is concentrated among those over 60, while young people – under 24 – are highly literate. This debunks the popular myth that “Soviet school education was the best in the world” and much better than the current education of the “Unified State Examinations generation”. Citizens who studied in Soviet schools did not recognize very basic scientific concepts unlike recent graduates, whose knowledge at graduation was controlled by centralized tests – the Unified State Examination which is so sharply criticized.

The second major data point is that television brings science myths, not science knowledge. VTSIOM confirmed that people with low scientific literacy primarily cite television as a source of information, while the highly literate group obtain their knowledge online. State-controlled television does not educate people, while the internet – criticized as “very dangerous” by conservative politicians – does.

Does it really matter?

Science literacy is a hot topic among science communicators who hope to establish a harmonious and friendly relationship between science and the public. But why do we really want people to know more about science, and what exactly do we want them to know?

The ultimate goal is more about trust than facts. We want people to trust science to improve their daily lives – for example, we want them to prefer evidence-based medicine to superstition.

This is why judging scientific culture on the basis of several simple questions has gradually gone out of fashion. For example, China puts a lot of effort into science education. To control its quality, experts use a complex indicator of civic science literacy (CSL). They’re proud that CSL has grown from 1.6% in 2005 to 10.56% in 2020, and they’re investing heavily in museums and science centers to try to engage the public in science and not just to be informed.

They adopted the indicator of works American researchers who estimated the level of CSL of Americans at 28%. In the European Union, the Eurobarometer series of studies have recently focused directly on values ​​rather than scientific facts. The study 2021 showed that 86% of citizens support science, and about the same figure expects positive changes in their lives from solar energy and vaccines.

In Russia, the correlation between scientific knowledge, values ​​and other knowledge is very clear. The population least cultured in science lives far from the big cities. It is the result of the state’s systematic neglect of the rural population in all areas, including education. It is the social class that sends the majority of soldiers to war in Ukraine. Why don’t they or their parents refuse to sign a contract? Valentina Melnikova, executive secretary of the Union of Committees of Soldiers’ Mothers of Russia, explained in an interview with journalist Catherina Gordeeva on the program “Skazhi Gordeevoi”: “You can’t expect anything from them”, a- she declared.

That is, their level of functional literacy is absolutely insufficient to take action. They don’t know the basics of physics, but they also don’t know the basics of their civil rights, options to defend themselves, or even that they have the right to free will.

Of course, I’m happy if people know that the earth revolves around the sun. But as a professional science communicator, I wonder if that little science knowledge makes their lives better. And the answer is: No, there is so much more.


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