Does the Earth go around the sun, or does the sun go around the Earth?
When asked that question, 1 in 4 Americans surveyed answered incorrectly. Yes, 1 in 4. In other words, a quarter of Americans do not understand one of the most fundamental principles of basic science. So that’s where we are as a society right now.
The survey, conducted by the National Science Foundation, included more than 2,200 participants in the U.S., AFP reports. It featured a nine-question quiz about physical and biological science and the average score was a 6.5.
And the fact that only 74 percent of participants knew that the Earth revolved around the sun is perhaps less alarming than the fact that only 48 percent knew that humans evolved from earlier species of animals.
Here’s the thing, though: Americans actually fared better than Europeans who took similar quizzes — at least when it came to the sun and Earth question. Only 66 percent of European Union residents answered that one correctly.
A committed few can influence the many and sweep away social conventions, new research shows
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Social change—from evolving attitudes toward gender and marijuana to the rise of Donald Trump to the emergence of the Black Lives Matter and #MeToo movements—is a constant. It is also mysterious, or so it can seem. For example, “How exactly did we get here?” might be asked by anyone who lived through decades of fierce prohibition and now buys pot at one of the more than 2,000 licensed dispensaries across the U.S.
A new study about the power of committed minorities to shift conventional thinking offers some surprising possible answers. Published this week in Science, the paper describes an online experiment in which researchers sought to determine what percentage of total population a minority needs to reach the critical mass necessary to reverse a majority viewpoint. The tipping point, they found, is just 25 percent. At and slightly above that level, contrarians were able to “convert” anywhere from 72 to 100 percent of the population of their respective groups. Prior to the efforts of the minority, the population had been in 100 percent agreement about their original position.
“This is not about a small elite with disproportionate resources,” says Arnout van de Rijt, a sociologist at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who studies social networks and collective action, and was not involved in the study. “It's not about the Koch brothers influencing American public opinion. Rather, this is about a minority trying to change the status quo, and succeeding by being unrelenting. By committing to a new behavior, they repeatedly expose others to that new behavior until they start to copy it.”
The experiment was designed and led by Damon Centola, associate professor in the Annenberg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania. It involved 194 people randomly assigned to 10 “independent online groups,” which varied in size from 20 to 30 people. In the first step group members were shown an image of a face and told to name it. They interacted with one another in rotating pairs until they all agreed on a name. In the second step Centola and his colleagues seeded each group with “a small number of confederates…who attempted to overturn the established convention (the agreed-on name) by advancing a novel alternative.”
For the second step, as Centola explains it, the researchers began with a 15 percent minority model and gradually increased it to 35 percent. Nothing changed at 15 percent, and the established norm remained in place all the way up to 24 percent.
The magic number, the tipping point, turned out to be 25 percent. Minority groups smaller than that converted, on average, just 6 percent of the population. Among other things, Centola says, that 25 percent figure refutes a century of economic theory. “The classic economic model—the main thing we are responding to with this study—basically says that once an equilibrium is established, in order to change it you need 51 percent. And what these results say is no, a small minority can be really effective, even when people resist the minority view.” The team’s computer modeling indicated a 25 percent minority would retain its power to reverse social convention for populations as large as 100,000.
But the proportion has to be just right: One of the groups in the study consisted of 20 members, with four contrarians. Another group had 20 members and five contrarians—and that one extra person made all the difference. “In the group with four, nothing happens,” Centola says, “and with five you get complete conversion to the alternative norm.” The five, neatly enough, represented 25 percent of the group population. “One of the most interesting empirical, practical insights from these results is that at 24 percent—just below the threshold—you don’t see very much effect,” adds Centola, whose first book, How Behavior Spreads: The Science of Complex Contagions, comes out this month. “If you are those people trying to create change, it can be really disheartening.” When a committed minority effort starts to falter there is what Centola calls “a convention to give up,” and people start to call it quits. And of course members have no way to know when their group is just short of critical mass. They can be very close and simply not realize it. “So I would say to Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and all of these social change movements that approaching that tipping point is slow going, and you can see backsliding. But once you get over it, you’ll see a really large-scale impact.”
Real-life factors that can work against committed minorities—even when they reach or exceed critical mass—include a lack of interaction with other members, as well as competing committed minorities and what’s called “active resistance”—which pretty well describes the way many people in 2018 respond to political ideas with which they disagree. But even with such obstacles, Centola says the tipping point predicted in his model remains well below 50 percent.
Certain settings lend themselves to the group dynamics Centola describes in his study, and that includes the workplace. “Businesses are really great for this kind of thing,” he says, “because people in firms spend most of their day trying to coordinate with other people, and they exhibit the conventions that other people exhibit because they want to show that they’re good workers and members of the firm. So you can see very strong effects of a minority group committed to changing the culture of the population.”
The other environment in which the 25 percent effect is particularly evident, Centola says, is online—where people have large numbers of interactions with lots of other people, many of them strangers. This raises some tricky questions: Can a bot stand in for a member of a committed minority? And can a committed minority be composed of bots and the real people the bots influence, so that bots are actually driving the change? According to Centola, “In a space where people can’t distinguish people from bots, yes. If you get a concerted, focused effort by a group of agents acting as a minority view, they can be really effective.”
Yale sociologist Emily Erikson, who also studies social networks but was not involved with the study, sees the new paper partly as a warning. “In some sense it’s saying extreme voices can quickly take over public discourse,” she says. “Perhaps if we’re aware of that fact, we can guard against it.”
These findings were recently published by two economists, Annamaria Lusardi and Olivia Mitchell, and the results reveal startling levels of financial illiteracy across the world. They call attention to a perilous paradox: Financial ignorance is widespread even as the world has changed in ways that make such ignorance more dangerous than ever before. They write, "Financial markets around the world have become increasingly accessible to the ‘small investor,’ as new products and financial services grow widespread. At the onset of the recent financial crisis, consumer credit and mortgage borrowing had burgeoned. People who had credit cards or subprime mortgages were in the historically unusual position of being able to decide how much they wanted to borrow. Alternative financial services including payday loans, pawn shops, auto title loans, tax refund loans, and rent-to-own shops have also become widespread. At the same time, changes in the pension landscape are increasingly thrusting responsibility for saving, investing, and decumulating wealth onto workers and retirees…. [Today], Baby Boomers mainly have defined contribution (DC) plans and Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs) during their working years. This trend toward disintermediation is increasingly requiring people to decide how much to save and where to invest and, during retirement, to take on responsibility for careful decumulation so as not to outlive their assets while meeting their needs."
The heightened danger of financial ignorance underlies all these transactions—and more. For a large and fast-growing number of people, personal bankruptcy is just one bad decision away. This threat will become more critical as the global middle class continues to expand. The newfound prosperity of millions of families in the developing world could be shattered if they mismanage expenses, acquire large and expensive debts, fail to adequately protect their savings, or don’t know how to identify a tempting but catastrophically risky investment. The truth is, these problems are everywhere, and all countries stand to benefit from programs that encourage greater consumer knowledge. Lusardi and Mitchell found that providing financial knowledge to people with low levels of formal education boosts their economic situation by an amount equivalent to 82 percent of their initial wealth, while the equivalent value for college graduates is a substantial 56 percent.
Good news, right? On the basis of these results, one might presume that demand for financial education is very strong. It is not. And that’s mostly because people are prone to overestimate how much they know about money. Asked to rank their financial knowledge on a scale of 1 (very low) to 7 (very high), 70 percent of the Americans surveyed by Lusardi and Mitchell ranked themselves at level 4 or higher. Yet only 30 percent of them got all three questions in the finance quiz right. The same pattern was apparent in Germany and the Netherlands.
The research also found that women, the poor, and the elderly are the groups with the lowest levels of financial literacy. Ironically for the elderly, confidence in one’s money-managing prowess seems to grow with age, widening the gap between perceived and actual knowledge. Men seem to better grasp the subject than women, independent of age and education, but women—to their credit—are more aware of their shortcomings. While men outperformed women on the finance quiz, greater numbers of women responded that they “don’t know,” a result that held true all over the world. The upshot is that women, more conscious of their limitations, are more likely to be interested in financial-education programs.
As financial products become more diverse, complex, and widespread, and more people join the middle class, fighting the world’s financial illiteracy will become even more of a priority. Practical and accessible education programs should be offered to the millions of people whose economic well-being would improve if they only knew more about managing their incomes and savings, however meager they may be.
The decision to go with hearing aids can be an intensely personal decision. But the person making that choice isn’t the only one affected. It goes much deeper than that.
“There are tremendous family dynamics that take place around this issue of hearing loss. People don’t want to be told they have a problem,” says Debara Tucci, MD, an ear surgeon with the Duke University School of Medicine. “They would really rather deal with it as best they can and blame the difficulty in communication on the circumstances -- on the spouse who mumbles or something like that.”
But that leads to hard feelings and often a pullback by the person with hearing loss. The condition can be dangerous to them and can take a big toll on a family.
“We get a lot of older family members who basically sit at the dinner table and, because they don’t understand what’s happening, they tend to withdraw,” says Larry Eng, the president of the American Academy of Audiology, “and that leads into a whole spiral of other issues.”
Withdrawal can lead to social isolation and depression. Untreated hearing loss has been linked to cognitive decline and dementia. All of that can be devastating to others in the family.
Sarah Klegman is a writer and baker in her 20s who was fitted for her first pair of hearing aids last year. She went through some family turbulence, then saw it smooth out once she opted for the devices.
“You can’t help but be annoyed with someone if they don’t hear you. You can’t. Even if you’re a saint,” she says. “So there was tension. And some of that tension has been relieved. They don’t have to repeat themselves as often. And you can respond to everything they’re saying more deeply. You can just connect with people more deeply.”