When is a scientific-literacy test not a test for scientific-literacy?

A Christian Science Monitor scientific-literacy quiz has recently been making its way around the blogosphere. Maybe you’ve taken it? I scored 44/50. Respectable, but not where I’d like to be considering my purported role of trying to raise scientific literacy.

However, on reflection I came to the conclusion that not only does this quiz–and quizes like it–fail to give a good assessment of scientific literacy, it also highlights one of the most pernicious myths mainstream culture sometimes has towards academic disciplines. Let me explain. Although the media would often have you believe otherwise, science, in its primary form, isn’t a simple collection of facts about the empirical universe. Science is, first and foremost, an enterprise for discovering the general principles that govern our world. Some of the most powerful of these principles can be very simply expressed, but lead to incredibly complex systems and behaviours.

One example of that is the law of universal gravitation that accounts for the large scale structure of the universe. Another is evolution via natural selection, that accounts for the staggering diversity of life. These principles may lead to scientific facts, but scientific-literacy is by no means bound up in knowledge of those facts. For example, knowing what the periodic table is demonstrates a far higher degree of scientific-literacy than rote-learning the exact atomic number of every element in the table.

And it gets worse. Consider question two from the Christian Science quiz:

2. The Austrian monk Gregor Mendel’s observations of what
organism formed the basis for the science of genetics?

Can you spot the problem with this question being in a quiz purported to test scientific literacy? That’s right! Questions about the history of science have nothing to do with scientific-literacy. The bottom line is scientific-literacy cannot be measured purely by multiple-choice questions.

A scientifically-literate population doesn’t always have access to all the facts of the situation, but more importantly, they often understand the processes needed to acquire those facts.

2 thoughts on “When is a scientific-literacy test not a test for scientific-literacy?

  1. Matt says:

    I took the quiz, then stumbled across your comment in the thread below the test. I followed your link here. I think you’re on to something.

    I noted that another question asks me the *age* of the Earth, with 6500 years being one answer and 4.5 billion years (the correct one, according to the exam) being another. As far as I’m concerned this matter is still up for discussion, but I almost got the feeling that the 6000 figure was put in there just to mock those who hold to the young-Earth creationist view. I also didn’t care much for the question asking me where humans “evolved,” as I reject the theory of Darwinistic evolution, accepting only micro-evolution as commonly observed in nature. In both cases, I knew what answer the test was looking for, but I resented being put in the “if you’re really ‘scientific’ you know the correct answer” box the test’s creators were trying to put me in.

    In my opinion, controversial questions like that should have been left off the quiz, but then, the test creators don’t consider them controversial, do they?

    I definitely didn’t appreciate the smug comments directed at Rick Santorum. This struck me as more arrogance by political and secular liberals, none of which is particularly justified or warranted.

  2. Matt says:

    Oh, and in case you’re wondering, I got 39 correct. I mostly missed the Greek letter questions and the ones about who some principle is named for. I also missed the one about fluid pressure and speed (I picked volume) thinking that if you cram a fixed volume of fluid into a thinner pipe, it goes faster. But the guy who connected Ber.’s principle to airplane wings was right. They should have worded that better.

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