Is scientific illiteracy a problem in America?
June 18, 2002 1:32 PM   Subscribe

Is scientific illiteracy a problem in America? Take the quiz, how do you measure up? Sample question asked (with response)
Q: "Where would you find chlorophyll?"
A: "Probably in your toilet."

posted by patrickje (60 comments total)

 
Yowtch! Missed a fourth grade question. Damn beans. 89%, I should be ashamed. (gotta admit that I guessed at the last two, as well)
posted by ColdChef at 1:39 PM on June 18, 2002


The article continues on with laments from companies about having to hire H1Bs to find the talent necessary.

Human Genome Sciences Inc. CEO William Haseltine:
We could not function in our government laboratories, in our academic laboratories and in our industrial laboratories without these workers,” Haseltine says. “I would guess we would drop in productivity by about 50 percent or more... We simply don’t train enough (American) people.

Having a brother in bio-tech (MS in Biomedical Engineering), as well as working in a lab myself, the problem isn't lack of talent, it's lack of MS and PHDs willing to work for $40-50K that these companies want to pay.
posted by patrickje at 1:41 PM on June 18, 2002


89% too, missed the last one, thought I partially blame the Brian Yuzna movie that is someone else is blaring on the TV.
posted by bobo123 at 1:45 PM on June 18, 2002


I missed question 6: "To keep a heavy box sliding across a carpeted floor at constant speed, a person must continually exert a force on the box. This force is used primarily to overcome which of the following forces?"

Which I missed because I read "keep" as "prevent" and not "maintain".

Damn.
posted by silusGROK at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2002


89%

:)

I hesitated on the missed question. Moon/Earth/Sun closer to one or the other etc.

I would like to thank Belgium's school system...

B.
posted by Baud at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2002


I missed two, for a score of 78%. I missed the box question and the sun close to the Earth question. I also made 50 spelling errors trying to write this comment, so I'm blaming fatigue. The sad thing is that I really didn't know that the sun is closer in January than July. I feel so stupid!
posted by ashbury at 1:57 PM on June 18, 2002


100%... I'll just move up to the post about snobbery now.
posted by fnord_prefect at 2:00 PM on June 18, 2002


I missed the earth /sun distance one as well. I think because as soon as I started reading the question I thought "okay, here's the question to see if we know about the axial tilt thing" and then I stopped reading the question, found the axial tilt answer and checked it. Or I could be dumb. It's definitely one or the other.
posted by Shadowkeeper at 2:01 PM on June 18, 2002


I got 'em all, but the last one was sort of a guess.
posted by LionIndex at 2:05 PM on June 18, 2002


What LionIndex said, but I didn't guess, I used quantum entanglement to make the answer pop into my head.
posted by WolfDaddy at 2:08 PM on June 18, 2002


As someone who is working as a Science Tech in a High School at the moment, I am pretty relieved that I got 100%.
posted by crustygeek at 2:12 PM on June 18, 2002


*Sniff* - hunnerd percent. I'll be sitting with fnord_prefect at the table with all the white coats.

Though seriously, I go with great trepidation in to a future where I expect fewer and fewer people will have the knowledge to make competent decision about complex topics like genetics and cyber-rights.
posted by piskycritter at 2:22 PM on June 18, 2002


I was shocked to find that question 8, about the decay of atoms, had such a high percentage of correct answers. 58 percent of high schoolers got that one right.
posted by Holden at 2:23 PM on June 18, 2002


I missed the damned box question also. . .
posted by Danf at 2:28 PM on June 18, 2002


The box question was worded strangely, IMHO.
*slinks off to the snobbery article*
posted by jeff-o-matic at 2:30 PM on June 18, 2002


The box question is pretty standard. Can someone explaing to me how coal has energy from the Sun?
posted by uftheory at 2:32 PM on June 18, 2002


Coal is compressed old dead plant matter (If memory serves me). The dead stuff got its energy from the sun using photosynthesis.
posted by websavvy at 2:38 PM on June 18, 2002


Can someone explaing to me how coal has energy from the Sun?

Kind of a trick question, really. Websavvy's got it right, however coal wouldn't have that huge amount of energy packed into it if not for geological forces, i.e. intense pressure.

I thought the question 8. was the most poorly worded: "The equation “X -> Y+ Z + energy” represents a nuclear decay, in which nucleus X decays into particle Y and nucleus Z and releases energy. Which of the following can explain why energy is released in the decay?" Well, none explain why, just the evidence pointing at the fact that energy was released.
posted by me3dia at 2:41 PM on June 18, 2002


100%, by the way.
posted by me3dia at 2:42 PM on June 18, 2002


damn that axis-tilt question!
89%
posted by witchstone at 3:00 PM on June 18, 2002


Axis tilt, yarrr.

But question 8 isn't really about chemistry or the decay of atoms, just about adding fractions.
posted by Yelling At Nothing at 3:07 PM on June 18, 2002


100%
posted by bshort at 3:07 PM on June 18, 2002


God, I hate science quizzes. All the binary thinking involved. I would purposefully answer them wrong in elementary school and then concoct some explanation as to why it could be right. Off to the remedial classes for me. Seriously.

— Can a nation debate the merits of cloning when fewer than half its adults can give decent definition of DNA? Can it render good judgment on genetically engineered food when only a quarter can define a molecule?

Yes. Many of these questions can be resolved by a common sense and ethics. Critical thinking is good but its not the same as, say, being able to recite the elements of the periodic table or knowing exactly how many bones are in the human body. These quizzes are about making people feel stupid (and thus more unqualified to render an opinion) than about starting any sort of conversation.
posted by vacapinta at 3:33 PM on June 18, 2002


I missed the last one. Now, why do we know that there is the same number of molecules in a 10 litre sample of CO2 and a 10 litre sample of O2 (at the same temp and pressure)? I never took chemistry. Anyone?
posted by gnz2001 at 3:33 PM on June 18, 2002


Agg, these are all straight forward questions. However, they are all worded in a way that doesn't allow you to "figure out" the answer. This is supposed to be a test of knowledge not of reasoning ability. If you're not familiar with the first law of thermodynamics, e=mc^2, and oh fission works, and able to apply all those concept to a question, then you are going to miss it.

The same applies to the beans and coal question. The coal is just spurious information to confuse you if you don't know where the energy in beans comes from.

I'm hesitant to post this, but I don't think a valid reason for missing questions on this test is that they were bad questions.

gnz: ideal gas laws (i.e. PV = nRT)
posted by betaray at 3:40 PM on June 18, 2002


Avogadro's law

equal volumes of gases at the same temperature and pressure contain the same number of molecules regardless of their chemical nature and physical properties. This number (Avogadro's number) is 6.023 X 1023. It is the number of molecules of any gas present in a volume of 22.41 L and is the same for the lightest gas (hydrogen) as for a heavy gas such as carbon dioxide or bromine
posted by vacapinta at 3:47 PM on June 18, 2002


Sheesh! You beat me to Avagadro's Law! Some of the questions were worded pretty tricky and I surprised myself by getting them all correct...
posted by RevGreg at 3:53 PM on June 18, 2002


Would someone please answer this question: would there be friction if there were no gravitational force? (Yes, I am quite bitter about this but it *seems* like there couldn't be friction without gravity).
posted by Mack Twain at 3:54 PM on June 18, 2002


100%. The only reason I got the axis-tilt thing right, though, was that I remembered that january is winter... so the sun would've appeared smaller if the tilt was the reason. Would've got it wrong if I were Australian.

Mack Twain, gravity and friction are unrelated. If you rubbed two objects together in zero-G, there'd still be friction between them.
posted by ook at 3:58 PM on June 18, 2002


That tilt question snagged me too....grrrrr. I knew the earth's rotation was not circular, but I thought it was a tilt / optical illusion thing.

Oh well, good thing I'm not an astronomer.
posted by Benway at 4:02 PM on June 18, 2002


A non technical explaination of the ideal gas law:

The ideal gas law works because a gas looks like a handful of billiard balls bouncing around a very large room: The size and combosition of the balls doesn't really matter, just how many of them there are and how much energy they have (temperature). The impacts of the gas molecules against the walls of the container creates the pressure (P) and the temperature (T) determines how hard they hit.

As for the friction thing, the force of gravity pulls the box against the rug and creates friction when you try to move the box. Of the choices I would still say that friction is more correct because gravity is pulling the box down and thus doesn't affect your moving the box while the friction force is actively opposing the motion.
posted by ccoryell at 4:04 PM on June 18, 2002


Uh, that's 6.023 x 10^23, not 1023!

Mack, there'll be friction as long as anything is forcing them together, but it doesn't have to be gravity; it could be momentum, for instance, if the floor were concave.
posted by nicwolff at 4:04 PM on June 18, 2002


oops. In my haste to beat RevGreg! :)
posted by vacapinta at 4:24 PM on June 18, 2002


100%, but I guessed the last one. I would have gotten the earth-distance-axis question wrong if it weren't for an episode of Mr. Wizard that's still lodged in my brain. The tilt of the axis explains how it can be colder when we are closer to the sun. I imagine some people would pick this answer because if you didn't know that, answer A would seem wrong, since it states we are closer to the sun in January.
posted by Miss Beth at 4:25 PM on June 18, 2002


Thanks, betaray, vacapinta, ccoryell & nicwolff.
posted by gnz2001 at 4:38 PM on June 18, 2002


I was crap. Luckily, there is more to life...
posted by skinsuit at 4:56 PM on June 18, 2002


Basic physics and chemistry. 100% should be yours for the taking if you've done a science degree at uni. Anyone else might struggle a bit.
Still, I'm surprised that only 30% of students got the question about the pressure on a plane correct! Esp. as i got 100% despite being in the pub for the last 4 hours...
posted by iain at 5:18 PM on June 18, 2002


vacapinta:

— Can a nation debate the merits of cloning when fewer than half its adults can give decent definition of DNA? Can it render good judgment on genetically engineered food when only a quarter can define a molecule?

Yes. Many of these questions can be resolved by a common sense and ethics.


I take your point about there being a lot more to such questions than the science involved, but I do think that some basic understanding of the science is necessary. You don't need to be able to "give [a] decent definition of DNA" like some walking textbook in order to think about cloning, but you do need to have some idea of what DNA is and does. IMO, problems arise when scientists think that only they are qualified to discuss such issues, when what they should be doing is making the necessary basic information available to as many people as possible and then accepting that society has a right to make ethical and commonsensical decisions about what science it will allow/support.

Obdisclosure: I'm a research scientist by trade. Oh, and I got 100% (whew!).
posted by sennoma at 7:48 PM on June 18, 2002


True. Otherwise we get and deserve scientists like this guy.
posted by vacapinta at 7:57 PM on June 18, 2002


For most people, the value in knowing some basic science comes not from the knowing - it comes from having been at least mildly exposed to scientific rigor. It's not the facts - forgettable facts are not important to the layperson - but in the process of being taught those facts, some valuable mental machinery may, hopefully, jump-start and continue running.

Science illustrates the value of creative, critical thought. It examines complexity. It embarrasses common sense.

All good, always good.

(100%. Otherwise I'd be disinherited from my Dad's bacon-stretcher fortune...)
posted by Opus Dark at 9:04 PM on June 18, 2002


100%, but I'd have got the sun-earth one wrong if I hadn't read the other day that despite the longest day in the year coming on up soon, we're about as far away from the sun as we can get.
posted by five fresh fish at 9:08 PM on June 18, 2002


78%. At least I only got 12th grade ones wrong.
posted by jragon at 9:10 PM on June 18, 2002


100%, and I found the 12th grade questions painfully easy compared to the (two) AP science courses I took as a high school senior so many years ago. Chemistry always made my head explode, literally and figuratively.
posted by Danelope at 9:54 PM on June 18, 2002


Let's be realistic: people who will take a sci quiz in their spare time should do quite well. It's the folks who don't take it that worry me. 100%.
posted by mcchesnj at 9:55 PM on June 18, 2002


People who don't get a good science education will take years off their life worrying that their full-to-the-brink iced tea is going to overflow when the ice melts.
posted by Wood at 10:40 PM on June 18, 2002


A got 100 percent. Maybe now they'll let me out of high school.
posted by pracowity at 12:40 AM on June 19, 2002


100%.

Is it just me, or were the 8th grade questions harder than the 4th grade ones? (Not that any of them were particularly difficult.)
posted by eoz at 1:56 AM on June 19, 2002


err... I mean 4th grade harder than 8th grade.

No, really, I did get 100%!
posted by eoz at 1:57 AM on June 19, 2002


The only reason I got the axis-tilt thing right, though, was that I remembered that january is winter... so the sun would've appeared smaller if the tilt was the reason. Would've got it wrong if I were Australian.

Pish. This Australian got it right.
posted by rory at 3:30 AM on June 19, 2002


And this:

Q: "Where would you find chlorophyll?"
A: "Probably in your toilet."


...is a perfectly valid answer. If you're a dope dealer who's just been raided.
posted by rory at 3:37 AM on June 19, 2002


Or you're the Fanstastic Tree Man. To eat, he gets a tan! Watch him pee green, ladies and gentlemen!
posted by pracowity at 5:12 AM on June 19, 2002


100%, but I thought the friction question was tricky.
posted by Foosnark at 8:02 AM on June 19, 2002


I missed the last one. I blame the fact that they spelt litre wrong. It threw my concentration.
posted by ODiV at 8:09 AM on June 19, 2002


I'm an astrophysics major. if I hadn't gotten them all right I would have had to crawl under a table for a while. but I don't think it's shocking or all that upsetting to think that the average citizen wouldn't know all these things.
posted by rabi at 8:09 AM on June 19, 2002


Pish. This Australian got it right.

Rory gets extra credit, everybody... :)

I was just sayin' the hint I depended on wouldn't have helped me if I were in the southern hemisphere.

The problem I often have with quizzes like this is that they're often less about knowing the answer than about deciphering what the testmakers had in mind while designing the question. That, a little logic, and remembering to eliminate the trick answer and work backwards when you aren't sure, will take you a long way. I've gotten high scores when taking tests on subjects I know almost nothing about -- which just means that test-taking is a skill I happen to be good at, not that I'm a supergenius.

although I am, of course. No, really. I've got an underground lair and everything.
posted by ook at 8:29 AM on June 19, 2002


Pish. This Australian got it right.

Rory gets extra credit, everybody... :)

I was just sayin' the hint I depended on wouldn't have helped me if I were in the southern hemisphere.

The problem I often have with quizzes like this is that they're often less about knowing the answer than about deciphering what the testmakers had in mind while designing the question. That, a little logic, and remembering to eliminate the trick answer and work backwards when you aren't sure, will take you a long way. I've gotten high scores when taking tests on subjects I know almost nothing about -- which just means that test-taking is a skill I happen to be good at, not that I'm a supergenius.

although I am, of course. No, really. I've got an underground lair and everything.
posted by ook at 8:29 AM on June 19, 2002


I'm such a supergenius, in fact, that I had to say it twice.
posted by ook at 8:34 AM on June 19, 2002


Er, "litre" is a valid spelling.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:53 AM on June 19, 2002


89%. I got thrown by the axis tilt thing too. Phooey.
posted by homunculus at 9:07 AM on June 19, 2002


I got 100%, but most of them were guesses. Especially the CO2 / O2 one. Nice to know, though, that I could still make it in the fourth grade, after all these years.
posted by LeLiLo at 9:19 AM on June 19, 2002


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