More Science! Surveys

While it takes time to read all those beautiful books stacked by my bed, it’s easy to read stupid Science! articles! So, here’s another.

Solar SystemPutting on my pedant hat (yes, I do occasionally take it off, thank you), we will now review another sorry survey: Basic Scientific Facts That Americans Don’t Know. There’s a couple issues here that give me a nervous tick, the first and most egregious being the insouciant assumption that a “scientific fact” is “whatever scientists are pretty sure about”. Noooo, that’s not it. What’s more, it is of the very nature of science that the distinction between facts, which are built of the observable, measurable, physical THINGS that form the material upon which science works, be kept separate, as far as possible, from theories based on those facts. But let’s get specific – here’s the questions and answers, with my comments:

1. The center of the earth is very hot 

Correct answer: True

Sure. I’d like to meet the dude with a thermometer who took the measurement, but – sure.

2. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move 

Correct answer: True

OK. Since we can measure the seafloor spreading, applying the Uniformitarianism assumption makes this so darn near a fact I can’t get too worked up.

3. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Correct answer: Earth around Sun

Now, a high school-level pedant would merely point out that they both revolve around their common center of gravity. But I am (barely) above that. So, OK.

4. All radioactivity is man-made

Correct answer: False

Wouldn’t one need to know what radioactivity is before answering this? I’d like to have the victims of this survey first tell us what radioactivity is before answering. But as a self-contained question, it passes.

5. Electrons are smaller than atoms 

Correct answer: True

Here’s where the college-level pedant starts talking all wave packet and probabilistic positions and how the concept of ‘size’ might be simply inapplicable here and …. even I’m getting bored. So, OK.

We’re half way through, and the questions all get a pass – so far.

6. Lasers work by focusing sound waves 

Correct answer: False

Only quibble: that’s a technology question. Not that anybody makes that distinction anymore.

7. The universe began with a huge explosion 

Correct answer: True

Here’s the first one that gets me. The Big Bang is a theory that accounts for a wide range of observations in a tidy way. However, in recent years, one cannot help but notice that it has started accumulating epicycles: Dark matter? Dark energy? Further, I’ve always disliked the discontinuity – the antiuniformitarianism, if you will: the idea that what amounts to a humongous black hole just blows up because it feels like it – that’s kinda weak. Whatever is assumed to have happened at the Big Bang happened only once, under unique conditions, and involved mechanisms fell and ineffable. These are not generally hallmarks of good science.

Making the Big Bang a shibboleth for Science! learnin’ seems not entirely cricket.

And it’s not a fact.

8. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl

Correct answer: True

Weeeell – kinda. Pretty much. Could be worded better.

9. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria 

Correct answer: False

This question seems to have snuck in from the ‘Do You Listen to Your Doctor?’ survey. How many of the survey respondents could tell you the difference between a virus and a bacterium? Isn’t this like laughing at the people of the Old Testament for calling bats a type of bird? You can get by in the world just fine if you have only one large mental category for ‘things that can make you sick’ that includes both viruses and bacteria. So, what is the answer really telling you about the respondent?

10. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals

Correct answer: True

Tedious. I’d be tempted to respond: all the human beings *I* know today were born of other human beings – they didn’t do any developing other than growing up. It’s like the question writer was trying too hard not to use the word ‘species’. He wasn’t afraid of ‘bacteria’ or ‘electron’, but species – which could make this question make sense as an English sentence – is too technical?

Again, the Descent of Man has one and three quarters of a foot in the land of theory as opposed to fact, because while it can be argued evolution has been effectively observed in microorganisms, no one has observed human speciation. Given how comparatively slowly we reproduce, no one is likely to observe it any time soon.

Do I think humans evolved from other animals? Sure. Would I be shocked if it were disproven? Absolutely. Is it a scientific fact? Nope. It has a toe-hold in the realm of fact because other types of organisms have been observed to do what looks a lot like speciate, and it would be surprising if humans (and all larger animals, none of which has been observed to speciate) didn’t arise in the same way.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

4 thoughts on “More Science! Surveys”

  1. “You can get by in the world just fine if you have only one large mental category for ‘things that can make you sick’ that includes both viruses and bacteria.”

    This occurs to me: If the ordinary person were asked “What is the distinction between viruses and bacteria?” the single most *useful* answer that could be given would be, “If I’m sick with bacteria, antibiotics may help me; if I’m sick with viruses, antibiotics aren’t likely to help me.”

    So I am inclined to give the question a pass. Knowing the answer matters, because this is actionable information to the average person.

    1. Very true – knowing the difference matters. But doesn’t it matter mostly to the doctor? In the US, you don’t get antibiotics without a prescription. I know it’s different elsewhere.

      That question wasn’t exactly wrong, just a little funny.

  2. “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria ” I suppose it’s too pedantic to point out that the question seems to imply that bacteria have some efficacy against viruses, which they may or may not share with antibiotics.

    1. Nyuk. Pedantic is good. More seriously, precise is another good science word. Using vague language when testing for science knowledge calls into question the qualifications of the question asker.

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