Science unliteracy

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The Science and Engineering Indicators 2012 from the National Science Foundation was commented on in Discovery. A direct link to the report is here. The public knowledge of science was surveyed across countries. You were supposed to answer yes or no to the around 12 scientific questions and if people gave the right answer they were declared “science literate”.

It is interesting to turn the head around on the survey and ask whether the ground truth answers are actually correct. It is dangerous to be too dogmatic in science as great paradigmatic changes may go against established “common wisdom”. Here is my attempt on answering the opposite of the supposedly correct answer:

  1. “The center of the earth is very hot.” This answer is supposed to be true, but what does “very hot” mean? My oven is very hot when it is above 200 degrees. Wikipedia states presently the inner core temperature to be around 5,700 K. This temperature is not “very hot” compared to temperature at the sun center. It is also important to note that it is not a necessary truth that the earth is hot. In the future as the natural radioactivity of the earth will decay then the center temperature will gradually decrease. The center could become very cold. But note that the life of the Sun has some effect of the temperature of the earth. According to Wikipedia the Sun’s luminocity is increasing and will make the surface temperature hot, perhaps “very hot” depending on the definition.
  2. “The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move”. This is supposed to be true, but does, e.g., Eurasia move or Antarctica move? It seems mostly so based on a NASA image, though some areas in the Antarctica does not move very much. There is no natural law saying that the continents are supposed to move, so there are no guarantee that they will continue to do so. Given that we will see a gradual cooling of the Earth should we not at one point expect the continents will freeze to their position and no longer move? So should the answer should be false? Yes?
  3. “Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?” The answer is supposed to be “earth around sun”: A classic fallacy. You can put you coordinate system at the Earth center and the Sun will go around the Earth. Of course as the Sun is heavier than the Earth you will have a tendency to say that the Earth goes around the Sun. Introducing the barycenter in the question may be better.
  4. “All radioactivity is man-made”. (False) The default answer is hard to refute.
  5. “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” (true). Wikipedia tells us that for the atom “the boundary is not a well-defined physical entity”. The classical electron radius is 2.82×10-15 m. Wikipedia claims the “size of an 11 MeV proton” is less than that value. With a bit of stretching you could say that a hydrogen atom is smaller than an electron. I do not know much about physics at that level, but my impression is that you should be careful when using classical physical concepts at atomic levels.
  6. “Lasers work by focusing sound waves.” (False) Usually lasers do not work by focusing sound waves. It is interesting to wonder whether it is possible to produce a laser this way. For a start read about Sonoluminescence. I am not knowledgeable enough to say it cannot be done, but your next reading could be Laser sonoluminescence in water under increased hydrostatic pressure or single-bubble sonolumnicescence.
  7. “The universe began with a huge explosion”. (True) Most scientist would say that the Big Bang happened at some time, but you can read “The pre-bang universe has become the latest frontier of cosmology” in Scientific America. You can also read “Sir Roger Penrose has changed his mind about the Big Bang. He now imagines an eternal cycle of expanding universes where matter becomes energy and back again in the birth of new universes and so on and so on” in an introduction to a documentary. It should certainly not be written in stone that “the universe began with a huge explosion”.
  8. “The cloning of living things produces genetically identical copies” (true). Do they? I suppose not necessarily. I guess you could genetically engineer the clone with new genes. I do not know much about cloning but I imaging that something could go wrong in the transcription proces, e.g., you can read “clones created from somatic cells will have shortened telomeres and therefore reach a state of senescence more rapidly” in one random article I found. This sounds to me as clones are not identical copies.
  9. “It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl” (true). “Decides” is a word that in my eyes indicates agency whatever that is. I hardly think that the gene has any cognitive capabilities to engage in a process of selection. “Determine” may be a better word. And “decides” no. It may also be worth reading the Wikipedia article “temperature-dependence sex determination” starting off with “Temperature-dependent sex determination (TSD) is a type of environmental sex determination in which the temperatures experienced during embryonic development determine the sex of the offspring.” Another article worth reading is “Female foeticide in India” with “MacPherson estimates that 100,000 abortions every year continue to be performed in India solely because the fetus is female.”
  10. “Ordinary tomatoes do not contain genes, while genetically modified tomatoes do” (false). That is hard to refute. I suppose that with treatment (gamma rays, heat?) you can kill genes in tomatoes.
  11. “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria”. (False) This is not necessarily false. You could easily imagine antibiotics that was also engineered to kill viruses. With opppurtunistic infections you could say that antibiotics kill viruses indirectly. There are scientific experiments that examine whether antibiotics has an effect on virus diseases, see, e.g., “Antibiotics for bronchiolitis in babies“. It could very well be dangerous to ignore the possibility that antibiotics could be involved in fighting a virus disease.
  12. “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (True) Yet again we have a issue of words: “Developed”? “Evolved” is probably a better word. “Develop” may entail some form of agency. It may also be worth mentioning that certain aspects of the human society and being human being seem to have been created de novo by humans, e.g., humor, clothes, music, …

Overall the survey creators did not get many answers correct. Better luck next time.


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