The National Science Board made a deeply regrettable decision to omit questions on evolution and the Big Bang from the Science and Engineering Indicators report for 2010. As you might expect, this has stirred up some controversy.

I wasn’t surprised to learn this, as I had already noticed the omission a couple of months ago, when I updated the slides for my talk on public communication of science– the figure showing survey data in the current talk doesn’t include those questions, while the original version has them in there. I noticed it, and thought it was a little odd, but it had no effect on the point I was making with that slide. In fact, the graph works better, for my purposes, without the evolution question in there.

While I absolutely agree that this is a stupid decision, and hope that future reports restore discussion of what is one of the most important issues for science education in the United States, at the same time, this is indicative of one of the most frustrating problems in talking about public communication of science. While evolution is undeniably a critical issue in science education, there is a whole lot more to science than evolution, and it dominates the discussion to a really unhealthy degree.

When I use that slide– even the version with the evolution question on it– I point to two other survey items. They’re both true-false questions: “Lasers work by focusing sound waves” and “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” In both cases, right around half of the US population surveyed gets those right– essentially the same as guessing. And the US is among the world leaders in correct responses to those questions– China and Japan are in the 30% range.

I emphasize these two partly because I’m a physicist, and thus those hit closer to home for me. But there’s a more important reason why these are better questions to illustrate the problems with science education than questions about evolution: they’re not controversial. There is no large, well-funded and politically connected organization out there pushing the notion that lasers are based on sound. There is no Church of the Large Lepton telling its members that salvation depends on a bogus model of particle physics. Failure to teach the correct answers to these questions is purely a failure of education, not a political or religious issue.

As Matt Nisbet notes there are legitimate problems with the wording of the deleted questions, and they probably reflect more about beliefs than knowledge. This isn’t an issue for the laser and electron questions, at least not in the same way. People aren’t getting these questions wrong because the wording is running into a conflict with other beliefs, they’re getting them wrong because they genuinely don’t know the right answer.

Those questions don’t draw the same amount of attention as the evolution question, though, precisely because they don’t connect to any hot button political issue. They’re not fodder for great fundraising letters or angry blog posts, because there’s no convenient and readily identifiable villain. The educational problem they point to is a systemic problem, something that will require hard work over an extended period of time to fix, and it’s not glamorous or controversial.

And that’s the big problem with discussions of science education, particularly on the Internet. If some whack jobs in Texas try to take evolution out of textbooks, you can easily mobilize an army of people to denounce them. If a generation of school kids quietly receive dismally bad instruction in fundamental ideas related to modern chemistry and physics, that passes without notice.

One of the items in my list of recommended actions in those talks I linked to above is “Support science education across the board.” It’s easy to support science education on hot-button topics like evolution or climate change. But it doesn’t do us any good to have textbooks with a correct description of evolution, but our schools offer terrible instruction in mathematics. Not knowing math is arguably much more harmful than not knowing evolution– the current recession is, in many ways, the result of societal innumeracy.

So, yes, by all means, the National Science Board should take some flak for failing to mention evolution in their report. But at the same time, reading the final report should make clear that there are plenty of problems with public knowledge of science without including those questions.

There’s much more to science than evolution. And there are many more problems in science education than just the problem of teaching evolution. If any good is to come out of this whole stupid episode, it should be that: a reminder that there are problems to be fixed that go beyond the stuff that grabs the headlines. We need to pay a little more attention to those deeper issues, and not spend all our time berating people about a few high-profile topics.

Comments

  1. #1 Flavin
    April 9, 2010

    Since you mentioned math education there at the end, have you read Lockhart’s Lament?

  2. #2 frog
    April 9, 2010

    China and Japan are in the 30% range

    Doesn’t that indicate that they understand lasers & atoms better? They are factually wrong — but they aren’t just guessing, unlike US results that might indicate that the US testees don’t even recognize the words in the question? It’s better to misunderstand a principle than not even recognize the principle.

  3. #3 psikeyhackr
    April 9, 2010

    SCIENCE EDUCATION?

    Do the laws of physics change style every year? Do skyscrapers have to hold themselves up? Can physicists figure out if planned obsolescence is going on in automobiles? Isn’t this all Newtonian physics that can be understood by high school students?

    Why should we pay attention to physicists talking about teaching science if the 9/11 business is not settled? How can it be settled if we don’t know the TONS of STEEL and TONS of CONCRETE that were on every level of the towers? Shouldn’t the importance of that be obvious to PHYSICISTS?

    Don’t physicists buy cars? Don’t those cars wear out? Doesn’t that mean they DEPRECIATE? How much do American consumers lose on the depreciation of automobiles every year? Have the physicists noticed the economists discussing all of that depreciation? There have been 200,000,000 cars in the US since 1995. Aren’t cars wearing out all over the world? They keep getting added to GDPs of various countries but they never get subtracted from anywhare.

    Shouldn’t physicists do science before they talk about teaching science? If planned obsolescence has been creating unnecessary pollution for decades now, isn’t it kind of late to be talking about science education in relation to Global Warming?

  4. #4 becca
    April 9, 2010

    Just for the record, I would totally join the Church of the Large Lepton.

    “People aren’t getting these questions wrong because the wording is running into a conflict with other beliefs, they’re getting them wrong because they genuinely don’t know the right answer.”
    I’ll wager good money it’s not because they’ve never been TOLD the right answer. Rather, they don’t RETAIN the right answer. Why is that? I’ll go with two obvious contributing factors (not that others aren’t possible):
    1) It’s not perceived as relevant to their lives. There was just an article out about how people *actually* learn science, and the role informal education plays in that. People learn stuff that they care about just fine. This is not a Science education problem, this is a general FEATURE (not glitch) in human learning. Give them a use for the electron factoid, and they’ll retain it.
    2) They don’t think of science as important. Related to “not relevant to their lives”, but different. Plenty of people know Shakespeare, despite little practical relevance. But it’s shared culture, and the mark of an educated person to know Shakespeare. Frankly, the only reason I know about electrons is the ‘status knowledge’ factor. It’s NEVER been actually useful for me to know.

    The fact that many people DON’T consider the electron factoid important in that ‘knowledge for status’ sense DOES relate directly to evolution and conflict with other beliefs. In other words, you may not like evolution getting so much play, but that battle is on the front lines in the war against ignorance. People who disbelieve evolution, and believe that it’s just a matter of opinion, and that they have a constitutionally protected (or god-given) RIGHT to believe factually impossible things, are NOT going to be in a good position to remember things from scientific authorities just because they are fancy things to know. I don’t think these people are stupid, or incapable of accepting science that’s useful to them. But you basically want them to learn things that are not obviously useful, and to consider them essential to being well-educated… that doesn’t go so well if they view you as a scientist as a suspicious shady threat.

    “Not knowing math is arguably much more harmful than not knowing evolution– the current recession is, in many ways, the result of societal innumeracy.”
    Bullshit.
    First, let me know how that MRSA is working out for ya. Then, tell me every goofball with a runny nose demanding antibiotics who *doesn’t* actually understand how selection works isn’t a menace.

    Moreover, in point of fact, at least as far as the financial debacle went, it doesn’t MATTER how numerically literate people are. What matters is that they still want to ‘trust the experts’ when it comes to financial decisions. The experts that got us into the ridiculous derivative investment nonsense were anything BUT numerically illiterate- many were the top mathematics graduates of our best universities. But there was MONEY TO BE MADE in a pyramid scheme.

    Look, I know your job security depends on being able to teach people math and physics, and I’m sympathetic to that. I *want* people to learn math and physics, just as I want them to learn evolution. Of course, it’s not a zero sum game. However, none of that actually makes your argument make any sense.

  5. #5 Stephen
    April 9, 2010

    becca, you had me until your last paragraph. Science education and math proficiency are two aspects of critical thinking, a relevant skill in everybody’s life, and the lack of which is the overarching problem touched on here. Critical thinking is not served well by cynically appealing to scientists’ job security whenever a conclusion is either inconvenient or incomplete. See: Climate Change, LHC, 9/11 truthers, etc…

  6. #6 Tim Eisele
    April 9, 2010

    Reading the bit about the students in China and Japan actually being more likely than chance to pick the wrong answer, makes me think that a large fraction of the respondees are expecting a “trick answer”. It might help if there were three possible responses (True, False, and I Don’t Know), to help separate the people who would just be guessing, from the people who are genuinely misinformed and/or choose against their first instinct because they think it’s a trick.

    One possibility on the electron question, is that they are vaguely remembering the bit about electron orbitals from chemistry class, and taking the “size of the electron” as being the cloud of probable locations rather than being the size of the actual particle. If they also are a bit muddled and are confusing the nucleus with the whole atom, then they could easily come up with the idea that electrons are bigger than atoms.

  7. #7 Coriolis
    April 9, 2010

    Very nice post becca, and I agree with most of it (and I’m a physics grad student heh). If I can just summarize your point, physical factoids (even very basic ones) are not relevant to 99% of the population of this country (basically all all the non scientists/engineers). If they felt they had a reason to learn them, they could easily do so – nobody’s out there trying to lie about the size of electrons.

    What is far more important then whether people know an electron is smaller then an atom is whether they understand the idea of scientific reasoning – which is much harder to teach. And I believe the whole fight over evolution is probably doing quite a bit for bringing scientific thinking to the public – whether it’s accepted or not.

    Having said that I will nitpick a few points:

    a) Basic math at the point of let’s say figuring out how different conditions of a loan is gonna cost you is useful to most people in their daily life, and too many people can’t really figure it out. It’s not that hard and it’s generally useful. Although it’s wrong to say that our current recession had anything to do with that – the professionals in the business, while they weren’t geniuses, certainly had enough math education but of course there was money to be made. Lots of money.

    b) When it comes to antibiotics, while the reason why over-use of antibiotics is a problem, is very directly tied to evolution, I don’t think this is really the information most people need to know. After all, if you actually have a bacterial infection, you should use anti-biotics, long-term consequences be damned. Instead people need to know this simple biology factoid – there are viral and bacterial infections. Anti-biotics don’t do shit to viruses – and the common cold is a virus.

  8. #8 Chad Orzel
    April 9, 2010

    I don’t agree that the relative size of electrons and atoms is somehow an unimportant factoid. The notion that electrons are components of atoms (and thus necessarily smaller than atoms) is absolutely central to the modern understanding of the composition of matter. I would say that it’s every bit as essential to atomic and condensed matter physics, and all of chemistry, as the idea of evolution is for biology.

    If you want to know how chemical reactions happen, how computer chips and other electronic devices work, or how we know what the universe is made of, you need to have at least a rudimentary Bohr-model level understanding of how atoms are put together. And that includes knowing that electrons are smaller than atoms.

  9. #9 rob
    April 9, 2010

    even though the questions are politically/religously charged, they should have left them in. they shine a bright light on the willfull scientific illiteracy that americans are proud of.

  10. #10 Anonymous Coward
    April 9, 2010

    I am totally infatuated with the “Church of the Large Lepton” idea.

  11. #11 Coriolis
    April 9, 2010

    It’s not unimportant in the sense that understanding of electrons and atoms is critical for understanding how almost all modern technology works deep down. The problem is that for all those things you listed – chemical reactions, computer chips, etc – any understanding (and by understanding I don’t mean just being able to quote facts like “semiconductors have a small band-gap”, or “atoms are made of electrons and protons”) is actually pretty difficult. With physics you have to go through alot of seemingly unrelated abstract concepts before you can get to an understanding of how you make a transistor for example – it’s something that even a physics major in college might not understand until junior year. The basics of evolution in contrast are pretty easy to grasp and have obvious implications for how one views animals, plants etc – which naturally makes it alot more interesting.

    Now you can claim that some physics knowledge should be as much a mark of a “well-educated person” as reading Shakespeare, and I’d agree, but this has long been a problem without any obvious solutions.

  12. #12 psikeyhackr
    April 9, 2010

    There is one thing I find peculiar about science education. Science fiction books that I read in grade school made science more interesting than the science teachers I had in high school. I didn’t need them to motivated me. I got no science in grade school whatsoever. A nun told my sister that “science and religion don’t mix.”

    But now some of that sci-fi from the 50s and 60s is available for free.

    http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/24161

    Why haven’t scientists and engineers been promoting GOOD sci-fi for kids in grade school? If it was used for reading instruction in grade school it might help kill two birds with one stone. Kids would pick up some science without studying it. Sneak it in on them.

    Also characters in stories often use that CRITICAL THINKING that we hear so much about. But most of the people using the phrase aren’t using it themselves. They are just propagandizing us. Shakespeare is very witty and entertaining but what do any of his plays teach about PROBLEM SOLVING? We don’t live in a world where many people fight with swords. What did he say about Global Warming?

    I love it when Mercutio gets stabbed in the gut and says, “Tis not so deep as a well nor so wide as a church door but ’tis enough.”

    “Lord what fools these mortals be!” LOL

    And double-entry accounting is 700 YEARS OLD. Older than Shakespeare and Isaac Newton. Are we really supposed to believe it is so complicated with the cheap computers we have today which are more powerful than 1980 mainframes? Where are the educators talking about mandatory accounting?

    http://www.bsu.edu/news/article/0,1370,-1019-11714,00.html

    How many problems are caused by changing books for nothing. I remember wasting hours trying to solve math problems because the answers in the back of the book were WRONG! Beat your brains out trying to come up with a wrong answer because you expect the book to be right. VERY NOT FUNNY!

    What are netbooks and e-books going to do to education? But what do educators want them to NOT DO?

    http://users.aber.ac.uk/dgc/funtheyhad.html

  13. #13 becca
    April 9, 2010

    “Basic math at the point of let’s say figuring out how different conditions of a loan is gonna cost you is useful to most people in their daily life, and too many people can’t really figure it out.”
    This is absolutely true, but I think you are naive if you think figuring it out always matters.

    Now, I’m perfectly numerically literate (for educated-layman or biologist purposes, if not condensed matter physicist or electrical engineer purposes). I can easily do in my head the kind of division necessary to compare products in a grocery store. Yet I am functionally more or less incapable of rational actions in that grocery store. The reason? I’m trying to weigh food-weight-per-dollar (easy to calculate), and calories-per-dollar (easy to calculate), and nutritional-density-per-dollar (more difficult to calculate, since I value some nutritional properties more than others- if it’s harder for me to get in other foods, it’s more valuable. it’s not just a question of ‘what percentage of various RDAs does this product provide), and deliciousness-per-dollar (*very* difficult to calculate, since deliciousness is affected by a great many factors), and best-practices-for-the-environment-per-dollar (nothing like accuracy in this calculation- I just run a shortcut of valuing local over distant and not paying more than 2x for organic as arbitrary rules of thumb; I wish there were a numerical value for carbon footprint on each thing at the store). I’ve got ~44,000 choices at an average grocery store. In any given trip, am I making the *best* possible choices for my dollars? Nope. The problem with saying “we need numerical literacy to not make irrational decisions about money!” is that we are basically doomed to make irrational decisions about money irrespective of numerical literacy.
    That’s the problem with economics ;-)

    “Instead people need to know this simple biology factoid – there are viral and bacterial infections. Anti-biotics don’t do shit to viruses – and the common cold is a virus.”
    Ahh, you caught me there. But then, what people need to know about electricity *isn’t* the size of an electron, but rather “don’t stick a fork in the socket, Einstein”.

    “I would say that it’s every bit as essential to atomic and condensed matter physics, and all of chemistry, as the idea of evolution is for biology.”
    Even as a scientist, I never have to *think* about the size of an electron to do perfectly good chemistry. Just as I never need to *think* about evolution to use the NCBI genome browser. Sure, knowing the basis for what I’m doing is nice, but it’s not actually functional knowledge in either case.

    Stephen- if you value critical thinking, I am confident that you won’t dismiss me over a bit of light-hearted heckling from biologist to a physicist for the grave sin of rooting for team physics instead of the all important Team Biology. We all have our biases.

  14. #14 deadatheists
    April 10, 2010

    abcnews.go.com/Nightline/FaceOff/

    THE REAL QUESTION:

    DOES ATHEISM HAVE A FUTURE?

    AND THE ANSWER – NO!

    Atheists

    GET OUT OF MY UNIVERSE…

    you little liars do nothing but antagonize…

    and you try to eliminate all the dreams and hopes of humanity…

    but you LOST…

    THE DEATH OF ATH*ISM – SCIENTIFIC PROOF OF GOD

    engforum.pravda.ru/showthread.php?t=280780

    Einstein puts the final nail in the coffin of atheism…

    youtube.com/watch?v=V7vpw4AH8QQ

    atheists deny their own life element…

    LIGHT OR DEATH, ATHEISTS?

    ********LIGHT**

  15. #15 Chris Granade
    April 10, 2010

    I agree that knowing whether an electron is smaller than an atom is quite important, but I think that becca’s point was that it is not perceived to be important by students. I’m at a loss as to how to best communicate that relevance, but it is most certainly there.

  16. #16 Ibis
    April 10, 2010

    Chris @15 said “I’m at a loss as to how to best communicate that relevance, but it is most certainly there.”

    I think one thing that could be done is to start much, much earlier on science education. Kids should be learning about the basics of chemistry (Bohr model atoms; simple compounds), biology (evolution; evolutionary history), astronomy/cosmology (big bang; age of the universe; solar system) beginning in kindergarten. As they get older, more details and complexity could be added. That way they’re not introduced to these things in middle school & high school when they’ve already been indoctrinated by parents and churches to discount facts, when they think that nothing they learn in school is relevant to them etc.

    Kids at that age are *excited* to learn about how everything works and what kind of universe they live in. And don’t think it’s above them. If they can learn to read & write at that age, they can certainly learn about electrons, common ancestry, and an expanding universe.

  17. #17 IreneD
    April 10, 2010

    “There’s More to Science Than Evolution”

    Chad, it’s strange that you choose that in your title, making your post seem like a petty turf battle between biologists and other scientists, when the Science Mag article is about omitting the polls on evolution AND the Big Bang, about both biology and physics.

  18. #18 yogi-one
    April 10, 2010

    @ 10: If you want to minister to the Leptons, that’s fine. But don’t use my tax money to do it, and I still say they should be quarantined!

  19. #19 Velitar
    April 10, 2010

    One possibility on the electron question, is that they are vaguely remembering the bit about electron orbitals from chemistry class, and taking the “size of the electron” as being the cloud of probable locations rather than being the size of the actual particle. If they also are a bit muddled and are confusing the nucleus with the whole atom, then they could easily come up with the idea that electrons are bigger than atoms.

    I agree, while I probably would have anwered “yes” to that question it would have been with hesitation. Actually I’d go further, if they were considering that the electron cloud basically defines the physical extent of the atom then it’s not hard to see how they might come to the conlusion that they are the same “size”. Commonsense notions of “size” don’t really translate without ambiguity into quantum physics. “Hmmmn–do they mean the De Broglie wavelength? The Compton wavelength? If it’s wavelength they’re talking about than maybe an atom is smaller than an electron…” Of course what is meant is something like “The the radius of an electron is less than the radius of an atom” but it takes some thought to pull that out of the haze of possible meanings.

    In many respects this question is actually worse than the “Big Bang” question.

  20. #20 Passerby
    April 10, 2010

    I think you have it nailed: the real cause is fear or apathy (take your pick) of mathematics – the symbolic root language of physics and chemical logic (mechanistic theory and science).

    Through physics and math, one can grasp two fundamental units of scalar measures: relative distance and time. With these scales and added understanding of chemical principles, its possible to create a cartoon visual-and-worded description of the wonders of geological processes that shape our planet, of astrophysics of star birth and death and galactic systems that fill the universe, of the remarkable biochemical evolution of early life on Earth, and of the building complexity of the evolution of higher organisms over many hundreds of millions of years.

    How else can you understand your individual and group place in the timeline of this universe?

    Science is not just evolution. The lack of conceptual synergy between science and Western religion lies in our educators inability to see that the big difference is the lack of appropriate application of timescale, a conceptual understanding that is relatively modern where it is expanded beyond old concepts relative to the recent history of man in the past 25,000 years.

    There were massive floods, there were giant volcanic eruptions that reduced humanity to a fraction of its former number more than once, there were major eruptions that brought about regional famine, drought and induced local plagues to population centers in the Middle East Africa, Asia and Europe. There were long, chaotic periods of intense climatic shifts that brought severe hardship on peoples. They induced war, mass migration of peoples, spread language, culture and religion and forged ethnic identity in new lands.

    All of these things happened and were chronicled for hundreds of generations by word of mouth and later, by the written accounts with parables as men sought to make sense of these history-altering events. This is an old, ancient practice, defining group social and spiritual knowledge common to nearly all cultures of the past few thousand years.

    I think that many religious folk would not be so nonplussed if they were shown that these many-fold religious-historical accounts can be understood and adapted to an timeline context that coincides with that of modern science.

    Science can augment historical perspective of religious stories – for that is what the old holy books are, they are a recorded history of ancient peoples as well as spiritual guidance, social ethics writ and legal primer for passing knowledge from one generation to the next.

    In turn, religion does not negate science, for when you drill down to the base particle physics, where the energy is indivisible, you still are left with this feeling of absolute wonder of the story of unfolding that formed the early core and later fine structure of the expanding cosmos.

    We cannot say where this energy emerged from, can we? Beyond the Big Bang, there is nothing that can be ascertained of its singleton origin.

    It does not belittle the concept of an omnipresent power; rather, it pays homage to the gloriousness of all things that lead to our present understanding of what is and who we are as sentient species on a very special planet, as we puzzle out the re-telling through our modern science stories.

    I think we can find a halfway meeting point, where science offers an improved understand and appreciation for the past that formed men’s belief systems – ethical guidance and a body of common law that spans the rise and fall of many nations and governments.

    But first, we have to master basic fear and misunderstanding of the utility of math and science.

  21. #21 paullesq
    April 11, 2010

    Back to the drawing board for me then.
    That’s my Grand theory of Darwinian evolution stuffed.
    The foundational statement for my organan.

    *The big bang a single beginning denotes a single process, that single process = Evolution.

    ……………………

    Everybody knows that there is more to science than just evolution.
    There are large ideas with big implications, then there are small ones.
    Theories should be marked on merit not size.

  22. #22 Chad Orzel
    April 11, 2010

    I agree that knowing whether an electron is smaller than an atom is quite important, but I think that becca’s point was that it is not perceived to be important by students. I’m at a loss as to how to best communicate that relevance, but it is most certainly there.

    Of course, the same argument applies equally well to evolution– that is, if people really perceived evolution as being as important as biologists say it is, there wouldn’t be as much of a problem getting it taught in schools. Part of the reason crazy people are able to get it blocked in the first place is that the average person doesn’t see it as any more important than knowing the size of the electron.

    Regarding the electron size question, while I agree that it’s possible to retcon a way for the wrong answers to have come from over-thinking the question, I have a very hard time taking them seriously. I don’t think that people are getting it wrong because they’re thinking about electron orbitals as defining the size of the atom– they’re getting it wrong because they have no idea what the correct answer is, and they’re guessing.

    Anyone trying to reason their way to the correct answer has a much shorter path than thinking about electron orbitals: Atoms are made up of electrons, protons, and neutrons, and a component of the whole is necessarily smaller than the whole. Going any further than that is over-thinking, and while we have many problems in our society, thinking too much is not one of them.

    Finally, regarding the Big Bang stuff, I left it out of the post title because I was trying to keep it short and punchy. It’s not in the text because I’m lazy, and didn’t want to type “and the Big Bang” every time I needed to refer to the questions. Feel free to do a global search-and-replace for “evolution” with “evolution and the Big Bang” if it will make you happier.

    (I also think it’s less of an issue with regard to education, because the Big Bang model doesn’t really fit in the high school science curriculum, so it’s taught even less frequently than evolution. And the Big Bang question that they had on the survey in the past was genuinely terrible, misrepresenting the essence of the theory in approximately the same way that “People evolved from monkeys, true or false” is a mangling of evolution– see Rob Knop, back in the day.)

  23. #23 Velitar
    April 11, 2010

    Regarding the electron size question, while I agree that it’s possible to retcon a way for the wrong answers to have come from over-thinking the question, I have a very hard time taking them seriously. I don’t think that people are getting it wrong because they’re thinking about electron orbitals as defining the size of the atom– they’re getting it wrong because they have no idea what the correct answer is, and they’re guessing.

    This is likely, but then the whole point of doing such studies is the possibility that the results won’t match our expectations. Furthermore, our expectations are largely informed by our personal experience and surroundings, and so may be unreliable in unforeseeable ways when applied to the results of a cross-cultural study such as this one. I was quite confounded that on some questions many populations scored far worse than could be accounted for by random guessing, so I’m reluctant to draw any conclusions from this beyond the obvious one that something has gone awry.

    For all I know Frog at #2 is right and two-thirds of the Japanese respondents on the laser question were tweaked by a vague recollection that lasers were associated with concentrated waves of something-or-other while the American respondents were all flipping a coin. Catching out people with such vague half-knowledge was certainly the intent of that question’s wording, but as no country scored significantly better than chance all that can be said with certainty about the high-scoring countries is that they contain roughly equal numbers of “savvies” and “suckers” with an unknown proportion of “guessers” mixed in along with them. Given the other answers it seems likely that the USA and EU figures indicate a higher proportion of “savvies” but it’s not clear just how much higher.

    Coming back to the electron question, I can easily imagine a respondent correctly answering the laser question, thinking (not without cause) “Ah, tricksy survey! Tricksy tricksy survey!” and then becoming wary on encountering a question with such a seemingly obvious answer. Again, results so much worse than sheer guessing would seem to demand some sort of explanation beyond simple ignorance, though I can’t say with any confidence what it is.

    The most startling result to me was the many high scores on the continental drift question, but I suppose it might be accounted for by the perceived immediate relevance of geology given such threats to personal well being as earthquakes, volcanoes, tsunamis et al. Still, it seems very odd to me that the proportion of wrong U.S. answers to this question is smaller than the established proportion of young earth creationists, and so much smaller than the proportion of “wrong” answers to the “big bang” question even given the latter’s terrible wording.

    Actually, scanning over your table again some of the results look so strange (e.g. the Chinese score on the “big bang” question) that I almost suspect some sort of problem with the phrasing of the translated questions. Might you be able to reproduce the translated surveys here Chad?

  24. #24 Cxo
    April 11, 2010

    Big bang, even if it did happen, certainly wasn’t a “big explosion” as one of those questions stated.

  25. #25 Jim Thomerson
    April 12, 2010

    When is the last time you heard a sermon preached against atomic theory, or read a religious tract condemning it and saying that it was the basis of Hitler’s thinking?

  26. #26 Loren Petrich
    April 14, 2010

    I second Velitar’s post #19. Electrons are described by the Dirac equation, which is vaguely analogous to Maxwell’s equations. This means that considering the size of an electron is like considering the size of a magnet’s magnetic field.

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