Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Do lasers work by focusing sound waves?

Take out a piece a paper and write the numbers 1-10, then mark the answers to the following questions:

True or False? (you've got a 50/50 chance)

1. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.
2. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.
3. All radioactivity is man-made.
4. The center of the Earth is very hot.
5. The universe began with a huge explosion.
6. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.
7. Electrons are smaller than atoms.
8. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (I know this isn't a true or false question, I didn't write this quiz)
9. Human beings are developed from earlier species of animals.
10. The continents have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move.

These are some of the questions on an international survey reported in Science and Engineering Indicators 2006.

I found this in my ongoing attempts to understand why so many people believe in government death panels, believe that medicare works well and they don't want the government taking it over, and other such silliness. (We get distorted ideas about the world.  On television ten thousand people seems important, but one million people is less than one-half of one percent of the adult US population.)

The best that Americans did on the questions above (the data for United States was 2004) was about 78% of people got the correct answer on questions #4 and #10. That means that about 22% of the folks got these two questions wrong. (Of course this was a sample of the US adult population - you have to understand some statistics and probability to understand the counter-intuitive notion that you can sample a small portion of the population and predict accurately what the whole population 'knows.' But assuming good statisticians were in charge, that means about 42 million people don't know the answers to #4 and #10.) (Remember, if people guessed on all the questions, the odds are they would have gotten half of them right.)

38% got question #2 (the father's gene) WRONG.
More than 40% got question #6 (antibiotics) WRONG.

I guess the most shocking was that 40% got question #8 (earth around the sun?) WRONG. For me this is more shocking because it is the most tangible concept and one that we can actually see and don't need too much coaching from grade school teachers to get. Maybe they should have asked about whether the earth was round or flat too.

Perhaps less surprising, but more disturbing were questions #5 (universe began) and #9 (human development from earlier species.) I say less surprising because it's a lot easier, conceptually, to understand that some giant bearded God, who leans from the clouds on the Vatican ceiling, created the universe and human beings than it is to understand the big bang theory or evolution. But over 65% got #5  and 58% got #8 wrong! I would add another caveat though. Reading beyond just the headline statistics, I found that when the question was phrased, "Scientific theory holds that ..." the correct/incorrect ratio flips. So, 20% know about the big bang and evolution, but just don't believe it. The other 40+% . . . who knows?

So how'd you do on the test? You can see the answers and the stats for the US, China, South Korea, Japan, Malaysia, EU-25, and Russia on this page from the National Science Foundation. This particular test is a few years old - the US and EU data are 2005. How many know what EU-25 means? Some must because I do get hits from people in Europe.

What does this have to do with anything? Do people really need to know any of this stuff? Not to lead their daily lives, but they do if they expect to have a clue about global warming, nuclear energy, stem cell research, and whether the earth is more than 6,000 years old. Or what various public policies are about. I suspect that a lot of people have knowledge in some areas, but not others.

I also don't think that there's a correlation between political parties and knowing the answers, but I suspect that the people who believe what Sarah Palin says, on the whole, do less well on this than the average person. But that's simply a guess, but it would be interesting to find out.

So what happens when someone doesn't know something? I'd say there are a couple of key options. They can

1. Pretend like they do know.
2. Keep quiet and hope nobody asks them a question that will reveal their ignorance
3. Acknowledge they don't know and feel stupid and helpless.
4. Acknowledge they don't know and decide to find out the answers.

The scary thing is people who are confronted with their ignorance - get asked questions like those above or those right below - see they don't know the answers, but then go on to believe that their opinion on any of a number of public policy issues is just as good as someone who knows all the answers. Ignorance really means not knowing how much you don't know.

If the questions above seem a little distant from our daily lives (in a sense we can use modern technology and generally live our lives without understanding how it works, but since we are voters, our ignorance imperils all). Here are some questions relevant to terms we hear and/or are expected to make decisions about in the course of our daily lives.

1. An acre equals how many square miles? (When you hear that a fire burned 2,000 acres, do you have any idea how much that is?)
2. How much is the Anchorage [replace with your own city] Municipal budget? (If we don't even know how much the budget is, how can we say it is too high?  How do we know that our taxes are too high? Compared to what? How much would we pay for what our local government does if we had to pay private companies?  )
3. How many milligrams of salt are recommended for an adult per day?(This apparently varies from country to country.)
4. What are the five most populous countries in the world?
5. Write one word in a language that doesn't use the Roman alphabet.

The first three questions cover concepts that are in the news every single day, yet most people can't answer them, though I'd guess number 3 will get the most right answers.

The last two we may not face every day, but wouldn't it be nice to know something about the countries of visitors and immigrants we meet?  Shouldn't we all be able to point out on a map where those five countries are? How about when we have a strong opinion about one of those countries? Those five countries make up 46 percent of the world's population. I'd say that we should know them before knowing the names of five deodorants or how many times Lindsay Lohan was arrested.

And the last one. You can survive without reading any Chinese characters, or not being able to read sushi in Japanese. But I promise you a lot of Japanese can read Starbucks in English.  I think non-Roman alphabets act like curtains to most people born in the US. They seem completely impenetrable. But they aren't really. Billions of people read Chinese, Russian, Arabic, or Hindi. 

In ten hours almost anyone could learn to read 20-50 words in a language with a different alphabet.  If you had a good teacher or a good book and the discipline to apply yourself. (Ten of the 20 most populous countries use non-Roman writing.)

Sorry.  I'm getting a little carried away here. I just want people to remember that few of us use a very large percent of our brains.  We have a lot of excess capacity.   Nevertheless, even people who use very little of that capacity are able to deceive themselves into thinking that their opinion is as good as anyone else's. Somehow, "the right to one's opinion" has morphed into "my opinion is as good as yours."

Until we each face our relative ignorance and gain a little more humility (if you aren't humbled looking at all the books in a library, what does that suggest?) we have little hope of getting along and taking care of the planet in a way that will sustain life.


  1. I got 9 out of 10. Not surprisingly I didn't know the question about the father gene. The other's were quite easy. The question about antibiotics would make me think if it was asked in a different way.

  2. I got one wrong, which was the humans are from animals, due to my beliefs that we are not from this world. Strictly my own opinion. The other I got wrong was the NA. Thought it was a trick question, picking the first sentence as true. Very interesting.

  3. sorry if you consider this an insult but you are really dumb! 8. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (I know this isn't a true or false question, I didn't write this quiz) What do you meant by 'this can not be answered'. The earth revolves around the sun everyone one knows that even a forth grade student knows that.

  4. Anon Sept 27: I don't mind if you call me dumb, but for your own sake try to be careful about throwing out insults.

    Where did I write 'this can not be answered?' What I wrote was 'I know this isn't a true or false question.' That doesn't mean it can't be answered. It means it can't be answered "true" or "false."

    But people do that all the time. Read or hear something and then change it slightly in their minds to something else. And then they react before checking. If I'm wrong, let me know. I did a search to see if I wrote 'it can't be answered' but that phrase only shows up in your comment.

    So, if I missed the point completely, could you explain it?

    If I got it right, are you as quick to apologize as you are to call people dumb?

  5. There are plenty of ways of getting these questions 'wrong' that have nothing to do with being dumb. This is a horrible quiz.

    2. It is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.

    NSF says true. This is indeed true but an obvious reason to get this question wrong is that it is the Y chromosome from the father that makes a boy. X chromosome girl. The Y chromosome is quite small and does only have 86 genes and it turns out only 1 of those genes really matters in sex determination.

    Someone taking this quiz look for trick questions that is not aware that it is only one gene on the chromosome in question is not stupid.

    5. The universe began with a huge explosion.
    NSF says true. I would have to go with false.

    An explosion is not the same thing as what happened with the big bang. You certainly can think of them as similar events but in the big bang, it was space time itself (with the energy in it) that 'banged' and expanded faster than the speed of light. No explosion does that. This is not the same thing as an explosion.

    10. The continents have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move.

    Certainly you can read intent here and answer correctly but again if looking for trick questions one can and should answer this as false.

    The continents will not continue to move indefinitely. As the core of the planet cools, they will eventually stop. This is not a perpetual motion machine.


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