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.
“Math concepts are really hard,” she said. “It’s not a surprise that the general public has a hard time grasping these.”
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.
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.
“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.
America’s education gap
Those skills of evaluating scientific ideas are more essential than ever, but Americans’ grasp of science varies widely.
Where you went to school matters, too.
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.
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.
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.
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.