Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Are You Scientifically Literate?

You may have an opinion on climate change, evolution education, stem-cell research, and science funding. But do you have the facts to back up your opinion? The Christian Science Monitor present this quiz to test your basic scientific literacy.

Are you scientifically literate?

The Afternoon Inquisition (or AI) is a question posed to you, the Skepchick community. Look for it to appear Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays, and Sundays at 3pm ET.

Sam Ogden

Sam Ogden is a writer, beach bum, and songwriter living in Houston, Texas, but he may be found scratching himself at many points across the globe. Follow him on Twitter @SamOgden

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80 Comments

  1. Man, their format makes for a slow test.

    So far, though, I’m doing well XD. I’d like to think I’m literate but I usually go into those discussions with the internet at my beck and call. Mostly for fact finding and for argument texturing.

  2. I second that their format makes for a slow test. Making me click to answer, then again to get he next question, reloading the whole page each time is really obnoxious, especially for a fifty question quiz.

    Anyway, I got 43 out of 50. Some of those were more detailed and difficult than I expected.

  3. There’s also no assessment of what the scores mean. What (and who) defines scientific literacy? There’s a “How does your score compare?” link, but it seems to be broken. I’m just going to assume that I’m basically scientifically literate.

  4. I liked the quiz too and hated the website. In addition to the bad interface of the quiz the constant flashing and scrolling makes it harder to think. I managed 44 with some guessing and process of elimination.

    One thing bugs me and it commonly shows up in quizzes like this is the order of Netwon’s laws. I know them all and the math behind them, but for the life of me I can never remember the order. Bitter? Yeah.

    1. I got to that question and thought the same thing. If you understand the basics of Newton’s laws, what does it matter if you know the numbers? It doesn’t even remember if you know they are Newton’s laws, except that it makes them a bit easier to talk about and shows a historical reference.

    2. Yeah, I didn’t actually like this quiz much because it kind’ve implies that if you’re good at this quiz, you’re good at science. I think there’s a lot of difference between knowing scientific facts and knowing how to apply the principles of a particular STEM discipline to solve a problem.

      Because hell, whenever anyone who’s some kind of STEM field doesn’t know something they just consult the almighty internet. I’ve learned a lot more engineering theory from literature & papers I looked up on google than I have my original degree at this point.

  5. Well now I feel bad at only getting 35/50. I would have gotten 36 if I had paid closer attention to the Latin clue on one of the questions, but I would have gotten it right based on linguistics knowledge when it was supposed to be a chemistry question. I also felt compelled to complain about the “demotion” wording of the Pluto question. I agree, it was more of a science trivia quiz than a science literacy quiz. Still fun though.

  6. I scored 40/50, and most of those I missed were mathematically related. It’s not a score to write home about by any means, but I guess I did okay considering the last time I took science or math was ten years ago, in tenth grade.

    Incidentally, I LOL’ed at the choices concerning the age of the earth and the universe. :)

  7. I got 45 right without looking up answers, but I’m not convinced that quiz has officially determined my–or anyone else’s–level of scientific literacy. It was reminiscent of a high school or college “test” that’s meant to see how many factoids you can memorize and regurgitate, rather than something designed to evaluate retained and useable knowledge. Overall rating: meh.

  8. I’m not even going to attempt it. I come from a high school that didn’t have much going for it especially when it came to science. :( I took biology and … that’s it, and of course I remember nothing from it.

    I plan to rectify that when I get a bit further along in my currently stalled college career, however.

  9. 43 — One thing I’ve never understood is the relationship of the Christian Science Monitor to Christian Science (the religion.) Don’t Christian Scientists believe, for instance, that it is a sin to seek medical treatment instead of relying on God for healing? This doesn’t seem like something an organization that believed that would publish…

    1. mks.mary wrote> “Don’t Christian Scientists believe, for instance, that it is a sin to seek medical treatment instead of relying on God for healing?”

      That is my personal understanding. I personally know of someone who practices Christian Science who recently retired as a senior engineering manager at a nationally renowned aerospace organization. It sort of blew my mind when I found out that they endorsed such an absurd non-scientific belief system.

      Also, I just Googled it at the Christian Science Monitor was actually founded by the prophet of the Christian Science movement, Mary Baker Eddie:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Christian_Science_Monitor

      \BCT

  10. I got 45, but that included a few lucky guesses and some process of elimination guesses.

    Okay, now that I have once again placated my gross insecurity about my intelligence, I have to make up the hour of work I lost due to the horribly slow webpage format used for the test (not to mention figuring out some way to self-medicate the guilt for digging my self even deeper into the procrastination crater that is my work life).

    \BCT

  11. My GF ( Chemistry major)and I (electronics major) got 48/50. Missed brontosaurus and to dismay horsepower.
    I still haven’t drank away all that accumulated knowledge, still working on it though. It’s booze o’ clock!

    1. I nearly got the horsepower (spoilers!) one wrong, until I realised that it probably wouldn’t have had the same value as the SI unit. And I only got the Brontosaurus one because I knew that wasn’t a used any more, and was fairly sure the others still were.

      I think the ones I got wrong that I ‘knew’ but got wrong were about equal to the ones I got right from guessing.

      @Ubi Dubium even if you don’t know what centimetres are (really?), you should be able to work it out from centi = 100. And it’s a US site, and ‘meter’ is the US spelling. So, you have no excuse!

  12. 23 is wrong. V.M. Slipher discovered redshift and hence the cosmological expansion. Hubble paired Slipher’s redshifts with his own distance estimates to discover that redshift and distance were strongly correlated, thus formulating Hubble’s Law.

  13. I got 47/50. Mechanical engineering background certainly helped. I got the biology ones mostly from information I’ve picked up in the last few years from various podcasts, particularly SGU.
    Didn’t know the cloud answer at all. Should have picked up an astronomy one if I had paid greater attention to the name and meaning of Greek goddess. And mucked up a astronomy gravity question because I thought it was a trick question.

  14. Well, with a few lucky guesses and knowledge from such diverse places as my current job (calibration of equipment), Mythbusters, my dad’s job (auto worker), Scott Sigler’s GFL series, and The Fast and Furious I got 48/50.

    Not bad for not having any formal education. Helps that I’ve been watching QI like a fiend and there were quite a few that I got through process of elimination.

    The disturbing thing is, I’m not sure where I learned about half of this shit. Spooky.

    I always do well on IQ tests too. Usually get around 145/145 or so. Doesn’t necessarily translate to anything real though. Pity.

  15. 37.

    I missed all of the “what Scientist did this” type questions, but that’s History, not science, IMO. I also missed most of the Biology questions, but I’ve never been into squishy science.

    I always thought that Newton’s First Law was F(net)=ma, and that was where we got gravitational force from. It was the 2nd Law that had to do with Inertia. (I missed that one, too, incidentally)

    [unrelated]
    I notice that many skeptics are biologists and the like, more than any other single field. Two questions:
    1) Is that confirmation bias on my part?
    2) If it’s not confirmation bias, why are are a disproportionate number of skeptics biologists?
    [/unrelated]

    1. I can’t point to any sources, but I do recall reading some on the topic of what scientists hold what beliefs. The general trend seems to be controversies breed skeptics. Creationists might argue over the age of the universe and the age of the Earth, but not nearly as many or as loudly as the ones arguing about the existence of evolution, so the astronomers and geologists face less criticism than biologists. So whether it’s the need to defend their science that breeds skepticism, or whether controversy brings skeptics in to sciences where interesting arguments are being had, either way the controversy seems related.

      On the flip side, it may be easier to be a religious astronomer than biologist for similar reasons. Depending on the beliefs, a biologist would have to deal with conflicts between their science and religion an astronomer wouldn’t.

      Dan Dennett makes a lot of comparisons between biology and engineering in his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. I wonder if seeing the mechanisms of biology makes it harder to have a mystic isn’t-life-magical view of the world as well.

  16. 47/50, but I should be scientifically literate, being a scientist.

    I’m kicking myself for missing the Bernoulli one, got the meiosis/mitosis one wrong on a 50% guess, and nimbus also on a 50% guess, but only because I figured ‘stratus’ meant high, and ‘stratonimbus’ exists so it can’t be low. (If god had meant us to be able to distinguish between meiosis and mitosis, they’d have started the words with different letters – like they did with the DNA bases A, G, C and T. I often work with DNA data, yet I still don’t bother to remember the base names.)

    Quite a lot of the questions aren’t really about scientific literacy. It is much more important to know about dominant and recessive genes than to know that Mendel played with peas. Also, a few questions can be answered purely on Classical education grounds, like the catalytic converter one talking about Athene.

    Finally, I think it a bit rich for anyone with “Christian Science” in their name to be lecturing me about scientific literacy. I notice they didn’t include any questions about the causes of ill health.

  17. I got 45 of 50, not too shabby for a guy who claims to be a science writer of sorts :-) (Christ, if I blew a lot of them I’d be worried).

    Anyhoo, there is a whole other debate about what ‘science literacy’ means. I’d say it’s someone who understands what a hypothesis is, what a theory is, and and the basics of how science is supposed to work (to my teachers’ credit I learned the terms “inference,” “hypothesis” and “theory” in grade 5, and damn if it wasn’t the single most useful thing they probably taught us).

    More to the point, I remember over on what, PZ’s blog? The contention there was that you couldn’t be a scientifically literate theist. I thought that was simply silly (I guess Isaac Newton wasn’t scientifically literate, even though he basically invented the method. And Calculus). I think that’s going a bit far. Its like saying you don’t understand computers — aren’t computer literate — if you don’t know quantum physics. Generally, scientific literacy seemed to be whatever the person making the definition wanted it to be. Usually meaning “people like me.” Hmmmm.

    I would say that many of the factoids they have there could lead to science literacy, but only in a sort of broad sense. I dunno.

    Thinking about it more seriously, I do feel that scientific literacy — what deal old Carl Sagan would have probably said was just using the same baloney detector you use when buying a used car (cf. The Demon-Haunted World) — is even more important for women and minorities to have, because the lack thereof hurts them more than those in more privileged positions.

    And I would also advocate something that is not my idea, but I can’t remember where I heard it — in high school teach the physics first, then chem, then bio. Because without the first two nothing in the third makes any goddamned sense. (Well, not nothing, but try explaining DNA or cell function without chemistry). Physics is in many ways conceptually easier because the math isn’t as hard once you have algebra. And experiments are easy to do in a classroom.

    I mean, what do you all think ‘scientific literacy’ means? Curious.

    1. Scientific literacy has two pieces, imo. You need to know something about the process, how science works broadly. But it’s also important to know a pile of facts and something about the theoretical frameworks of different fields. As Filias Cupio points out, someone who’s scientifically literate should know about plate techtonics and genetics and evolutionary biology, and, and, and . . . .

      What’s the bare minimum? It’s an interesting question.

    2. This is absolutely the really interesting question: How do we define scientific literacy. I agree with you that this test was a bit too much factoid based to get at real scientific literacy, and that understanding the scientific method and what a hypothesis and a scientific theory are must be the core of scientific literacy.

      At the same time, I think that’s a bare minimum, and I think scientific literacy isn’t something you have or don’t, it’s a continuum. I would suggest that you should have a modest understanding of probability and statistics and how they are used in scientific research (and for literacy we really need not go much farther than a simple t-test).

      For a fairly high level of scientific literacy you should have some familiarity with how research is conducted. Meaning you have to have done some. This is the tricky part, because no one does this until they begin to specialize. So you don’t have to have contributed to the literature (i.e. earned a PhD), but you ought to have reviewed the literature in some scientific field enough to see how the literature accumulates, how hard it is to contribute to it meaningfully, and what scientists really do every day. I don’t know if that should remain the highest level of literacy, requiring at least a highly intensive senior level undergrad research project, and likely a master’s degree, or if we need to expose people to this in high school, or at least ensure every college student gets some of it. But I think it’s hugely important to real literacy.

      I also think you need to have a basic understanding of the core principles of physics, at least Newtonian mechanics on a layman’s level (you don’t have to be able to calculate a force, but you really ought to be familiar with the laws of motion and how they affect our universe). I don’t think you need to have a good handle on relativity and quantum mechanics, but you ought to know enough to know that quantum really only applies at the subatomic level, not at the Deepak Chopra level.

      You should understand that evolution is real and how it actually works. You should know that chemicals bond with each other because of the number and placement of electrons, but you don’t necessarily need to know the details of different types of bonding. You ought to know about plate tectonics, that the earth is billions of years old, and some understanding of how that all plays out with the evolution of land masses and of life on earth. And in this day and age you ought to have some understanding of climatology and how weather works.

      But like you said, I’ve basically just described my level of scientific literacy as the goal. So that isn’t necessarily meaningful.

  18. 47/50, but I only knew about 42 or 43 – was lucky on the 50-50’s – only guessed wrong once. (‘Knew’ includes ones worked out from hints eg. palladium.)

    Mostly, it’s a trivia quiz, for sure, but to do well on it, I think one would have to be doing a fair bit of reading in the sciences, if not actually doing any. It may not measure literacy per se, but it still requires awareness.

  19. 42.

    Don’t let the name fool you. The CSM is a pretty good paper. The only reason the founder of Christian Science wasn’t a quack as a Doctor was that she actually believed her own bullshit. But she was spot-on several major problems in the media — sensationalism for one — and her newspaper is quite good.

  20. 43!

    Not proud!

    Bah, Humbug! Factoids, grumble, grumble!

    But it was in between work and we all know blokes are no good at multitasking, right? But really good at making excuses?

    (Jack is kicked off the site for perpetuating gender stereotypes)

  21. @Anthony: Yes, there did seem to be a biological bias in the questions, and astronomical too. Good for me, as an astronomer pretending to be a biologist. Possibly not so good for Evelyn, the Skepchick geologist – but she probably makes up for it with sheer awesomeness.

    “Why are a disproportionate number of skeptics biologists?” I’m guessing that the argument from design still has some appeal, and biologists are best inoculated against it. In my two fields, I knew one religious physicist or astronomer, and zero religious evolutionary biologists. These are hardly statistics to make a conclusion from.

    @Jesse:
    “I mean, what do you all think ‘scientific literacy’ means?” I’ve been wondering about this myself. Most important is the scientific method, but there are also a lot of facts (e.g. plate tectonics) which I think you need to know to be minimally scientifically literate.

    I could go into much more detail, but this discussion is too long already. I propose this as a future A.I. question.

  22. Got to the very last question with only 31 right, then my cell battery died. Couldn’t let that last question go, so grabbed the kindle and raced through the test again. Still got 2 wrong even then.

  23. Just chiming in with the bit about a bunch of trivia does not equal literacy.

    although, I’m guessing that it would take some familiarity with a broad range of sciences (even accepting for test-taking skills, and knowledge of classics/mythology) to score ~40+

    I think some important aspects to scientific literacy are a general familiarity with the basics in most fields;
    an understanding of how basic things in the world around us work;
    and an understanding of how the field of science works (understanding of the scientific method, the concept of peer-review, brief familiarity with statistics (some basic probability, problems with conducting surveys, things like small sample size, etc. – don’t have to be good at these things, just understand that they exist), and the proper use of terms (theory, hypothesis, uncertainty(actually, I think this one is maybe the most important…), etc.))

    anyone remember reading some previous articles about scientific literacy where they would quiz some sector of the populace with questions like:

    how long does it take for the earth to complete a revolution around the sun?

    (I can’t remember the other questions off the top of my head, but most of them were ones that a kid who had paid attention in school (at least once or twice), and thought for a minute or two would be able to get. unsurprisingly, very few American adults got many right :/)

  24. 49/50, although a couple were educated guesses based on elimination. I hate clouds though, got that one wrong :( I remember doing them in high school years ago and being bored to tears trying to remember which cloud is which.

  25. Good to see so many people still interested in science and scientific literacy around here!

    And I agree with what others have said about the quiz. May not necessarily measure literacy. Perhaps next week, we can use the AI for an indepth discussion of what exactly scientific literacy entails. Yes? No?

      1. I am on board with that. Call me back next week.

        This quiz was garbage. It measured two things: do you collect factoids from the discovery channel, did you study classical mechanics. And I’m not saying that because I did poorly. I got 46/50.

        I can tell you that knowing what greek symbol is used to describe friction (by the way that isn’t universal and we often used a capital F with a subscript f) tells you nothing about your understanding of science.

  26. 35 out of 50. I fucked up anything having to do with measurements and conversion (no surprise). And TWICE I hit submit as I realized I had selected the wrong answer.
    Anyway, I would not have done even close to this well without multiple choice.

  27. 49/50. That one miss was a decimal point error (honestly, centimeters? In the US we use MKS, so who uses centimeters in a question like that?)

    To me this was a buch of “let’s see how many factoids you can remember from high school” trivia quiz. I didn’t see a single question that had to do with understanding how science actually works. I think it’s much more important to understand how we figure out what the right answers are than to remember a bunch of stuff you can just look up. I don’t think any of the questions were of the “how do we know ____?” type

    If a policy-maker knows what a “double-blind” study is and why we need to do them, understands the difference between a theory, a hypothesis and speculation, and prefers to make policy based on where the evidence points instead of what he feels in his heart ought to be the right answer, then I don’t care if he remembers the Greek letter for the coefficient of friction, the value of “e” or the atomic number of fluorine.

  28. I don’t remember my exact score, but I think I got about 36 out of 50. Not too shabby, considering I have a B.A. in English and took my last science class in 1990. I agree with everyone who said it was more of a trivia quiz, which is why I did as well as I did. I remember most little snippets of trivia I’ve read. I had a lot of “oh, I know that” moments right after I clicked the button, because I was going too fast. But they probably balanced out the lucky guesses.

  29. I think I got 47/50… but that’s just a guess. The quiz showed 0/50, because the script to track the score isn’t on the same server as the script to advance the quiz.

    Cracked could teach them better website design.

    1. Yes, that and the ability to mouse click on your intended answer. I totally know that the Earth’s atmosphere is 78% nitrogen, but the final answer list claimed I didn’t answer that question. So I only got 49. (Lots of lucky guesses.)

      (I’ve been trying to resist bragging, but failed. Anyway, this really is a science trivia quiz, not a test of scientific reasoning or literacy.)

      It’s hard to think of how to do a scientific reasoning test in multiple choice or true/false format. One format might be to describe an experiment or situation and ask which of a set of conclusions can be derived from it. Another might be to ask which of a set of proposed experiments would confirm or disprove a presented hypothesis and why.

      I guess scientific literacy means familiarity with both the broad scope of scientific knowledge (knowing about Mendel’s peas and the Big Bang and plate
      tectonics and the like) but also how that knowledge was attained (the scientific method, how experimental, observational and historical sciences work, logical and critical thinking, what constitutes a valid mathematical model, some familiarity with statistics and so forth.) You don’t need to be able to figure out how many of your second cousins would likely share both your eye and hair color, but you should be able to understand that math and statistics are behind this questions, and that large numbers provide better statistics.

      I could ramble on endlessly here, maybe I should save it for next Thursday’s AI.

  30. I only got a 37. Which considering that the last time I took a science course at this level was sophomore year high school AND I’ve never taken physics is pretty good.

    Considering I’m an actual scientist is pretty bad :( although where is the social science love in that quiz? What I’m not scientifically literate because I specialized in a different field? Pshaw!

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