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Cycling, macintosh, natural history and life in Singapore - Archives

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Sat 31 Dec 2005

The New Paper - Science Poll

Category : science

In August I read that 75% of respondents in a quiz conducted in America knew that the Earth orbits the sun. In Singapore, working professionals in Shenton Way scored 94%.

I wished they had asked, like the American poll did, if "The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs."

SCIENCE POLL SHOCK.By Christine Tee. The New Paper, 22 Dec 2005. Only 3 out of 100 get perfect score.

"SOME Singaporeans may think the world of themselves, and a few actually believe the sun revolves around the earth. Six of them - including three Shenton Way executives - said this when they were asked a series of basic questions on science. They were among 100 mostly professionals and working adults polled by The New Paper.


Other questions which stumped many included those on insects' legs and the gas that makes up most of air. (See below for questions.) One-fifth of those polled did not know that an insect has six legs. Most of those who answered wrongly thought insects have eight legs. Other answers included four, 10 and 12 legs. A common response to this question was 'it depends on what insect it is'.

More than a quarter could not answer half the eight questions correctly. And only three of the 100 people polled managed a perfect score.

Singaporeans, however, can take heart that they fared somewhat better than Americans in a similar poll. Reporting on the poll held in the US this year, The New York Times said about one-fifth of Americans believe that the sun moves around the earth.

And only about half know that humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs. However, this may not be caused by the inadequate teaching of maths and science in US schools. Rather, it may point to the arrogance of liberal arts and cultural snootiness among the population, said the report. According to some Americans interviewed for the poll, not knowing 'who Plato, Monet or Dickens is would be considered a more heinous crime, as compared to being oblivious about Einstein's Theory of Relativity'.

Singapore is known for having plenty of talent in science and maths, having had students participate and win competitions regionally and internationally.


In July 2005, five junior college students won three gold and two bronze medals at an international physics competition, giving Singapore its best performance in the 17 years that it has taken part. The Republic ranked a respectable fifth out of 74 participating countries. So, one may assume there is a reasonably high level of science literacy in Singapore.

However The New Paper poll, conducted in Shenton Way and the Tampines town centre, revealed that many working professionals here have a rather poor knowledge of science. 'My goodness, I'm shocked,' said teacher Goh Cheo Hoon, 45, when told about the few who didn't know that the earth goes around the sun. 'Maybe they got it mixed up because it was a survey and they had to give the answer on the spot.'

But it wasn't just that question.

One-fifth did not have a clue that photosynthesis is the process by which plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen during the day. Mr Albert Tan, 30, a banker, thought photosynthesis is the process by which plants flower. When told that his answer was wrong, he was not very bothered, responding with a simple 'Oh, okay'.

One-third of those polled did not know that nitrogen makes up 78 per cent of the air we breathe. A typical answer from Madam Tan Muey Kee, 53, a housewife: 'It has to be oxygen. How else do we survive?' Other answers included carbon dioxide and even hydrogen, which is not even normally present in the air.

As the questions got tougher, such as the one which asked for the most common hydrocarbon in petrol, almost everyone got it wrong. About 40 of those polled did not have a clue about this, while about 50 tried to guess and got it wrong. Only seven of the 100 respondents managed to give the correct answer - octane.

On the chemical name of salt, Ms Nicolette Chan, 25, a clerk, said: 'Erm, it's sodium something, I've never used the chemical name since I left school.' So, are people just memorising facts while in school and forgetting them after that?

When asked for her view on this, a teacher, who gave her name only as Ms Tay, said: 'Upon graduation, adults are likely to lose touch with areas involving science, unless they go into specialised research and development.' Another teacher, who teaches chemistry in a secondary school, said: 'Most people don't observe the things around them and they can't relate to the questions asked.'

So it was not surprising that the only three who got a perfect score were all junior college students who had just completed their A-level examinations. One of them, Mr Cheng Mao Xin, 18, said: 'People usually don't apply what is learnt in school, so a lot of things are forgotten or under-utilised.'

Miss Cindi Ho, also 18, felt the same way. She said: 'Some of these facts were learnt in primary school, so they might have forgotten them as people don't keep their knowledge up to date. Most just study for exams and drop the facts after that.' - Additional reporting by Yang Yanyi and Goh Su Xin

The Science Poll covered 100 mostly working professionals and adults.

1) Does the sun move around the earth or does the earth move around the sun? Answer: Earth moves around the sun.
Correct: 94 out of 100 polled. Wrong: 6. Don't know: 0

2) How many legs does an insect have? Answer: 6.
Correct: 80. Wrong: 19. Don't know: 1.

3) What is photosynthesis? Answer: Process by which plants make food using carbon dioxide and water.
Correct: 80. Wrong: 13. Don't know: 7.

4) What is the chemical name of salt? Answer: Sodium chloride.
Correct: 44. Wrong: 28. Don't know: 28.

5) What is the chemical the body secretes when a person is under stress, fear or excitement? Answer: Adrenaline.
Correct: 38. Wrong: 17. Don't know: 45.

6) What's the name of the common hydrocarbon in fuel? Answer: Octane. Correct: 7. Wrong: 53. Don't know: 40.

7) Which gas constitutes the largest percentage of air? Answer: Nitrogen
Correct: 64. Wrong: 31. Don't know: 5.

8) How many planets are there in the solar system? Answer: 9.
Correct: 69. Wrong: 29. Don't know: 2."

"Science just too abstract for many." The New Paper, 22 Dec 2005.

"MANY working adults are not very interested in science.

That's why Dr Andrew Daniel Giger, senior assistant director (Education Programmes) of the Singapore Science Centre, is not surprised that many of them fared badly in the science quiz.

He said: 'We all come in touch with science every day, but to many people, science is an abstract concept. These people may simply not be interested in science, because they do not see it as relevant.'

However, he feels that young Singaporeans who have just left school should be quite well-acquainted with basic science.

So, is there a role that the Science Centre can play in improving the level of science literacy in Singapore?


Dr Giger thinks there is.

'The Science Centre has a wide spectrum of exhibitions, events and programmes that present science and technology in a fun and entertaining way, and we always strive to show how all these amazing phenomena are relevant to everyday life.

'And while many people think that the Science Centre is a place just for kids, most adults who visit the centre find it an enriching experience and will hopefully learn something in the process as well.'

Others like Ms Tay Mei Yin, director of the Aspen Learning Centre, was surprised that even seemingly intelligent office workers gave the wrong answer for the question on the sun.

Said Ms Tay, whose institution is a tuition centre specialising in maths and science for secondary to junior college levels: 'I would expect people to get the basic questions correct as it involves common sense.'

However, she said it was 'forgivable' for those who got the answers to the other questions wrong because 'these had nothing to do with their lives'.

She added: 'Some people move on to the humanities after secondary school, thus their focus is not on science.'"

Posted at 7:56AM UTC by N. Sivasothi | permalink | , .