Monday, August 24, 2009

Somehow, I Don't Feel Smart

Updated at 1:30PM

Image credit: Generated by the quiz

Dana Hunter mentioned this science quiz over at En Tequila Es Verdad:

How are we supposed to feel all super-superior and stuff when that's the level of difficulty? I'd feel proud of my results if I were better than, oh, say, 5% of the country. But to be in the top 10% with questions that bloody simple - that's like beating a bunch of drunk people at coordination tests. It's bloody meaningless, is what it is. A Pyrrhic victory of sorts.

How ... Sad

Thankfully, I don't have to admit being dumber at taking this quiz than Dana or George W., whose article tipped Dana off:

I took the Pew Research Center Science Quiz, and got 100%, so I should be happy. But I’m not, because the questions were really easy (every single one has been in the news lately) and I read the “scores by demographic” part. It gave me that “we’re all doomed” feeling.

A Depressing Score

Four of the questions, two of which were about the solar system and two related to biology, represented recent knowledge. I think if you had much knowledge of the solar system, those would have been easy to guess. The biology questions have been discussed endlessly both in the news and popular entertainment. The others were about knowledge that's been around for decades. As with knowing who gave the Gettysburg address, you can't feel special about knowing this stuff. Yet it's more than 90% of the people who took it seem to understand, and that is depressing.

Looking at the demographics really is depressing:
Image credit: Generated by the quiz. Screenshot by Cujo359

The biggest underachievers are college graduates. I can see not knowing something, or forgetting one or two things over time, but if you're a college grad between the ages of 22 and 60 and have no medical problems that affect your mind, and you can't score 11 out of 12, you really ought to be ashamed. It's also sad that young people don't know more of these things. As George wrote, most of this is discussed on TV and in other communications media quite a bit. Of the knowledge that's been around for decades, nearly all of it I learned in high school.

The Pew Research study this test came from is an interesting read. On the one hand, it is clear that the general public supports science and technology, and thinks that these are positive forces in their lives. On the other hand, as this test bears out, the public isn't terribly well informed about science and engineering, or about how they work:

While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations. Fully 85% see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem for science, and nearly half (49%) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Science and engineering are intellectual processes toward achieving an end. In the case of science, that end product is knowledge, and it may come in a form that the scientists hadn't anticipated. Engineers use scientific knowledge to create something, and that, too, is a process that is subject to both reassessment and error.

Yet the public, whose understanding of these processes seems to be based on the things they see in TV shows, seem to know little or nothing of how these disciplines operate.

We see this ignorance play out in debates on the causes of 9/11, the supposed dangers of vaccines, and creationism. In the case of 9/11 "truthers", I love being lectured about how the laws of physics work by people who, in most cases, clearly don't understand them. These statements, though, reveal a more fundamental misunderstanding of the relationship between science and engineering. Any engineer, when confronted with such a statement, first has to ask "Which physics are we talking about?" We use the physics that apply to a given situation. Civil engineers use classical physics, and pay little attention to quantum mechanics or relativity. Electronics engineers mostly pay attention to quantum mechanics. Even within those specialized fields of physics, there are concepts that apply in particular designs, and concepts that can be safely ignored. Part of engineering is figuring out what the correct things are. Any civil or mechanical engineer who thinks that steel has to melt before it can fail to hold its designed load needs to find another line of work.

Belief in creationism flies in the face of most of what we've learned about our world in the last three centuries. Yet more than half of Americans think it might be true.

As bad as the lack of knowledge of the basic facts of this quiz may be, I think it's worse that the public doesn't seem to understand how it is that the scientists who discover them and the engineers who create them do their jobs.

For example, the Pew study observed:

Most scientists had heard at least a little about claims that government scientists were not allowed to report research findings that conflicted with the Bush administration’s point of view. And the vast majority (77%) says that these claims are true. By contrast, these claims barely registered with the public – more than half heard nothing at all about this issue. Only about a quarter of the public (28%) said they thought the claims were true.

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

The free exchange of ideas is vital to science. Without it, errors will go uncorrected. Yet few in the public were aware of the Bush Administration's deliberate censorship of scientific discussion. In all likelihood, few of them realize what a disaster such policies can be for science, and for engineering and medicine.

Image credit: Pew Research

Which brings me to one final point. This study had one result that I've seen widely quoted in progressive blogs:

Yep, the smart people tend to be liberal, at least when they're not rich. So, when people say that 70% of Americans agree on something, what you should be thinking is, which 70 percent? Is it the 70 percent who couldn't answer at least ten of these ridiculously easy questions? The seventy-plus percent who didn't know that the Bush Administration was censoring government scientists?

In that case, I'll be happy to be part of the minority.

UPDATE: Added many more expository links and a bit of editing.


ballgame said...

Can I just point out that the situation is actually slightly worse than what is implied by the statistics on correct answers? There were no "Don't know" options on any of the questions, so unless the quiz-taker skipped to the next question without providing any response at all, it's likely they simply guessed an answer. Given that there were two to four possible answers per question, that would suggest you would still have a 25% to 50% of getting a correct answer even if you didn't actually know the right answer.

For our back-of-the-envelope assessment, let's assume that for the quiz as a whole, there was a 33% chance of guessing correctly at questions you didn't actually know the answer to. That would imply that for every two 'actual' incorrect answers, you had another 'correct' answer that was really just a lucky guess. So if your 'performance' was 10 correct out of 12, your 'knowledge' was more likely to have been 9 out of 12.

So the college grads who scored an average of 9.5 were likely closer to a 'true knowledge' score of something like 8.4 or so.

Just thought I'd brighten your day …

Cujo359 said...

True, as I mentioned, it seemed possible to guess right on some answers just based on having some general knowledge of the subject. Others could probably be guessed at as accurately as you suggest - one or two possible answers could be eliminated.

Anyway, it's a pretty sad performance, particularly for college graduates.

george.w said...

"On the other hand, as this test bears out, the public isn't terribly well informed about science and engineering, or about how they work..."

Television ratings are, unfortunately, an inarguable illustration of the majority's interests.

Cujo359 said...

Yes, George, they certainly are. I don't know if education alone will cure that, either. I'd like to find out, though.

Anonymous said...

I thought the quiz was easy, but I don't think that it is any measure of a person's intelligence. The only thing indicated by the results is the how well informed the average person is about science. Some people have no interest in how large or small an electron is or whether or not Pluto is a planet.

Cujo359 said...

I was not asserting that doing well was a sign of intelligence, if anything, I think that doing badly may point to a lack thereof. That largely depends on what opportunities the test subject has had to be educated, of course.

The things on this test, and the background knowledge required to understand them, are fundamental things that people need to know. If they haven't learned them, they may or may not be intelligent, but they most certainly are not smart. They are not equipped to make informed decisions about either their own lives, their childrens', or politics.