The State of Science Knowledge, and Water on Earth & Moon

demographic breakdown of science knowledge survey results

This Science Knowledge Quiz from the Pew Research Center first entered my radar when Ian over at AstroBlog posted about it back in August. Even then, I knew it was destined to become blog fodder here at ScienceSpeak, and at last I am returning to the topic.

Ian’s correct: the questions are quite easy and the very large percentage of people who couldn’t correctly answer them is somewhat disheartening. However, because keeping up with and blogging on the science literacy topic can oftentimes be disheartening, I’m going to try to look at the bright side here. About 44% of people answered at least 9 of the 12 questions correctly, and that includes quiz takers with a high school education or less. I suppose it’s difficult to consider less than half of population receiving a passing grade as something other than bleak, but when it comes to recent scientific advances, news, discoveries, etc., sometimes you have to wonder, how *would* people know? It’s not covered in the media, or only very superficially covered in the media, and that’s a whole other topic (one covered very well in the book Unscientific America. Indeed, it’s almost enough to make a person not want to blog.)

So where are people supposed to learn about science? Well, in school, of course, but what if it’s been decades since you were a student? And what if you didn’t pay attention in science class? There’s this idea that if we keep putting the information out there, people will find it somehow. But those of us embarking on this experiment can testify that only people looking for the information will find it.

If you take the quiz on the Pew site, you can see the demographic breakdown of results, by question. There’s a clear age differential for some of them. Only 30% of people over age 65 correctly answered that an electron is smaller than an atom, for example. (Of course, electrons were discovered in the late 1800s, so age can’t be considered an excuse.) Just over 50% of all quiz takers correctly identified how stem cells differ from other cells, which is sad considering that stem cell research is something that has been politicized and so is often in the news, but again, how often do news anchors or politicians or even the researchers themselves actually address what a stem cell is?

Oh, it’s difficult. Maybe the only bright side is that there’s so much room for improvement. So I am going to begin posting scientific facts for my readership, and perhaps those who seek out the information will find it. Then, if they are someday surveyed on science knowledge by the Pew Research Center, they’ll perhaps be able to earn a passing score. If nothing else, maybe they’ll get darn good at getting that green pie in Trivial Pursuit.

For today’s simple science lesson, in honor of water just having been discovered on the Moon (yes, make a note of that, people!), let’s learn about water and the planet Earth. You can find some useful materials here and here. And if you want to learn more about how valuable water on Earth is becoming, look here.

Use Your (Correct) Words

This is weather.
weather observations, portland oregon

This is climate.
Gross Reservoir Colorado monthly climate data

They are not the same thing. The American Meteorological Society’s Glossary of Weather and Climate (AMS, 1996) defines weather as the state of the atmosphere at a particular time. Weather consists of the short-term variations of the atmosphere, on timescales of minutes to weeks. Climate, by contrast, is the total of all statistical weather information for a given place over a specified interval of time. Climate is a “synthesis” of weather, averaged over time periods of months to decades.

In the first figure above, air and dewpoint temperatures are plotted using hourly observations over a 72-hour period. In the second figure, the monthly-averaged maximum and minimum temperatures are shown based on data from 1978-2005. Individual weather events do not and cannot give information about the climate of the area, because weather is short term and climate is long term. People (even, unfortunately, some in the scientific community) often use the terms interchangeably, and in discussions of climate change, this carelessness with words provides a disservice.

A particularly warm or cold week in your hometown does not mean that climate change is or is not happening. It means that the weather that week was anomalously warm or anomalously cool compared to the long-term climatological average. And all averages also have a variability associated with them. We’ll go back to the AMS Glossary, in which climate variability “denotes deviations of climate statistics over a given period of time (e.g., a month, season, or year) from the long-term climate statistics relating to the corresponding calendar interval.” Variability is an inherent characteristic of the climate system: we know that even on average, no month or year is likely to behave exactly like the previous month or year.

Climate change, on the other hand, is “a significant change in the climatic state of a locale or large area, typically evident with a significant change in the mean (or average) values of a weather element.” A cold week or large precipitation event does not indicate climate change: we know from the definitions above that those are weather events. However, if the average temperature for July is significantly warmer than the average for all previous Julys on record, and this pattern happens for say three (or eight, or fifteen) Julys in a row, then by the definition what has been observed is a *change* in climate.

Most often, scientists refer to climate change on a global scale. But people care most about their locality, so here are temperature records for two continental U.S. locations. On the first figure, the temperature data themselves are plotted. The second figure shows the anomalies from the long-term average, along with global temperature anomalies and linear fits to both. Do the plots correspond to weather or climate? Do you see climate variability? What about climate change?

Minneapolis St Paul temperature record
Click image to view original data plot. Source: C. Fisk; Minnesota Climatology Working Group

North Carolina, globe temperature trends
Click image to view original data plot and summary. Source: State Climate Office of North Carolina

Flying by Mercury

New 2009 images of the planet Mercury
New 2009 images of the planet Mercury. Photo credits: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington

Left: This unnamed impact basin, with outer diameter approximately 260 km (160 mi), was seen for the first time on September 29, 2009, during MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury. Right: An unnamed crater viewed at close range for the first time on September 29, 2009, during MESSENGER’s third flyby of Mercury. The crater displays an arc-shaped depression known as a pit crater on its floor.

“Participated in collecting ground-breaking views of the last of the eight planets in the solar system to be fully seen.”

Not a bad line for a resume, especially if you are still a 6th grader.

Yesterday, NASA’s MESSENGER spacecraft flew by the planet Mercury on its way to establishing orbit around the nearest planet to the Sun in 2011.

The flyby’s ground support on Earth included a team of science educators working hand-in-hand with mission scientists. The science educators were onboard to communicate the findings to classrooms all across the U.S. and give students the opportunity to join in the adventure.

Students were invited to follow updates, ask questions, and participate in live conversations about the preliminary images in real-time as the data were streamed here to Earth. Such exciting opportunities for students to be on the cutting edge of learning about another part of our solar system don’t come along often. It’s also a chance for them to see how scientists approach the exploration process and go about interpreting data. The discussion will continue for a couple more days, so check it out. You can also get your own views of first-ever seen features of Mercury on the mission’s website.

A Magic Kayak Ride


Come along with me little girl, on a magic carpet, er, kayak ride…or really, in this case perhaps you should just say no.

This note recently came from a friend of mine:  “The other day, as we were driving, Amelia started asking about black holes.  She was incredibly scared of them.  She asked me if a person was in a kayak could they really fall into a black hole!” What?!

Rewind to about two years earlier, when her daughter was four years old. We had gone together to a show on black holes at a planetarium. The show was well done in many ways, but in a dramatic scene demonstrating the “place from which nothing escapes, not even light”, a kayaker paddling along through space becomes pulled into the black hole without any way out. Because kayakers paddle through space all the time, didn’t you know?

The planetarium show was probably not designed for someone of age four. But this particularly precocious four-year-old saw it, and two years later remembered the part about the kayak being pulled into the black hole vividly enough to ask questions about it. Inquiry—a fine thing! And in this case, the inquiry led to the ability to confront the misconceptions head on. My friend explained that black holes are very far away out in space and that kayaks here on Earth won’t get sucked in, that the scene was just trying to show how the black hole sucks stuff in. Her precocious now-six-year-old replied, “well, that was really silly of them to show people in boats getting sucked in!” Ah yes, silly indeed.

It’s a good reminder for those of us working in science or education or at the interface of the two that we need to be very careful about what we present. It’s much more difficult to correct a misconception that has already been “learned”, and often difficult to pinpoint what the misconception even is.  It’s obvious that we need to plan carefully and teach things correctly and accessibly from the start. It can be tough though, so we should also watch for those times when a smart student will call us out and say, “well, that was really silly.” Indeed.