Over the weekend, as the tweets that only 18% in the U.S. could correctly define what a molecule is and less than a third could define DNA–and these were an open-ended questions–my first thought, after looking at the study (pdf, p. 48), was that all of the open-ended questions did worse than the multiple choice ones. (An aside: The DNA answer has improved over twenty years). It’s much easier to answer a multiple choice question for something you might not have seriously thought about for decades, simply because you don’t remember it. My second thought was that most people don’t have to use this information in their daily lives (I’ll return to this later in the post). Thankfully, Jennifer Rohn makes this point more elegantly than I could have:
I sometimes wonder if it is possible for a specialist to ever truly empathize what it feels like to walk in the shoes of the unindoctrinated – especially when it comes to the language. If you’re an adult practitioner of a particular trade, you will have had decades of training and education under your belt, and the required vocabulary will constitute your own daily vernacular.
…Entire swathes of junior high and high-school lessons have long since been over-written in my memory. There was a time when I could ace tests in trigonometry, algebra and calculus, but if you asked me now to deal with a problem containing sines, cosines and tangents, or solve differential equations, I wouldn’t know where to start. I am sure that many parents who struggle to help their kids with their homework have faced a similar wall of amnesia.
The problem, I think, is in the word ‘acquire’. Initial mastery in childhood is not the same thing as day-to-day use over a lifetime. If my life had been different, and I’d gone into another field, would I still be so conversant with words such as molecules? Somehow, I’m not so sure.
And lest we scientists get too cocky, let me ask some open-ended questions:
What is a mortgage?
What is a note?
What is a mortgage trust? (this one is kind of hard)
Because recent events have shown that understanding the housing finance industry is kinda important.
And I’ll follow up with another question: if you couldn’t answer these correctly, are you paying a mortgage for a house? How could one possibly take out a mortgage and be so ignorant? From one perspective, a mortgage is a massively over-leveraged fixed, long-term investment. If you’re going to make that investment, you should know the basics, shouldn’t you?
I’m not defending scientific ignorance, but the brutal reality is that most people don’t need to know this to get by on a daily basis, and spot-surveys with open-ended questions reflect that reality.