Getting science across
(appeared in JSep 2015)

(link to main website)

A survey in the US shows that much of basic science is still unclear to many in society, says S.Ananthanarayanan.

As science and technology rules more and more of how we live, it is tempting to say that general appreciation of the science is the key to rational and hence better living. On the other hand, we know that there are other factors, historical and cultural, apart from physical, which have worked for affluent societies and it is also not always clear that these societies consistently chart the best course for themselves. But the merits of being well informed in the sciences cannot be denied and a leading public opinion survey body in the US has conducted a trial to assess how much of simple, everyday science the average US citizen knows.

The Pew Research Centre is an independent organisation in Washington DC, which collects and provides information about social issues and analyses of media data, opinion and media reports. The current study surveyed more than 3,200 randomly chosen US adults, who were asked to answer twelve simple, multiple choice questions, chosen to represent high school learning and subjects that are there in the news. "As science issues become ever-more tied to policy questions, there are important insights that come from exploring how much Americans know about science," lead author Cary Funk, an associate director of research at Pew Research Center said.

The survey, as described below, showed that most Americans could answer questions about names and concepts, like who developed the polio vaccine, or about comets or nuclear energy, but did not fare well with terms and applications, like what makes a sound wave loud, or how altitude affects boiling of water. And the twelve questions were followed by question about sex, age and education level, which allowed the scores to be analysed according to these categories.

1

This object in space, with an icy core and a tail of dust and gas that extends for millions of miles, is: (a) a star (b ) a comet (c) an asteroid (d) a moon

86% got this right

2

Waves used to make and receive cell phone calls are

(a). Radio waves (b). sound waves, (c). light waves (d). gravity waves

72% got this right

3

Which layer of the earth is hottest? : (a). the outer – crust (b). the middle – mantle (c). the inner - core

78% got this right

4

Which of these is the main way that ocean tides are created?

(a). the rotation of the earth on its axis (b). the gravitational pull of the sun (c). the gravitational pull of the moon

76% got this right

5

What does a light year measure?

(a). brightness (b). time (c). distance (d). weight

72% got this right

6

Shimla is at a higher altitude than Mumbai. Which of these is true? (the survey used Denver and San Francisco)

(a). water boils at a higher temperature in Shimla than in Mumbai (b). at a lower temperature (c). at the same temperature

34% got this right

7

Which of the pictures, 1, 2, 3 or 4, best shows what happens when light passes through a magnifying glass?

46% got this right

8

Loudness of a sound is determined by which property of the sound wave?

(a) frequency (b) wavelength (c) velocity or rate of change (d) amplitude or height

35% got this right

9

(a). in recent years, the level of tooth decay has increased (b). some people brush their teeth more often than others (c). eating more sugar causes more tooth decay (d). people are eating more sugar these days

63% got this right

10

Which of these elements is needed for creating nuclear energy and nuclear weapons?

(a). sodium chloride (b). uranium (c). nitrogen (d). carbon dioxide

82% got this right

11

Which one of these scientists shown developed the polio vaccine? (a) Marie Curie (b) Isaac Newton (c) Albert Einstein (d) Jonas Salk

74% got this right

12

A study on how the position of the planets could affect human behaviour is called?

(a). Astrology (b). Astronomy (c). Alchemy (d). Meteorology

73%got this right

The average was 7.9 answers right, with 8 answers right being the most common score. As can be expected, higher scores were found with higher levels of education, but even among the educated, there was considerable failure in questions of applications – we can see that about 60% went wrong in the questions about boiling, magnifying lens and loudness. Although post graduates did well, in the category, ’some college’, the mean scores were 9.1 and 7.5 out of 12, for men and women, respectively.

A glance at the questions shows that they would need editing and change before they could be applied to gauge, for instance, the level of science knowledge in India. In India, again, the level of literacy is lower, there is the question of language and medium, as well as the questions of health, hygiene and the environment being, perhaps, more relevant than a question about the comet! But a scientific temper among people is important and a survey to arrive at an objective measure, which could be monitored, would be relevant and more revealing than only statistics of enrolment in schools, number of graduates, and so on.

An effort in this direction with an interesting twist was unwittingly carried out back 1974 as part of project work in a BSc (Statistics) course. A class in a Chennai college surveyed housewives in a pocket in the city to assess their level of science knowledge. One of the questions set, for instance, was, “An electron is?” with the choices of answers as: (a) an atomic particle (b) an insect (c) a laboratory instrument (d) a tumour. While the purpose of the project was an exercise in designing the survey and the analysis of numbers, 300 housewives actually filled in questionnaires and the result was an average score of some 30% of the questions answered correctly.

This survey, which had been done in early 1974, to submit the report by March, happened to be repeated later in the year, using mostly a different set of subjects, with some from the first lot. To the student’s surprise, the results were significantly better. As no error was apparent in the method used, the improvement was intriguing. Till it was realised that in May, 1974, India had carried out her first nuclear test at Pokharan. Maybe it was this event, which was all science, and had been part of the market chatter since May, that had affected how much attention was paid to matters of science, it was suggested.

Unfortunately, these surveys were not rigorous or documented and this suggestion remains a conjecture. An Event like this, which was something momentous in India in 1974, would form part of the cultural milieu of any region. The US has had over a century of great technological advance including the space programme and putting a man on the moon. In addition, a survey of 3,748 scientists by the American Association for the Advancement of Science says 87% of scientists believe they should actively participate in public policy debates and 98% of them they have at some time, either through the press or through social media, engaged with the public about their work.

But still, other AAAS studies show wide gaps between scientists and US adults in key areas like whether GM foods or food grown with pesticides are safe, or the causes of global warming, and there is also a strong movement in the US to teach the Book of Genesis along with the theory of evolution in schools. This clearly means cultural and commercial influences would be strong even in advanced societies. Which is not undermine the importance of understanding science, but it emphasises the need for dissemination of science to keep alive the torch of reason and the methods of experimentation and verification, at a time when survival of the race depends on making the right choices.

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[Answers to quiz: 1. b, 2. a, 3. c, 4. c, 5. c, 6. b, 7. 3, 8. d, 9. c, 10. b, 11. d, 12. a]

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