Americans and Science Know-how

I saw a USA Today article linked from Slashdot that reports on findings that Americans may not know enough science to make informed decisions [1]. When I clicked on that link, the USA Today article had embedded in it a link to a “true/false” question quiz about science, designed by the National Science Foundation to test your science knowledge [2]. Here are the questions:

1. The center of the Earth is very hot.
2. All radioactivity is man-made.
3. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
4. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
5. Electrons are smaller than atoms.
6. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
7. The universe began with a huge explosion.
The continents on which we live have been moving their location for
millions of years and will continue to move in the future.
9. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.
10. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?
11. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun?

The answers are on the above site, so check them out. One of the first things that struck me from the referring article was that it described this quiz as “true/false”. That’s clearly not true. I know that this sounds like nit-picking, but in the world the little things that matter and they might want to check these things before posting links to their own site’s material.

What really got me was the little scoring system at the end of the answer key:

10 or 11 right: You are a geek!
8 or 9 right: You will receive a lovely chemistry set as a parting gift
7: You need to bring a (Newtonian?) apple to bribe the teacher
6 or less: Like a scientist knows, it’s good to learn from mistakes

Sigh. A geek? Really? I thought the whole point of this was to determine whether Americans are well-informed in science. I don’t know who’s to blame for this scoring system – the NSF or the blogger who posted this quiz – but I would suggest we get away from sad little high-school labels and start calling a spade a spade. Lovely chemistry set? If you don’t know some of these questions, you should be more concerned about whether you are making the right nutritional, energy, and reproductive decisions – not about parting gifts. An apple to bribe a teacher? If it’s that one from “Real Genius”, you get credit for your chem creativity – otherwise, maybe instead it would be good to subscribe to a monthly science periodical.

As for learning from your mistakes – here, we agree vehemently! If you did poorly on this quiz, go read a book or check out some magazine articles on the topics you missed. Ask a scientist friend – odds are, you have one! Take active part in your science knowledge – the only way forward in this technological world we have created is active mental understanding and engagement in the issues of the day. A better nation starts with a little solid knowledge of the universe.

[1] “Are we science-savvy enough to make informed decisions?” (USA Today, Aug. 13)
[2] “Test your science savvy” (USA Today Science Fair blog)