Something Dr. Phil said in a previous comment set me to thinking.
How would I do on a general science literacy test?
The kind Dr. Phil gives to college physics students? And hopefully one that includes a question about the movie Forbidden Planet.
I'm certainly no scientist, but I am pretty well educated, particularly in science, engineering, and technology. I read widely. I'm experienced in real world applications - especially in the areas of electronics, communications, and cryptography. I'm fairly good at basic math, and advanced math in the specific areas of radio wave theory and electronics - not so good in other areas. I've got a working knowledge of astronomy and I can plot a position on the surface of the earth using traditional stellar navigation equipment. I understand the basics of things like hydrodynamics (believe me, when you're driving a 9000 ton warship at speed a hundred feet away from a 30,000 ton tanker loaded with fuel and explosives during an underway replenishment, you learn about the non-compressibility of seawater, drag, and the venturi effect real damned quick you betcha. For extra fun try maintaining lifeguard station on a carrier during flight ops. Or hunting down a submerged nuclear submarine. Or predicting an H-60B flight envelop using a moboard, windbird, the binnacle, and a #2 black pencil). I understand the basics of biology, chemistry, physics - though I'm no expert in any of them. I'm familiar with the history of scientific advancement - though mostly from a military viewpoint. In my prior profession I was required to be the absolutely best at what I did in a highly technical field, which required that I know a bit about everything, sort of a specializing non-specialist if you will. Twenty years in the Navy, living inside one machine or another, traveling the world, blowing shit up - you learn things.
So, I was curious.
I figured I'd dig up one of those online quizzes I like to post around here, and while you all played around with that I'd go write today's real blog post.
It didn't go quite as planned.
There are a lot of those online quizzes, dealing with everything from how you'd fare against a horde of the shambling undead, to how many five year olds you could take in a fight, to whether or not you'd be good to eat should you and your friends somehow become trapped in a blizzard on a mountain in the Andes. There are quizzes testing your degree of gayness. There are quizzes to determine your political orientation or whether you're more of a dog person or a cat person (this is also a test of the gayness apparently). There are tests to determine if your dog is gay. There are quizzes to determine what action hero, or supervillian you'd mostly likely be in an alternate reality. There tests to determine which Star Trek character or Firefly crew member you'd best be suited for (couldn't resist, I'm Captain Malcolm Reynolds - it was the shoot first question and lack of scruples, I'm sure).
What there aren't a lot of though, are tests regarding basic scientific literacy.
Oh, I found a number of those dumbed down ten question Cosmo type quizzes, you know the ones that ask you if the sun goes around the earth, or is it vice versa? There are plenty of the "Are you smarterer and more intellectualated than a fifth grader" or "Do you know eighth grade science or did you spend high school drinking the bong water?" But there doesn't seem to be any general science literacy tests designed to test the basic knowledge of the average American adult (or any other type of adult for that that matter).
I find this odd.
And even the grade school level quizzes that I did find are interesting in an odd fashion, not for what they include, but for what they exclude - i.e. any question involving evolution, species origin (ours or anybody else's), or estimated age of the Earth/universe/life and etc. Biology questions seem to be limited to photosynthesis and whether or not garter snakes ball up for warmth. Physics and chemistry questions stir clear of controversial subjects - like can jet fuel burn hot enough to soften the steel skeleton of a sky scraper, for example or why does there appear to be two (or more) light sources in the Apollo 11 moon landing photos (understand, I'm not saying that scientific literacy tests should test only conspiracy theory nonsense, what I'm saying is that I don't see the type of questions that would indicate that the test taker has the critical thinking skills to determine quackery from legitimate observation).
Hardly a scientific analysis, I know, but still...
I was hoping to find quizzes that included questions regarding common misconceptions, or the type of science commonly debated in the media, evolution, stem cells, space flight, super colliders, the Northern Pacific Gyre, global climate change, the energy crises, and like that. Understand I wasn't looking for quizzes that asked about those specific subjects, but rather the basic scientific knowledge common to all of them - i.e. not do you "believe" in global climate change, but maybe something like "what are the contributing factors in the decision to place the polar bear on the Endangered Species list?" or maybe "besides the obvious addition of water volume to the oceans, how do melting freshwater glaciers contribute to rising sea levels?" or maybe better yet "What does the word 'theory' mean in the context of science?"
Out of the tens of thousands of online quizzes, I find nothing that tests basic scientific knowledge in the areas that Americans thought were so damned important during the recent presidential race.
I did find plenty of references to recent validated studies showing a marked decline in science and math among American students. But you know, I think the lack of online quizzes, the type of trivia tests that many people enjoy even in areas far outside their own expertise, says something too. I think that it indicates not only a decline in general scientific knowledge among Americans, but a decline in interest.
Oh sure, it would be pretty bad science to try and plot a curve from a single point - a point generated incidentally through fairly superficial data gathering methodology (i.e. I screwed around with Google for a while) - but there is a pile of corroborating data from fairly rigorous studies that also points in the same direction.
I find this disturbing on many levels.
I think it's the height of ignorant stupidity to argue things like oh, say, stem cell policy, when the vast majority of Americans couldn't even tell you what a stem cell is (other than to wave their arms around vaguely and say that stem cells have something to do with abortions) and have no interest in finding out either. I think it's pretty damned silly indeed to think we, or our kids, are going to solve the energy crisis (crises? What crisis? Gas prices are falling. Crisis averted, resume building SUV's Woohoo!) when most people seem to think their gas mileage can be increased by adding "magnetic alignment" modules to their car's fuel line or that oil comes from melted down dine-O-sauruses or that converting food crops into gasoline at less than five percent overall efficiency is a good idea.
And this goes right up to Capital Hill and the White House. Among many, many, many other reasons I'm glad to see the current idiot out of office on January 20th is his administration's utter disdain and lack of support for both basic and advanced science.
President-elect Obama had a solid and highly regarded group of science advisors during his campaign, much more so than John McCain - I'm very curious now that most of his cabinet has been named, who he will select for National Science Advisor. It's long past time to turn this trend around and establish a solid, practical, and innovative national science policy and education policy based on real science and not the politics of those who can't pass an fifth grade general knowledge test and have no interest in doing so in the first place.
And it's long past time to get rid of leaders who think that implementing a standardized testing battery in public schools was a great idea - and then proceed to ignore the results of those self-same tests when they don't return the answers politicians want to hear, or think that punishing poorly performing schools by denying them funding for basic programs is the way to improve testing scores.
Let's hope this new president can do better.
And just for the record, how did I do on that fifth grade science test?
Pretty damned good actually.
Score report for
|+||=||student's answer correct|
|NR||=||no response, student did not answer|
|Your total number of items correct by objective:|
|Objective 1:||The student will demonstrate an understanding of the nature of science.||13/13|
|Objective 2:||The student will demonstrate an understanding of the life sciences.||9/9|
|Objective 3:||The student will demonstrate an understanding of the physical sciences.||9/9|
|Objective 4:||The student will demonstrate an understanding of the earth sciences.||9/9|
So, you know, if the new president needs somebody to run a science program for ten year olds, I'm your man.
See how you do - even if you're a real scientist (of which, there's more than one floating around here).
Oh, and if you find a good adult science literacy test (because I know you'll all regard this as a challenge, because I know how you people are), drop a link in the comments section.