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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Science & Engineering Indicators 2010

NSB LogoIt's that time again. The latest NSF report on Science and Engineering Indicators 2010 has been released (I'm actually over a month late in blogging on it, but considering that the report only comes out every two years, I figure that's not too bad). I've made previous entries for the 2004, 2006, and 2008 versions of the report. There really isn't anything new this time. The long term trends are relatively constant, and the overall literacy is still depressingly low.

First, here's the table that compares the scientific literacy of several countries. This table was taken from the section, Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding. The numbers in the table are the percentage of people that responded correctly, while the correct answer is listed in parentheses after the question.

Figure 7-11
Correct answers to scientific literacy questions, by country/region: Most recent year
(Percent answered correctly)
Questions EU-25 (2005) Malaysia (2004) India (2004) China (2007) Russia (2003) South Korea (2004) Japan (2001) U.S. (2008)
The center of the Earth is very hot. (True) 86 58 57 49 NA 87 77 84
All radioactivity is man-made. (False) 59 13 NA 40 35 48 56 70
It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True) 64 38 38 55 22 59 25 62
Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False) 47 19 NA 20 24 31 28 49
The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True) 87 45 32 44 40 87 83 77
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 66 71 70 78 NA 86   72
Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True) 46 26 30 22 44 46 30 53
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False) 46 16 39 21 18 30 23 54
NA = not available, question not asked

EU = European Union

aChina and Europe surveys asked about “mother's gene” instead of “father's gene.”

SOURCES: University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2008); Japan–Government of Japan, National Institute of Science and Technology Policy, Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology, The 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology in Japan (2002); South Korea–Korea Science Foundation, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2004); Russia–Gokhberg L, Shuvalova O, Russian Public Opinion of the Knowledge Economy: Science, Innovation, Information Technology and Education as Drivers of Economic Growth and Quality of Life, British Council, Russia (2004); China–Wei H, Chao Z, Hongbin G, Chinese Public Understanding of Science and Attitudes towards Science and Technology, 2007, China Research Institute for Science Popularization, Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (2008); India–National Council of Applied Economic Research, India Science Survey (2004); Malaysia–Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre, Public Awareness of Science and Technology Malaysia 2004 (2005); and EU–European Commission, Research Directorate-General, Eurobarometer 224/Wave 63.1: Europeans, Science and Technology (2005).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

Now, here's the table detailing the U.S. history on these questions over the past several years (with the year 1985 removed to let the table fit on this page - but don't worry, the only data from 1985 was for the question about the continents).

Appendix table 7-9
Correct answers to scientific terms and concept questions: 1985–2008
Question 1988
n = 2,041
n = 2,005
n = 1,995
n = 2,006
n = 2,000
n = 1,882
n = 1,574
n = 2,025
n = 1,864
n = 1,505
The center of the Earth is very hot.(True) 80 79 81 78 82 80 80 78 80 84
The continents on which we live have been moving their locations for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.(True) 80 77 79 78 78 80 79 77 80 77
Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun) 73 73 71 73 73 72 75 71 76 72
It is the mother’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.(False) NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA NA 71a
It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl.(True) NA NA 65 64 62 66 65 62 64 62a
All radioactivity is man-made.(False) 65 63 73 72 71 71 76 73 70 70
Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.(False) 26 30 35 40 43 45 51 54 56 54
Electrons are smaller than atoms.(True) 43 41 46 44 43 46 48 45 53 53
How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year) 45 48 46 47 48 49 54 NA 55 51
Lasers work by focusing sound waves.(False) 36 37 37 40 39 43 45 42 45 49
NA = not available, question not asked

aQuestion about "father's gene" asked of 1,251 survey respondents. Question about "mother's gene" asked of 254 survey respondents.

NOTES: Table includes all years for which data collected. "Don't know" responses and refusals to respond counted as incorrect.

SOURCES: National Science Foundation, Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (1985–2001); University of Michigan, Survey of Consumer Attitudes (2004); and University of Chicago, National Opinion Research Center, General Social Survey (2006, 2008).

Science and Engineering Indicators 2010

And for something new compared to my previous blog entries on the science and engineering indicators, here's a graph of the above data to make it easier to see the trends.

U.S. Scientific Literacy History

Just look at those results - around a quarter of Americans think that the Sun goes around the Earth, half don't realize that electrons are smaller than atoms, and half don't know that it takes a year for the Earth to go around the Sun! Keep that in mind whenever you hear people citing public opinion polls on the validity of concepts like global warming or evolution.

It's always a bit depressing to see those numbers. It's hard to believe that the people of our nation are so ignorant. If there's one lesson to take away from these results, it's that we need to vastly improve our education system.

Update 2010-02-26: I updated the graph to add a title and labels to the axes. Also, the night after I wrote this entry, I went home and asked my 10 year old daughter the questions from the survey. She managed to get 9 out of 10 correct.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Confidence in Scientific Knowledge

Test Tubes & BeakersAs evidenced by one of my recent blog entries, I tend to place a lot of value in science. I think it's the best method we have for answering questions with objectively true answers, and I think we can have a pretty high confidence in the answers it gives us. But, as a few people have recently asked me, where does that confidence come from? Throughout the past, people have had explanations for aspects of the universe that they believed were correct, but have since turned out to be wrong (e.g. the Sun orbiting the Earth). Given humanity's history of failed explanations, shouldn't we expect that many of our current explanations are also wrong, and be a little more cautious in our certainty?

The simplest reason to be confident in science is a pragmatic one - just look at the results. Science as the formalized discipline that we're used to is a fairly recent development. It's only been around a few hundred years, getting started in the Renaissance, but not really coming into its own until after the Enlightenment. But look at how fast our technology has progressed in that short time compared to the previous millenia of human existence. We've invented telescopes, steam engines, automobiles, semiconductors, airplanes, computers, TVs, radio, lasers, vaccines, antibiotics, cures for some cancers. We've sent people to the moon. These accomplishments are all based on knowledge that we've learned through science. It seems very unlikely that we would have been able to accomplish all of that if we didn't have a pretty accurate understanding of reality. Granted, there are other fields of science that haven't yielded practical applications, and possibly never will. For example, understanding the Big Bang may not ever give us any new technologies. However, given the technologies we have developed from other fields, we know that the methods produce reliable results.

Moving away from pragmatism, let's look at how science works. Richard Feynman once said, "Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool." There are all types of ways that we can make mistakes in our reasoning. There's a great article I've linked to before from this site, which does a fantastic job of discussing this: The double-blind gaze: how the double-blind experimental protocol changed science. The article is focused on medicine, but it's applicable to science in general. The article mentions a few of the confounding factors that can affect our reasoning, including the placebo effect, the re-interpretation effect, and observer bias. Wikipedia has a whole list of cognitive biases. A big part of science is recognizing and accounting for all these potential mistakes. Along similar lines, science is not just a search for evidence that confirms your ideas. It's a search for evidence that would disprove your ideas. A big part of science is recognizing when you're wrong.

Science also trains us to think less in terms of absolute certainty, and more in terms of degrees of certainty. If you're being honest with yourself, there's no way to be absolutely certain of anything. It's possible that we're living in The Matrix, or hallucinating, and nothing is as it seems (if this sounds familiar, I've discussed it before). In normal everday conversation however, we tend to ignore those types of outlandish possibilities, and say that we're positive of something, even if technically we mean nearly positive. There are many things we've learned through science that we can say that we're positive are true. The roughly spherical shape of the Earth, the Earth orbiting the Sun, common descent (if not all the exact lineages and mechanisms), are examples of a few of those facts. We should no sooner expect those facts to be overturned than we should expect to wake up on the Nebuchadnezzar fighting alongside Neo. Other things we've learned through science don't have quite as much evidence. Antrhopogenic global warming is an example of this. We can say that we're really darned sure that climate change is happening and that we're responsible, but it's not quite so certain. It would still be really surprising to see AGW turn out to be false, but not earth shattering. You can keep moving down through levels of certainty through things like String Theory, which doesn't really have any evidence confirming it specificaly over other theories, but which is at least consistent with known evidence. If string theory turned out to be false, I wouldn't be all that surprised. You can go even further, and find theories inconsistent with known evidence, such as the supposed link between vaccines and autism, or the aether theory of light. We can be pretty sure that those ideas are false.

In addition to making us think in terms of degree of certainty, science also makes us think in terms of degree of accuracy. Isaac Asimov wrote a good essay titled, The Relativity of Wrong. You should read the whole thing, but here's a great quote from that essay, "When people thought the earth was flat, they were wrong. When people thought the earth was spherical, they were wrong. But if you think that thinking the earth is spherical is just as wrong as thinking the earth is flat, then your view is wronger than both of them put together." An example I've used before is the atom. The current model is the valence shell model, where electrons have a probability of being in particular positions relative to the nucleus. This is an improvement over the Bohr model, where electrons travel in circular orbits around the nucleus and where the orbit radii are defined by quantum mechanics. The Bohr model was an improvement over the Rutherford model (or Solar System model), where the electrons orbited the nucleus, but quantum mechanics wasn't incorporated to predict the orbit radii. The Rutherford model was an improvement over the plum pudding model. And the plum pudding model was at least more accurate than not knowing of the existence of electrons. So, you can see how our explanations have gotten more and more accurate concerning the structure of an atom. Our current model may also be supplanted, but at least we're zeroing in on the truth.

Those are the reasons why we can have confidence in what we learn through science. It's produced results that just wouldn't be possible if the methods didn't work. But it's not simply a matter of thinking that everything science reveals is absolutely right - it's recognizing how science works, what explanations are most likely to be true, and how close we should expect those explanations to be to the actual truth.

Texas Board of Education in NY Times Magazine

TEA LogoWhen I tell people from outside Texas what a bad board of education we have, I don't think they realize just how bad it is. They seem to think it's the general complaints about governments that everybody has. But the board of education down here really is horrible. I've blogged previously about the science standards (and again, and again), the language arts and reading standards, and the Chris Comer affair.

Now, there's a very good article in the NY Times Magazine describing their shenanigans in regards to the new social studies standards. I highly recommend this article. Here are a few highlights to wet your appetite.

Don McLeroy, a small, vigorous man with a shiny pate and bristling mustache, proposed amendment after amendment on social issues to the document that teams of professional educators had drawn up over 12 months, in what would have to be described as a single-handed display of archconservative political strong-arming.
...some activists decided that the time was right to try to reshape the history that children in public schools study. Succeeding at this would help them toward their ultimate goal of reshaping American society. As Cynthia Dunbar, another Christian activist on the Texas board, put it, “The philosophy of the classroom in one generation will be the philosophy of the government in the next."
McLeroy makes no bones about the fact that his professional qualifications have nothing to do with education. “I’m a dentist, not a historian,” he said. “But I’m fascinated by history, so I’ve read a lot.”

I'm not a doctor, but I stayed at a Holiday Inn last night.

McLeroy remains unbowed and talked cheerfully to me about how, confronted with a statement supporting the validity of evolution that was signed by 800 scientists, he had proudly been able to “stand up to the experts.”
Merely weaving important religious trends and events into the narrative of American history is not what the Christian bloc on the Texas board has pushed for in revising its guidelines. Many of the points that have been incorporated into the guidelines or that have been advanced by board members and their expert advisers slant toward portraying America as having a divinely preordained mission.
when Steven K. Green, director of the Center for Religion, Law and Democracy at Willamette University in Salem, Ore., testified at the board meeting last month in opposition to the board’s approach to bringing religion into history, warning that the Supreme Court has forbidden public schools from “seeking to impress upon students the importance of particular religious values through the curriculum,” and in the process said that the founders “did not draw on Mosaic law, as is mentioned in the standards,” several of the board members seemed dumbstruck.
One recurring theme during the process of revising the social-studies guidelines was the desire of the board to stress the concept of American exceptionalism, and the Christian bloc has repeatedly emphasized that Christianity should be portrayed as the driving force behind what makes America great.
Besides the fact that incorporation by reference [trying to tie the Constitution to the Declaration of Independence] is usually used for technical purposes rather than for such grandiose purposes as the reinterpretation of foundational texts, there is an oddity to this tactic. “The founders deliberately left the word ‘God’ out of the Constitution — but not because they were a bunch of atheists and deists,” says Susan Jacoby, author of “Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism.” “To them, mixing religion and government meant trouble.” The curious thing is that in trying to bring God into the Constitution, the activists — who say their goal is to follow the original intent of the founders — are ignoring the fact that the founders explicitly avoided religious language in that document.
What is wrong with the Texas process, according to many observers, is illustrated by the fate of Bill Martin Jr. The board has the power to accept, reject or rewrite the TEKS, and over the past few years, in language arts, science and now social studies, the members have done all of the above. Yet few of these elected overseers are trained in the fields they are reviewing.
To give an illustration simultaneously of the power of ideology and Texas’ influence, Barber told me that when he led the social-studies division at Prentice Hall, one conservative member of the board told him that the 12th-grade book, “Magruder’s American Government,” would not be approved because it repeatedly referred to the U.S. Constitution as a “living” document. “That book is probably the most famous textbook in American history,” Barber says. “It’s been around since World War I, is updated every year and it had invented the term ‘living Constitution,’ which has been there since the 1950s. But the social conservatives didn’t like its sense of flexibility. They insisted at the last minute that the wording change to ‘enduring.’ ” Prentice Hall agreed to the change, and ever since the book — which Barber estimates controlled 60 or 65 percent of the market nationally — calls it the “enduring Constitution.”

Those quotes are only a taste of the article. Go read the whole thing.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Fastnacht Day

Well, it's that time of year again - Fastnacht Day is tomorrow. Since I don't have anything new to say from last year, I'll just quote last year's blog entry.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia CommonsDepending on where you are in the world, you may call tomorrow something else, like Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, or Pancake Day. But from where I'm from in Pennsylvania, it's called Fastnacht Day. Traditionally, you make potato based donuts, called fastnachts, supposedly as a way to empty your larder of all the fatty, sugary foods in preparation for the Lenten fast. My elementary school even used to give out donuts with the lunches on this day. So, in celebration of Fastnachts, here's a recipe on my main site on how to make fastnachts, and a link to the (not so thorough) Wikipedia article.

You're supposed to wake up early to make the fastnachts on Tuesday morning (they're freshest that way), but I usually make them the night before. They keep pretty well in a brown paper lunch bag. I also like to put a little bit of powdered sugar into a ziploc bag, and a mix of granulated sugar and cinammon into another one, to coat the fastnachts just before eating them.

Doughnut Picture from Wikimedia Commons

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