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Monday, August 17, 2009

A Science Literacy Test

I missed this Scientific Literacy Quiz that appeared in The Toronto Star last week.

Fortunately Postdiluvian, a med student at the University of Toronto, found it and blogged about it on The Unexamined Life: Science literacy quiz. He didn't say how many he got right. I'm not saying either except to reveal that it was fewer than 26.

Most of the questions are pretty good but one of them is wrong and a couple could have been better worded.


  1. hmm. It said I got 26 "wrong". I might concede that. (Definition of "animal"?). I apparently only got half credit for 16, since I chose two correct answers. I'm pretty sure I'm correct on that one.

    Not a bad quiz, despite the fact that you had to make allowances for what they meant in some cases. (interior of cells contains "complex subunits"? Well, ok, but it's not a very insightful observation.)

  2. The physicist got 24 and 26 wrong. Correct? (B-)

    And I agree that 16 has more than one correct answer.

  3. I got 24 "correct". Except that I felt that a full ~ quarter of the questions were retarded.
    These quizzes usually tell more about their authors. In this case, one cold tell that the author 1) is semi-illiterate in popular science concepts, 2) has troubles posing unambiguous questions.

  4. Designed by James Trefil? I have a book of his on my shelf about particle physics (written in the 80s, somewhat dated), one of the first books I'd read on the subject as a teen. Surprised at the quality of these questions, some were very ambiguous (the one about the age of the sun, for instance).

  5. 26. The earliest animals we could say are related to modern humans appeared on Earth

    a. Thousands of years ago
    b. Millions of years ago
    c. Billions of years ago
    d. Trillions of years ago

    Answer - b? Surely the first life that ever appeared is related to modern humans? Which would be c.

  6. It's an odd one, isn't it?

    I got 26 correct for some small values of correct, would mark 5, 24 and 25 as "unsafe" and think 16 has more than one valid answer.

    Nonetheless, it's nice to know I'm scientifically literate according to the standards of someone who clearly isn't: now I just have to persuade my examiners in Molecular and Cell Biology next month than I know what I'm talking about. Hahahahaha.

  7. 26. The earliest animals we could say are related to modern humans appeared on Earth

    a. Thousands of years ago
    b. Millions of years ago
    c. Billions of years ago
    d. Trillions of years ago

    Answer - b? Surely the first life that ever appeared is related to modern humans? Which would be c.

    Not all life is animals. Howver all animals (like all known terrestrial organisms) are related to modern humans.

    If you take the modern conception of animals (Metazoa s.l.) then the first animals appear about 600 million years ago, or earlier if you believe the molecular estimates. Is that (600) millions or (0.6) billions?

    If you include protozoa as animals then the answer is clearly billions (unless you believe Cavalier-Smith).

    24 is the other question that I found dodgy - if you squint hard enough you can see some truth in the preferred answer, but IMO it is badly phrased to the point of being wrong.

    I wasn't impressed with the question on *the* different between fusion and fission - it's like offering that observation that the British eat cows but not horses as the difference between cows and horses.

  8. And I agree that 16 has more than one correct answer.

    There's an ambiguity to the denotation of the Milky Way. If you mean our galaxy then the Sun is indeed younger that the Milky Way. If you mean the features forming the Milky Way in the sky it gets more ambiguous - the spiral arms are older than the sun, but the stars and nebulae that currently compose the light emitting components of the spiral arms are generally younger.

  9. I was pissed off at 26 until I noticed the "animals" phrasing. Now I am merely annoyed. I think the author likely meant "when were the first primates?", or perhaps "when where the first mammals?", which of course misses the point.

    And yes, #16 could be answered by any of (a), (c) or (d), depending on definitions. Or even (b), if you're pedantic enough -- one could consider the "age of the sun" to be how long its mass has been around, for instance :)

    #24 is poorly phrased; I wound up interpreting (a) with emphasis on "run" rather than "allows", suggesting some driving goal rather than whatever chemical reactions #10 tells us would happen anyway.

  10. I find it very disturbibg that anybody would consider this test a definition of scientific literacy!

  11. A minor nitpick: almost all lightning is cloud-to-cloud, not cloud-to-ground. Luckily for us.

    William Hyde

  12. Looks like my quibbles were with the same as everyone else, 16, 24 and 26. I thought "animal" word was the keyword in 26, but ended up putting Billions anyway since I don't really know when the earliest life to which we would classify in the animal kingdom would be, I knew at least 600 Million but maybe back a Billion. Number 16 not only had two correct answers but I think the Sun/Milky way comparison was even more correct then sun Universe because he didn't define "much younger". Like what, an order of magnitude?

  13. None of the options for #16 can possibly be correct since the choices available don't make reference to all three of the objects we are asked to think about.

    The "correct" answer only refers to the Sun and the Universe and neglects the milky way.

    Or did I miss something? Maybe I didn't get the question?

  14. I was able to guess what they were after, and so got them all "right."

    Plenty of nits to pick, but "The earliest animals we could say are related to modern humans," is definitely the worst of the lot.

    They must not have gotten the memo from Mooney and Kirshenbaum, however, because the test is working with the taboo "deficit model" of scientific illiteracy.

    An M&K approved scientific literacy test would ask:
    (1) How many scientists are your personal friends?
    (2) How many movies have you watched with scientists as attractive protaganists?
    (3) Does science make you feel good about your religious faith?
    . . .

  15. All of the problems I had with it (numbered by the question number):

    1. Mildly confusing. The wording for d) is not part of the conventional format and is not part of the format of the rest of this quiz (undetermined "they" listed as part of multiple choice).

    5. d) is in reality a correct answer because c) only accounts for few % of all and a) and b) account for none.

    7. This may be an issue of English comprehension but I was confused by the reference in a) to a "massive object" that can be "accelerated past the speed of light". To me, the statement implies that things might be different for a non-massive object that is not accelerated. It is only obvious correctness of b) and c) that allows to logically conclude that the only valid choice is a).

    10. Insides of a cubic form of carbon crystal is a part of nature, right? Right, of course. But I seriously doubt that it is kosher to characterize this environment as one where "chemical reactions take place".

    13. The "difference" stated is as valid and as relevant to what really matters with regard to nuclear reactions as the difference in the number of letters the respective words contain.

    14. The "correct" answer is obvious but within it a statement that oscilloscope "is a machine designed to explore the basic structure of matter" is equally valid.

    16. A logical mess. No answer provided can possibly be correct.

    18. d) As it stands is a bad wording. "None of the above would have been much better. (I.e., Earth's circumference is a geological feature and can reasonably be stated to be permanent).

    21. The message is that insects are "animals". OK, nothing's wrong with that but it becomes messy come #26.

    22. I am surprised so few had issue with it. a) is absolutely retarded because it is the most meaningless possible statement about the interior of cells. Given the definition of "protoplasm", no matter how outdated and uninformative the term is, b) is obviously a better formal answer.

    23. The obvious "Oprah" question. The correct answer is not known and can't even be reasonably defined given the ambiguity of the question itself.

    24. Very unsatisfying. a) is too vague, b) and c) CAN be correct depending on the "DNA" and "cell" in question.

    26. b) and c) are correct, particularly given the fact that the author himself is vague on what is "animal".

  16. I'm writing this before looking to see what anyone else has written, so apologies if I'm just repeating.

    The answer given for 16 (ages of the solar system, Milky Way etc.) seems plain wrong, unless they are using "much younger" in a different way from me. All of the entities mentioned are between 4 and 14 billion years old, so I wouldn't describe any of them as much younger than any other.

    19. I should be surpised if most of the fresh water in the world is in Antarctica (what about the land around the Arctic Ocean, which occupies a large area?), but I suppose that could be right (at least if you take "water" to include ice).

  17. William Hyde says,

    A minor nitpick: almost all lightning is cloud-to-cloud, not cloud-to-ground.

    That's the one question that is definitely wrong. There is no correct answer.

  18. In line with what others have noted, this quiz was very poorly worded.

    A minor quible
    "13. The difference between nuclear fusion and nuclear fission is that

    a. Fission is used to generate commercial electricity, fusion is not
    b. Fusion is used to generate commercial electricity, fission is not
    c. Fission is the source of energy in stars, fusion is not
    d. None of the above"

    Well, no, "a" is not **the** difference between fusion and fission, though it might be called "a" difference.


    I only got 24 correct. I failed the relativity question as I'm not familiar with it and the term "massive" threw me, and I glossed over the "fresh" part of the fresh water question and thus missed it.

    All in all, the quiz is good idea, bad execution.

  19. Maybe I have a strange car, but I could swear that some of the energy in gasoline goes to propelling it forward, rather than all to heat.

  20. Andrew: your car is strange indeed if it manages to keep its kinetic energy from eventually dissipating into heat :)

  21. This blog is so original an perfect but I got a doubt because I heard that the man who found that was Sildenafil Citrate, tell me if I'm wrong please.