Monday, October 27, 2003

Pop quiz!

Yes, I know, it was not previously announced. Stop grumbling and get out your #2 pencils. Taken from the NSF Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology:

  1. All radioactivity is man-made. (True/False)
  2. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True/False)
  3. The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (True/False)
  4. The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (True/False)
  5. The center of the Earth is very hot. (True/False)
  6. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. (True/False)
  7. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True/False)
  8. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (True/False)
  9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (True/False)
  10. The universe began with a huge explosion. (True/False)
  11. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (True/False)
  12. Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. (True/False)
  13. Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. (True/False)
  14. Which travels faster: light or sound?
  15. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
  16. How long does it take the Earth to go around the Sun: one day, one month, or one year?

This set of questions has been used several times since 1995, and in each case about 64% of the responding adults answer 'correctly.' The gender split for correct answers is 70% male/59% female.

Of course, as a pedantic scientist, I have bones to pick with some of these questions. If you make the statements/questions scientifically correct, they become difficult, and near incomprehensible. For example, number 2, "Electrons are smaller than atoms" should be straightforward, right? Well, no. Since the way we currently understand particles is as clouds of probabilities, the statement should actually be: Electrons are usually smaller than atoms. And that is quite confusing.

Number 6 is also not quite right. What do they mean by "comes from?" As far as I know, oxygen comes from nucleogenesis in stars. Oxygen passes through plants, and for all I know, there are probably some oxygen atoms in my lungs that have never been in a plant. Not many, but some.

Number 10: well, this universe probably did, yes. But there are some very strange things coming out of microwave background studies as we get better and better resolution. Cosmology tends to go through redefinition as we develop each new generation of instrumentation.

Number 12: causality is a tricky thing. Not every cigarette smoker will develop cancer. The phrasing would be better as: "Cigarette smoking can cause cancer." And that's exactly why people choose to smoke - they assess the risks of having cancer vs. the pleasure of indulging. The arguments have focused more on "does the public have the facts to be able to correctly assess the risks."

FYI, the individual 'correct' responses and rates in aggregate were as follows: 1. 76 (False); 2. 48 (True); 3. 79 (True); 4. 53 (False); 5. 80 (True); 6. 87 (True); 7. 65 (True); 8. 45 (False); 9. 51 (False); 10. 33 (True); 11. 53 (True); 12. 94 (True); 13. 65 (False); 14. 76 (light); 15. 75 (Earth goes around the Sun); and 16. 54 (one year).

Since you have self-selected to read this blog, I expect you will have done better than the average...

Another interesting result of the comprehensive survey was that in a biotechnology section, Americans and Canadians scored higher than Europeans on questions related to genetics and genetically modified organisms. That puzzled me, and was troubling, since it indicates that opposition to GMOs is not correlated with science literacy.

If you like surveys of this type, please help out Ph.D. student Markus Schmidt with his survey on environmental risk perception at the University of Vienna's Institute of Risk Research.