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.

Gluttons for Our Doom

There are so many topics I could share with you, but somehow all of them seem depressing to me. Like possibly irreversible ‘dead zones’ in the Pacific Ocean. Instead, in honor of the remaining seven weeks in this year’s largely quiet Atlantic hurricane season, let’s revisit Gilchrist, Texas, on the Bolivar Peninsula.

Gilchrist, Texas, was built on the narrowest part of a peninsula that at its highest point is only 10 feet above sea level. In 2008, Hurricane Ike brought winds of over 110 mph coupled with a 14-foot storm surge and waves topping 20 feet. The storm knocked 99 and 1/2% of the town’s 1000 buildings off their foundations and left virtually no surviving infrastructure in the community – electrical and water systems, bridges and roads, everything, needed to be reconstructed.

It’s not a location that is alone. Take a look at these statistics: in recent years, $11 or 12 billion dollars in damage from a single storm has become commonplace. Hurricane Katrina resulted in $100 billion in uninsured losses, cut U.S. economic growth by a full 1/2 percent, and by 2008 had required U.S. government spending of more than $200 billion.

Compare these billion dollar losses with the estimated $25 – 37.5 million per year in insurance premiums nationwide and you’ll get an idea of why these storms cost taxpayers all across the country. When Andrew destroyed 60,000 homes in Florida in 1992, it bankrupted 11 local insurance companies.

Hurricanes happen. And about 35 million people live along the coastline from North Carolina to Texas, the region that is most likely to be impacted by hurricanes. At least some of these millions of people live in areas that are just as or even more vulnerable than Gilchrist. It’s now a year since that town was mostly washed away for the second time in three years, and currently, Gilchrist, Texas, is being rebuilt.

It’s simple, really: We Americans seem to be bad at being told what to do, but we’re perhaps even worse at being told what not to do. People are going to continue to live in coastal areas for a variety of reasons, and even suggesting that perhaps some areas should not be built upon is likely to provoke the masses. Still, perhaps the provoking will lead to discussion, and ultimately an informed dialog, about locations, building codes, and vulnerability to nature. However we view the fate of Gilchrist, it’s a vivid example of the importance of understanding how our natural environment can influence our lives and livelihoods. In education, it’s called a teachable moment.

A Magic Kayak Ride

Black_Hole_KAYAKER

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.