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Pop Quiz: How Science-Literate Are We, Really?

Taking a pop quiz.

An 11-question quiz that tests science literacy — some would say very basic science literacy — is on my mind this week.

The quiz, developed by Jon Miller, now director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the University of Michigan, has been around a while — but I just discovered it. It's quick and fun, but a word of warning before you plunge in: If you're a scientist and/or well-versed in biology, geology, physics and so on, don't overthink the questions or parse their wording too closely. These questions aren't aimed to trip you up on details.

You can take the quiz here. As you go along, you'll find out the percentage of people who correctly replied to each question in 2008. The 2,500 respondents in 2008 came from a randomized sample of U.S. citizens, with their numbers weighted — for race, gender, education and so on — against results from the U.S. census. (No one needed to own a computer in order to participate, by the way: Computers were supplied as needed.)

I found it startling that only 67 percent of the respondents correctly answered the question: "How long does it take the Earth to go around the sun?" It's even more startling that Miller estimates — using the full test from which these eleven questions are taken — that only 29 percent of American adults rate as scientifically literate.

In phone and email conversations with me on Monday, Miller explained that despite the 29 percent statistic, the U.S. lags behind only Sweden (34 percent) and Canada (40 percent) in results (Note: The data for Canada were taken four years later than data for the U.S. and Sweden).

"We're still a very elite group ... we are the only country in the world that requires our students to have one year of general education in college, including science," Miller said. European educators might say their high schools teach excellent science but, Miller insists, the comparative numbers tell a different story.

I admit to some cognitive dissonance here. I take Miller's point, but I also know (as he does) the poll data that show how many Americans dismiss scientific knowledge of our species's evolutionary history: 42 percent believe that God created humans in their present form 10,000 years ago. That's not an elite result.

This much is clear to me: As summer wanes and schools reopen, it's an excellent time to reflect not only on how crucial science education is for our children, but also how important it is to explicitly value science literacy at home.

In a paper for Liberal Education entitled "What Colleges and Universities Need to Do to Advance Civic Scientific Literacy and Preserve American Democracy," Miller writes that minimal "civic scientific literacy represents the level of reading and comprehension skills needed to read the science section of the Tuesday New York Times or to watch an episode of Nova on public television."

During our phone talk, he noted that what we should focus on most is enabling our children to comprehend the Science Times or NOVA show of 20 or 30 years from now. In other words, it's enduring scientific principles regarding the building blocks of matter, DNA and so on as reflected in the quiz questions — rather than details of cutting-edge discoveries — that should form the backbone of our science teaching.

Parents should, Miller specified, urge their children to take the most challenging science and math courses they can, throughout their school years. And, Miller adds, we adults shouldn't stoke science and math anxiety. Saying, even in a teasing way, "Oh, you have to be first cousin to Einstein to understand this stuff" is not the message we should send our kids.

But, now, back to our science literacy.

How did you do on the quiz?

Barbara J. King, an anthropology professor at the College of William and Mary, often writes about human evolution, primate behavior and the cognition and emotion of animals. Barbara's most recent book on animals is titled How Animals Grieve. You can keep up with what she is thinking on Twitter: @bjkingape

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