Monday, December 15, 2008

Consider A Spherical Scientist...

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

Item Objective Student Correct Student's
Number Measured Expectations Answer Answer

1 01 5.1 (A) D +
2 03 5.8 (C) H +
3 04 4.11 (A) B +
4 01 5.4 (A) J +
5 01 5.3 (B) C +
6 02 5.9 (B) F +
7 01 5.2 (B) B +
8 03 5.5 (B) F +
9 01 5.4 (A) B +
10 02 5.9 (A) F +
11 02 3.8 (B) C +
12 04 5.12 (A) J +
13 04 3.11 (C) D +
14 01 5.2 (A) H +
15 02 2.9 (B) D +
16 03 5.8 (B) F +
17 01 5.2 (C) D +
18 02 3.8 (C) G +
19 04 5.6 (B) A +
20 01 5.2 (C) 2 +
21 03 5.7 (B) A +
22 04 3.11 (D) H +
23 02 5.10 (B) A +
24 04 5.11 (A) G +
25 01 5.2 (A) B +
26 04 3.11 (C) H +
27 03 3.6 (A) C +
28 02 5.9 (A) G +
29 01 5.2 (E) A +
30 04 3.11 (D) G +
31 02 5.5 (A) B +
32 02 5.9 (C) F +
33 01 5.2 (D) A +
34 03 5.7 (A) G +
35 04 4.6 (A) A +
36 03 5.8 (D) F +
37 01 5.2 (A) B +
38 03 5.7 (A) H +
39 01 5.2 (B) B +
40 03 5.7 (D) G +

+ = 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.
Objective 2: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the life sciences.
Objective 3: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the physical sciences.
Objective 4: The student will demonstrate an understanding of the earth sciences.



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.


  1. I'm a spherical layperson, but I unfortunately don't have time to do the quiz. I'm busy studying the software attributes of predictive dialing solutions.

    You know - those annoying automated dialers that call your house and make you say "hello" twice before an agent comes on the line to sell you something, or solicit a donation, or berate you for being a deadbeat MF who doesn't pay their bills.

    Yeah. Those things.

  2. You know, Janiece, if you were anybody else...

    Predictive dialing, you have no idea how much I hate those fucking things. No really, you don't.

  3. What about that test a while back where we had to fill in the Periodic Table of Elements? Which led to a bunch of other fill-in-the-blank tests with things like world geography and civics? Which I passed around to people I knew and caused them to learn things?

  4. Gulp, guess I better study more...36/40.

  5. Don't tell anyone, but Jim scored higher than the Brain Doctor: 38/40. Humph.

  6. "Yeah. Those things."

    Ah. This explains why I only answer the phone in Japanese.

  7. Don't tell anyone, but Jim scored higher than the Brain Doctor

    That just means that of the two of us, Doc, it's me that more closely resembles a fifth grader. :)

  8. Nathan, welcome, fellow fifth grader!

  9. 37/40

    What sucks is that if I had just gone with my first instinct on the three that I missed, I would've gotten 100%. But no, I had to go and second guess myself.


  10. I refuse to take the test because I don't *want* to be a fifth grader.

    My mom teaches 5th grade and I really don't want to have to repeat that year.

  11. 40/40. Looks like I've got 5th grade mastered too. :)

    I wanted to argue with #12 about how, if you wait a few million years, oceans can contribute to the making of topsoil too ... >.>

  12. I'm with ya, MWT, I had to keep telling myself - think like a fifth grader, think like a fifth grader. There were a number I could have argued about.

    Bad news, some of you will not be advancing to sixth grade with Nathan, MWT, and me :)

  13. I find this odd

    I find it downright disturbing...

    But I think it's because there are fewer and fewer people out there that want to be responsible for anything, anymore - even what they themselves know! They would rather someone else told them what they know, it seems. They'd rather have Sarah tell them about stem cells and Dubya tell them how to pronunciate 'Nuclear' than have to figure it out or look it up. And they believe what they're told.

    I have students in and out of my classes (Voc-Tech drafting) who must have only barely passed through high school, and that only by the barest of margins. So many of them have learned to wait for the answer to be given to them if asked a question. And apparently their teachers were only too happy to give them the answers. I ask questions in my classes and wait for anyone to answer - I have to point and say 'You! What's half of a half?' Mostly I get blank stares, but I point out that they if they plan to be drafters then they will need to know, and there won't be someone standing there to ask or to give the answer... I try to make them responsible for themselves and what they do. And I make them question the answers as much as I can - find a better way. I can't stand it when people don't know what they need to know.

    Online science tests... Couldn't find a real one outside of practice ACT's / SAT's. I did find one here that kinda made me snort painfully. The SOL practice tests. What a name. (They also misspelled Michael Jordan's name in the cute scrolly famous quotation thing.) I found a free AIMSTAR Earth Science test here, but the net-nanny in the classroom blocked it because it's a quiz - I guess they don't want anyone learning here. (I'm in the classroom this evening waiting for final projects to be dropped off.)

    If you want a real test online you'll have to pay for it, I guess. Then you can get the free disclaimer with your test - absolving them of any responsibility should you use the knowledge for anything nefarious - like getting a better job or being able to balance your checkbook...

    40/40 (yay!)

  14. 40/40. Another proud 5th grader.

  15. I know jack about jackrabbits, it appears, but otherwise I could pretend to be a fifth-grader.

  16. Absence of evidence does not equate evidence of absence. Just saying.

    Or, "Your powers have grown, Lord Jim, but you're not a google-fu master yet."

    Had to crack that joke, even though I don't have time to go looking for a test myself.

    Yeah, having a PhD (my wife) in the house is always a help. I sort of have a contact Masters in biology by now (it happens when you help your significant other study for her written and oral exams, not to mention the defense).

  17. And 38/40. I misremembered Mars being 1.75 AU from the sun instead of 1.52 AU. And I put a space between the "2" and "cm" so it marked that question wrong.

  18. 40/40. But if I'd been doing this in school, I would have written a couple of little essays by a couple of the questions bitching about the questions being unclear or not enough information to give a correct answer.

    eg. Which planets are closest to Earth? What, right now? What part of their orbits are they in? What you actually want to ask is "Which two planet's orbits are closest to Earth's Orbit?"

    I must have been an obnoxious student.

  19. Stephen, exactly.

    That's why I had to keep saying to myself, think like a fifth grader, think like a fifth grader. Oh, wait, I did think like this when I was a fifth grader (I'd read some Heinlein by then - I knew about orbits).

    I guess I was an obnoxious student too. :)

  20. I'm with Stephen. On average Venus and Mercury are the closest planets to Earth. However I gave them the answer they wanted, especially since they cheated and gave you a map anyway, and scored 40/40.

    But well done to all who score in the upper 30s. And you're right, there are precious few tests for general science literacy.

    And for the record, at my weight and height I am a spherical scientist. (grin)

    Happy to have served here, Jim.

    Dr. Phil

  21. Ah, but are you a spherical scientist in a perfect vacuum? (Intellectual vacuums don't count)

    And I was really hoping you or John The Scientist would point me in the direction of a general science literacy test. Alas.

  22. Also, Steve Buchheit makes a good point - especially on a science literacy test: I.e. I was taught to put down the units of measurement (not just in science, but in military intelligence applications - also apparently if you're programming the Mars Polar Lander and some of you use standard units and some of you use metric units, just sayin'). 2 is an incomplete answer. 2cm or 2 cm is the proper answer - though truthfully I actually dithered over that and when I saw they asked for the number of centimeters, I just put down 2 without the units because I figured the computer wasn't smart enough to properly parse the answer (I used to program, it looked like that kind of test, I should get extra credit for actually going through the thought process :)

  23. Geez, Jim, must you encourage the brother unit?

    Phil, you need to send Jim one of your tests, they really are quite amusing. Especially the scoring.
    Not that I understand any of it.


  24. Back when I had a landline that people could bug me on, I LOVED that computer caller. Seriously. Because I could tell by the pause that it was a computer that I didn't want to talk to and hang up before it even responded to my hello. In the old days, with real people, I felt obligated to let them say thier initial spiel before hanging up.
    Yay, computers you can be rude to!

  25. Anne -- the computers, they remember. And they've told Skynet everything.

    And here's one of my Final Exams for PHYS-1070 (all of Physics in one semester, algebra level). It's the All Titanic Final Exam. (grin)

    Nice to prove that whatever Kate Winslet's character saw in that weasel Leo DeCaprio, it wasn't Physics.

    My work here is done. (double-edged-grin)

    Oh, and yes, the exam is worth 200,000 points. I use a Million Point grading scale. Gets people used to dealing with large numbers. Plus anyone can ask for a point, I'll give it to them. Though no joker who has ever asked for the point has ever passed...

    Dr. Phil

  26. Yeah, that "2 cm" thing almost caught me up too. But having recently written some PHP scripts that parse HTML forms to input data into a database, I stopped to think it through first. ;) It still felt like the 2 was naked when I left it like that though.

  27. I tell my students they need to consider that units are permanently stapled to numbers -- it's in the 14 page syllabus. (no, really! it's thorough)

    I mean, who do they think they are, mathematicians?

    So it was hard to leave the "cm" off the measurement, but a fifth grader, told to indicate how many centimeters of rain, would've just said "2", so that's what I input.

    Dr. Phil

  28. 39/40

    Damn the tendency to equate size and mass! I missed the sliding question. Guess I'll just have to repeat 5th grade.


Comments on this blog are moderated. Each will be reviewed before being allowed to post. This may take a while. I don't allow personal attacks, trolling, or obnoxious stupidity. If you post anonymously and hide behind an IP blocker, I'm a lot more likely to consider you a troll. Be sure to read the commenting rules before you start typing. Really.