What I Think You Should Know

Via BioCurious comes this article on ten “science question[s] every high school graduate should be able to answer.” Read the list — most of the questions are bullshit. Ok, they aren’t bullshit, but they are trivia. “What percentage of the earth is covered by water?” “What sorts of signals does the brain use to communicate sensations, thoughts and actions?” “Why is the sky blue?” “How old are the oldest fossils on earth?” I’ll take potpourri for $400, Alex. Here are some questions every high school graduate should be able to answer:

  • What is a hypothesis?
  • What is a theory?
  • What is probability?
  • What is an atom? What is a neutron? What is a proton? What is an electron?
  • What is a molecule?
  • What is a cell?
  • What is a gene? What is a genome? What is the central dogma of molecular biology?

You get the point. Let’s focus on two things: the hypothetical deductive method and essential information that you must know to be able to read the science section of a newspaper.


  1. #1 techne
    April 25, 2006

    Great point and I like the start you have on the list of things kids ACTUALLY should learn. I’d add some question about scale: million vs billion vs trillion for example. Although many people say they know the difference, it’s a hard one to truly grasp, so maybe there’s no good way to test for this sort of awareness.

    I wonder where math/stats literacy questions should go, also.

  2. #2 PhilipJ
    April 25, 2006

    I agree that a few of their questions were fluffy, but I think we should be more concerned that most people probably don’t know the answers to most of those questions as is. Once we get to the situation where everyone, not just scientists and science bloggers, think that those questions are silly, can we move on to things like “what is the central dogma of molecular biology?”

    And, for what its worth, I didn’t find out why the sky was blue in a satisfactory (quantitative) way until my third year of an undergrad physics degree.

  3. #3 Andre
    April 25, 2006

    I basically agree, although I think some bits of trivia are so important that every high school graduate should know them. I hate the wording of the question about why a day has 24 hours (convention anybody?) but I like the spirit. I think every high school graduate should know why the sun (and the other stars!) rises and sets and why a year has about 365 days.

    Principles have more value than trivia only up to a point. You won’t see the power of the principles if you don’t see the facts that they account for and without examples it becomes much more difficult to apply the principles to new situations.

    With that said, I like your questions better since their answers convey more understanding.

  4. #4 Trevor Haldenby
    April 25, 2006

    The linked article certainly does veer in the direction of the erratically trivial, compared to your stance. That it’s vastly motivational to me to see someone lean towards the foundational and methodological encourages as it frustrates – good elation never comes without a period of preceding ignorance, ah?

    I like your list – I think there’s a larger site/event in such a question as “what are the core scientific values by which to guide (our youth).”


  5. #5 RPM
    April 25, 2006

    The day/year question had good intentions, but it wasn’t phrased very well. I consider myself scientifically literate, and I couldn’t explain why the sky is blue (maybe I needed more than a semester of mechanics and one of E&M). And I don’t think the human mind is capable of truly understanding values with more than three digits, let alone millions, billions, and trillions. There was no selective pressure for such abilities.

  6. #6 Matt McIrvin
    April 26, 2006

    I’m more concerned that so many of the answers in the article are garbled or inaccurate. “Diffused sky radiation”? Also, the earth doesn’t take 24 hours to spin on its axis, it takes about 23 hours 56 minutes; the day is four minutes longer because it’s also moving around the sun over that time. (Though if I asked someone on the street, I think I’d be satisfied with the answer given in that case.)

    The explanation of the rainbow completely fails to mention total internal reflection and the intensification of scattered light near the angle of minimum deviation for a spherical drop, which is both the most interesting part, the part usually left out of the kiddie description (though it could probably be explained in kiddie terms), and the part I’d probably get wrong on the details if asked (I had to look it up again).

    And what is up with that capsule description of Darwin? It doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s a good thing I possess variable and heritable traits, because if I didn’t have any nature wouldn’t select me!

    I like your questions better, but, frankly, I’d be flustered if someone asked me “what is a theory?” because every definition I can think of has an exception in some scientific discipline. To some, it’s a consistently and testably formulated hypothesis that is consistent with the body of extant data; but people seem to disagree over whether Popper’s falsifiability criterion has to apply, and then there are the quantum field theorists who use the word “theory” for any bunch of degrees of freedom that you toss together with a Lagrangian. I think I could answer the question when I was in high school but not now.

  7. #7 Peter Ellis
    April 26, 2006

    Also, the earth doesn’t take 24 hours to spin on its axis, it takes about 23 hours 56 minutes; the day is four minutes longer because it’s also moving around the sun over that time. (Though if I asked someone on the street, I think I’d be satisfied with the answer given in that case.)

    I wouldn’t. I’d want them to understand the key difference between the two.

    The year has 365 days (give or take), because that’s how many times the planet rotates on its axis during one revolution about the Sun. It’s an observable fact.

    The day has 24 hours because of an arbitrary decision made by humans as to how to measure time.

  8. #8 CCP
    April 26, 2006

    you know, a LOT of really excellent, interesting and useful science cannot be easily shoe-horned into the hypothetico-deductive paradigm. Me, I will forever go with ecologist R.H. MacArthur:
    “The only requirements of a scientific method are honest observation and accurate logic.”

  9. #9 RPM
    April 26, 2006

    As razib and CCP have pointed out, there is more to science that the hypothetico-deductive method, but it’s a damn good place to start. Onec you understand hypothesis testing, you can learn about all of the different ways of doing science.

  10. #10 ctw
    April 26, 2006

    since we all are inevitably ignorant about most topics, I consider that there are only a few things things one really needs to know:

    – how to find sources of information about a topic under consideration

    – why it it is critical to assess the relative credibility of conflicting sources and how to do so

    – how to synthesize the more credible (and possibly conflicting) information into an informed (though not necessarily correct) opinion

    in short, how to obtain and digest information.

    unfortunately, neither high school students (not too surprising) nor most adults (surprising and depressing in a society that so loves the “education” mantra) know these things, and worse, don’t seem to know or care that they don’t. and so we have opportunistic charlatans as the major source of “insight” into the complexities of governmental theory, evolution, global warming, economics, moral philosophy, etc.

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