Americans Barely Pass Science Quiz

| 52 Comments

I just got around to reading the May issue of Optics and Photonics News, and I found there an article, “Americans Love Science, but Don’t Know Much about It,” by Tom Price (http://www.osa-opn.org). Mr. Price notes that 90 % of Americans (as opposed to 45 % of Europeans) say they are interested in science and believe that science is a good thing, likely to make life better.

That was the good news.

Here’s the bad news. Price reports that significant fractions of Americans believe in astrology, clairvoyance, telepathy, and communication with the dead. Further, both Americans and Europeans took a 13-question science quiz in 2001. Americans got an average score of 8.2 out of 13 (63 %), and Europeans, 7.8 out of 13 (60 %). Price notes that those who agreed with the statement, “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith,” generally did poorly on the survey: Two thirds of those who scored 4 out of 13 (30 %) or less on the quiz agreed with the statement, whereas only about one quarter of those who scored 11 out of 13 (85 %) or more agreed.

I tracked the quiz to an NSF Web page, “Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding,” which was published in 2004 and you may find at http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind04/[…]2.htm#c7s2l2. This report tells nothing about the number or the demographic makeup of the respondents, but I made no attempt to trace the survey further.

Right below are the questions, along with the percentage of US respondents who answered the question correctly in parentheses. I took most of the parenthetical numbers off a bar graph, so they may be in error by an increment of 1 % or so. (The questions as given in Price’s article differ slightly from those given in the bar graph. I quote the bar graph.)

1. How long does it take for the Earth to go around the sun? (55)

2. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (75)

True or False

3. Radioactive milk can be made safe by boiling it. (65)

4. The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (48)

5. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (53)

6. The continents on which we live have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move in the future. (78)

7. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (51)

8. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (48)

9. Lasers work by focusing sound waves.(45)

10. It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (65)

11. The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. (87)

12. All radioactivity is man-made. (76)

13. The center of the Earth is very hot. (80)

The authors of the NSF report note that the response to question 5 “may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science.” It would be easier to accept that contention if the percentage of correct responses to question 5 (and also 4) was an especially low outlier, but it is no lower than the responses to questions 7, 8, and 9. Although there is most likely positive feedback, I find it at least as easy to believe that lack of knowledge about science permits certain religious beliefs.

Still, the report notes, “In the United States, 53 percent of respondents answered ‘true’ to [question 5] in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before 2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered ‘true.’) The 2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought the United States more in line with other industrialized countries about the question of evolution.”

It is also encouraging that “the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered [question7] correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in 1992.”

I performed a small experiment of my own: I administered the test to one person, a high-school French teacher with no background in science beyond a college physics-and-chemistry course in 1961. She unhesitatingly got a score of 100 %. Now, it is true that she lives with me, is especially bright, and currently teaches in the design curriculum at an engineering school. She considered most of the questions to be trivial and was dismayed but not surprised when I told her that the median score on the test was around 63 %.

NSF may be encouraged by the survey, but I am not. Half the population (assuming an unbiased sample) do not accept evolution, do not know that antibiotics are ineffective against viruses, do not know that electrons are smaller than atoms, and do not know that lasers are light sources. Barely more than half know that it takes the earth 1 year to go around the sun.

Here are the answers to the quiz:

1. 1 year; 2. Earth around Sun; 3. False; 4. False; 5. True; 6. True; 7. False; 8. True; 9. False; 10. True; 11. True; 12. False; 13. True

52 Comments

7. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (51)

Disturbingly, there are some doctors that don’t actually know this little fact as well.

Note: I should note the answer to the question above, which of course is false, is vexing as for some reason doctors will often prescribe antibiotics for simple viral infections. Considering the ramifications from breeding resistant bacteria this could cause, I’m surprised it isn’t emphasised more at medical school and the like.

A doctor may prescribe antibiotics for a few reasons. A lab test may take several days, so make a best guess and start the antibiotics. In my case antibiotics were prescribed for a viral pneumonia to prevent bacteria from taking hold while I was in a weakened state.

10. It is the father’s gene which decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (65)

Say what? “gene” is not a synonym for “gamete”. Perhaps this would be best phrased as “genetic contribution”.

I don’t get the significance of people believing in astrology or clairvoyance or telepathy. They are certainly unscientific, but are vague enough and difficult enough to falsify that people probably put them in a separate category from science, “believing” in them sort of for fun. I don’t know many people who get all worked up about astrology, for example, but a whole lot of people read their horoscopes. If people believed that those things had been verified by science, that would be different.

5. Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals. (53)

So this must mean that 47% actually answered the question correctly.

Off topic, but of interest, I hope.

Evolution gets its own radio comedy series (from the BBC):

In The Ape That Got Lucky, Chris Addison - the thinking idiot’s pretend anthropologist - takes us on a journey through the vast and rich subject of human evolution in four comic lectures, and asks the listener if they’re a man or a monkey (or a woman or a womonkey, if you’re going to be like that about it.)

1/4. Language and Communication

http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/comedy/[…]tml?focuswin

It’s not bad - some groaners for sure, and maybe a little “British” in places for American audiences.

Imagine PBS trying to create a show like this in America these days…

 …90 % of Americans (as opposed to 45 % of Europeans) say they are interested in science and believe that science is a good thing, likely to make life better.

What the hell is going on in Europe (& European education)?

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Outside of America you encounter very different kinds of nutters. We don’t get many creationists, having beat them senseless and the rest fleeing to America (the only place in the world they are taken seriously) so we have other nutters. Most of the anti-science movements over in New Zealand are heavily ‘greeny’ fellows that are voiciferiously anti-genetic engineering and other lots that are anti-vaccinations.

Regarding comment 41325: I was not precise enough. Price actually writes that Americans believe that science is a good thing and more likely to make life better not worse. Further, 90 % of Americans and 45 % of Europeans say they are interested in science and technology. Additionally, Americans visit libraries, zoos, and museums of science and technology more than Europeans.

“Whenever one body exerts force upon a second body, the second body exerts an equal and opposite force upon the first body.”

Is it possible that the strong interest in science in America generates a strong reaction by antiscientists, while the lukewarm European interest has an equally lukewarm antiscience movement? Or perhaps it is the antiscience intensity that forces a pro-science reaction?

I’m a little worried about the percentage who answered question 1 incorrectly. The score on question 2 gives me the willies, too.

Air Bear:  It makes zero difference to most people’s lives if they get it right or wrong.  I consider having it right as a point of pride and an essential jumping-off point for further analysis which may not make me any monetary profit, but is likely to increase my stock among people whose opinion I value.

Unfortunately, believing the wrong answer in #5 may also be a point of pride for some people due to the others whose opinions they value.…

A thought occurred to me the other day: the IDers whine that evolutionists (i.e., real scientists) have controlled school science curricula ever since Scopes and have locked out all dissent. Hmmm. If that were true, wouldn’t you think that the percentage of correct answers to #5 would be a lot higher?

(Whew. I scored 100%, and I’ve been out of school for … a long time.)

What the hell is going on in Europe (& European education)?

I’m guessing it was the “likely to make life better” part that influenced most of those responses. Europeans seem to be more suspicious of science and technology than Americans. I would point to their strong objections to GM crops (or “frankenfoods” as they term it) as but one example, an issue that barely draws a shrug from most Americans.

Also might have to do with the European experience during WWII. They were probably commenting on the fact that Von Braun or Mengele certainly didn’t make life better.

In America, we have reaped the benefits of industrialism without much industrialized warfare. We can look at cars without thinking of tanks, rockets without thinking of V-2s, airplanes without thinking of skies darkening with bombers, etc. I imagine that the problem is not that the Euros have a problem with science, so much as a healthy understanding that it can be a double-edged blade.

The UK (and probably most of Europe) is more anti-gun than the USA too. I would agree that we (collectively averaged) are just better (through experience and not completely ignoring history) at also seeing the downside to things than the younger, more naive American “culture” is. However, the big pro-science push was longer ago in the UK (and perhaps Europe) than in the US. We had ours in the 19th Century with the Victorians, while you had yours in the 1950s. So some of your people who were influenced by that are still alive. Whereas the last ones I knew personally of our lot died some time back.

seeing the downside to things than the younger, more naive American “culture” is

It’s not just naivety – there’s a massive PR campaign here to label real science as junk science and promote junk science as if it were real science when it comes to the risks of corporate activity. The “global warming isn’t a problem” drivel at junkscience.com is an example, and is matched by frequent ExxonMobil ads, Bush admin policy, and even Penn & Teller get into the act. Of course, they gain legitimacy by also attacking real junk belief in pseudoscience that is rampant due to poor science education and widespread magical/mystical/mythical thinking.

Bacteria also suffer from viruses (aka phagues), just like we do. What happens to those viruses when the antibiotics snuff out the bacteria?

Joseph O'Donnel Wrote:

Note: I should note the answer to the question above, which of course is false, is vexing as for some reason doctors will often prescribe antibiotics for simple viral infections.

Prescribing an antibiotic is often the quickest way to get a whiny patient out of your office.

Harq al-Ada Wrote:

They are certainly unscientific, but are vague enough and difficult enough to falsify that people probably put them in a separate category from science, “believing” in them sort of for fun.

Do people “believe in” Intelligent Design Creationism just for fun?

I thought it was levels of androgyn during development that determined sex, rather than any genetic inheritance per se? Hence xy girls, xx boys, and all flavours of intersex…

I thought it was levels of androgyn during development that determined sex, rather than any genetic inheritance per se?

Presumably you mean androgen. So, do you suppose there’s no connection between genetic inheritance and androgen levels?

Androgen insensitivity can produce female and intersex XY individuals. Male XX would be very rare, I think.

What happens to those viruses when the antibiotics snuff out the bacteria?

If those particular viruses are dependent on the bacterial environment to protect and replicate them, then they are done for.

There are also the X0 individuals and the XXY ones.

There are also the X0 individuals and the XXY ones.

Which are clearly a matter of “genetic inheritance”, which is why I didn’t bother to mention them.

Question 5 is worded strangely. Humans didn’t “develop” from earlier species, they evolved from earlier species. Doesn’t “develop” suggest the path an individual organism would take, rather than that of a group or generations of groups?

Also, for the antibiotic question, I remember my doctor telling me that every time one gets sick with a cold virus, the immune system is weakened by the virus, and secondary bacterial infections follow. For instance, at the beginning of a cold flu, your nose will be watery and runny, but after the virus has run its course, you will probably still be fighting a mucus congestion that is thicker. This thick mucus is the result of the secondary bacterial infection, and that’s where antibiotics can help. Of course, doctors no longer prescribe antibiotics as frequently as they used to before the problem of resistance got pointed out to them.

Doesn’t “develop” suggest the path an individual organism would take, rather than that of a group or generations of groups?

Not necessarily. Of course there are technical biological senses of the words, but the test has a more general target. I imagine the word “evolve” was avoided in an attempt to make the question more neutral sounding. We talk about the development of languages, cultures, technologies, and so on. The dictionary definition of “evolve” is “to develop or achieve gradually”, which we now know isn’t always an accurate description of biological evolution.

The one I find very strangely worded is #10 – “the father’s gene”? “which decides”? That Gene’s got a mind of his own!

I’m guessing it was the “likely to make life better” part that influenced most of those responses.

If the two clauses were combined in a single sentence, that was a very poorly designed question, and its implicit boosterism would probably repel most critical thinkers. (That question 10 is so poorly phrased supports this analysis.)

Europeans seem to be more suspicious of science and technology than Americans. I would point to their strong objections to GM crops (or “frankenfoods” as they term it) as but one example, an issue that barely draws a shrug from most Americans.

An issue that most Americans are basically unaware of, as it’s gotten so little media attention here. A significant and scientifically based argument can be made against frankenfoods in particular and handing over the future of the gene pool to corporate profiteers in general: check out the Council for Responsible Genetics for starters.

Nonetheless, given the widespread European tradition of respect for education & intellectuals, and that their school systems are mostly free of pressure from fundamentalists, I’m still surprised that their average score was less than Americans’. Could it be that European curricula are more heavily weighted toward languages & literature, history & social sciences, etc?

Maybe the better-informed will slap me down, but my impression is that the male’s ejaculate contains millions of sperm, and what “decides” fetal sex is which one succeeds in fertilizing the ovum. Thus, there is competition among the individual spermatazoa, plus a major set of factors in the vaginal-to-uterine environment: e.g., a lower pH tends to favor X-chromosome bearing sperm, as does a longer delay before the ovum “ripens” (X-bearing spermatazoa live longer and swim more slowly than their Y-bearing brothers kin).

Likewise, doesn’t some research show a sort of selectivity on the part of the surface of the ovum, so that it’s not merely a question of which sperm cell races most rapidly to the egg, but which is “allowed” entry?

Maybe the better-informed will slap me down

I’m certainly not better informed than you concerning the process you’re addressing, but I don’t think it’s the right thing to address. I believe the question is a poorly worded form of something like “The father’s gamete (as opposed to the mother’s) determines whether the baby is a boy or a girl.” The father’s gamete is the gamete the father contributed to the zygote; there’s only one of those, regardless of the causal factors that led to it being the one. It isn’t necessary to give the entire causal history of the universe leading up to the event in order to answer the question.

Comment #41307

Posted by Joseph O’Donnell on August 4, 2005 07:35 PM (e) (s)

Note: I should note the answer to the question above, which of course is false, is vexing as for some reason doctors will often prescribe antibiotics for simple viral infections. Considering the ramifications from breeding resistant bacteria this could cause, I’m surprised it isn’t emphasised more at medical school and the like.

Let me explain this as my father explained it to me, which includes a lot of gross over-simplifcations because of shared knowledge and experience.

Doctors know that anit-biotics don’t cure viral infections. The problem is the patients and their perception of what Doctor’s are capable of curing.

Typically when people go to their primary care doctor for some type of “disease-caused illness,” (roughly) 50% of the time there’s nothing wrong with them that eating right and excercise won’t cure. (Roughly) 30% of the time there’s nothing the Doctor can cure because it’s typically some type of viral infection or some condition that can’t be treated (like aging). The balance (roughly) 20%, they can legitimately do something to combat the illness.

The problem is, that if the person goes to the doctor and “feels bad,” and the doctor does nothing the patient gets upset as they have the expectation of being treated. If the doctor does not meet that expectation, the patient leaves and smears the Doctor’s reputation. And then there are issues with post-non-cure diseases and conditions showing up, in which the Doctor has a tremendous potential malpractice issue.

Therefore, to meet patient expectations of the Doctor curing them, many doctors, will prescibe either (or both) antibiotics or prescription antihistimine. Fortunately, because of the education on anti-biotic resistance increasing due to over-prescription, many doctors have changed to presciption placebos.

And while there are still some old guys out there prescribing anti-biotics like mad, most of the 40-and-under crowd are very good about not over-prescribing.

Bacteria also suffer from viruses (aka phagues [sic]), just like we do.

Pls excuse me if I’ve gone off on a tangent, but it’s funny you shd mention bacteriophages. The English version of the Hebrew newspaper Ha’aretz had a very positive article about phages here http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/605950.html. You may find a somewhat less positive article here http://www.discover.com/issues/nov-[…]oodvirus918/ (subscription needed for the Discover article). This article http://www.drugresearcher.com/produ[…]p;k=ucla-res is about developing drugs from phages. The renewed interest in phages is, at least partly, a result of the evolution of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

Phages I know from nothing, so I asked some of my colleagues, who thought there are problems such as phage resistance and specificity, but evidently there is still some active research into phages.

2. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?

Seriously, I’ve always been bothered by this “issue.” Is it really possible to define “goes around” in such a way that “A goes around B” is really different from “B goes around A?” I just don’t see the difference. Is there some neat trick that can be used to distinguish the two cases? Maybe the “issue” just means that we really don’t know exactly what we mean when we say “goes around.”

A hundred years ago people could be excused for thinking that you can know when you are moving: they knew horses, carts, walking, and maybe trains. But I’ve been in airplanes and cars. You can’t tell if you’re moving. You can’t even tell if the floor is parallel to the ground. Lots of beginning pilots wind up flying upside down at night and don’t even know it.

In the European version of the survey (http://europa.eu.int/comm/public_op[…]s_154_en.pdf), many people responded “I don’t know” to questions in the true/false section. I can’t find the data on this for the US version; I don’t even know for sure whether “I don’t know” was accepted as an answer. (Though probably it was accepted… it would be ridiculous for the NSF report to spend so much time comparing the US and European data if there was such a huge difference in the data collection). The NSF report has highly “summarized” data. Can someone post a link to more detailed data?

Here’s one good reason we want this data. In the original post, Matt Young doubts the NSFs suggestion that the responses to question 5 reflect religious belief and not merely (lack of) knowledge about science. The grounds for doubt are that the responses to question 5 are simliar to some of the other questions. But we aren’t told about the “I don’t know” responses, and this data is relevant here! I would regard an unusually low number of “I don’t know” responses to question 5 as support for the NSF suggestion.

Besides this particular point, the number of “I don’t know” responses helps interpret the data generally. For example, it’s disappointing that only about 41% of Europeans answered “true” for “Electrons are smaller than atoms”. But note that it doesn’t mean 59% answered “false”… only 23% answered “false”. Many said “don’t know”, which is an unfortunate answer but rather more respectable than “false”.

(Hi. This is my first post to PT.)

Is it really possible to define “goes around” in such a way that “A goes around B” is really different from “B goes around A?”

I think we need to understand that these questions were intended to be stone simple, and in the process had to play a bit loose with the terminology. It should be common knowledge that “the earth goes around the sun” and I don’t think the question could be improved by speaking of the locus of the center of gravity of the 2-boty system staying inside the “surface” of the sun. Now, what do we mean by surface? What do we mean by locus? What’s a center of gravity? Why only look at two bodies?

Basically, these details are beyond the intent of the questionnaire, and would be counterproductive if our goal is to see whether Americans slept through their classes.

Indeed.  Say “barycenter” to the average person and they’ll think you mean a cemetary.

Likewise, doesn’t some research show a sort of selectivity on the part of the surface of the ovum, so that it’s not merely a question of which sperm cell races most rapidly to the egg, but which is “allowed” entry?

You’re correct, Pierce–there is some recent evidence that the egg and the cumulus cells surrounding it exert chemoattractants, and that these chemoattractants select for certain spermatozoa on the basis of differential advantage in morphology, motility, and ability to bind to the egg.

If you want citations, let me know and I’ll dig them up for you.

In the European version of the survey … many people responded “I don’t know” to questions in the true/false section. I can’t find the data on this for the US version; I don’t even know for sure whether “I don’t know” was accepted as an answer.

Good points! I could not find the data either (tho I found the percentage of correct answers, which I took off the graph, tabulated here http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind04/[…]fig07-06.xls). At any rate, I have written NSF to ask for the information. Don’t hold your breath!

Europeans seem to be more suspicious of science and technology than Americans.

We can’t forget the inexorable effect that World War II had on the continent of Europe; the horrendous casualties that were inflicted on those nations as a consequence of increasing science and technology. This no doubt contributes to the difference between Europe and the U.S. They’ve seen the aftermath of science gone awry whereas we Americans haven’t.

(Someone who actually lives in Europe please correct me if I’m mistaken)

Price notes that those who agreed with the statement, “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith,” generally did poorly on the survey: Two thirds of those who scored 4 out of 13 (30 %) or less on the quiz agreed with the statement, whereas only about one quarter of those who scored 11 out of 13 (85 %) or more disagreed.

I think that last word there should be “agreed”.

I think that last word there should be “agreed”.

Yes, thanks! I just fixed it.

Is it really possible to define “goes around” in such a way that “A goes around B” is really different from “B goes around A?” I just don’t see the difference.

That would be so if the universe consisted only of the Earth and the Sun. It’s the paths of the other bodies that made the Ptolemaic model untenable.

Let me add that you presumably can see the difference between

Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto revolve around the Sun

and

The Sun revolves around each of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto.

the difference between Europe and the U.S. They’ve seen the aftermath of science gone awry whereas we Americans haven’t.

That’s because you’re too close to the problem in those instances where the US is science gone awry. I’d say that from outside a lot of the time it looks like dangerous technology in the hands of gun-toting loonies who, against all the evidence of their carnage, seem to think they are fit (and are even the only ones who are fit) to own such toys.

i agree question 10 about the fathers “gene” couldnt have been more poorly written. There is in mammals no “gene” for sex. It is determined by a chromosome and only daddy has the “Y”. IF you get your fathers “X” youre a chick if you get the “Y” youre a dude. an Xo (only one female chromosome) you are small statured retarded and sterile (Turners syndrome). If you have Yo (only one male chromosome) youre toast. XX=normal female XY=normal male XXY sterile male (Kleinfelters syndrome) XYY=fertile super aggressive natural born criminal(as the eugenecists would have labled you-the so-called “Richard Speck Syndrome” except he didnt have it). You can have several “Y” chromosomes, but as far as I know thats the full smorgasbord of sex chromosome choices.

an Xo (only one female chromosome) you are small statured retarded and sterile (Turners syndrome).

Normally I do not enter scientific discussions, perferring to limit myself to the political aspects, where I have formal education, but something about this post seemed off, so I looked it up.

According to Campbell, Reece, Mitchell, et al’s Biology 5th Edition, p. 273 (Unit Three, Chapter 15 for those with different editions):

“Monosomy X, called Turner syndrome, occurs about once in every 5000 births and is the only known viable monosomy in humans. Although these X0 individuals are phenotypically female, their sex organs do not mature at adolescence, and secondary sex characteristics fail to develop. Such individuals are sterile and of short stature. Most have normal intelligence.” (italics mine)

It is entirely possible that I am misreading the text, or that this edition’s text is in error and has been corrected in later editions, but it seems to be implying that Turners syndrome does not necessarily cause retardation.

It also mentions that XYY males are taller than average, but says nothing about aggressiveness and asserts that they “are not characterized by any well-defined syndrome, although they tend to be somewhat taller than average.” (same page)

Can someone please explain more about this androgen insensitivity thing?

Matt Young wrote:

“Price notes that those who agreed with the statement, “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith,” generally did poorly on the survey: Two thirds of those who scored 4 out of 13 (30 %) or less on the quiz agreed with the statement, whereas only about one quarter of those who scored 11 out of 13 (85 %) or more disagreed.”

Should that last word be “agreed”?

thanks, Steve

(A casualty of needing to ban multiple IPs to get rid of J. Davidson it appears, so he asked me to post up his comment for him).

i may be mistaken about mental retardation in turners syndrome, it was an unchecked recollection. the XYY pattern has never been proven to cause criminality but it was a eugenically accepted hypothesis in the past. the only instance of androgen insensitivity im aware of is the syndrome of testicular feminization. here normal chromosome males XY lack the enyzme necessary to convert testosterone to its active-at-the-cellular-level form (i think the enzyme is called 5 alpha reductase). Since the mammal fetus will develop to “look like a female” in the absence of androgenic stimulation these boys are born looking like girls with undescended testes where ovaries should be. many arent discovered until they dont undergo menarche. there are also various forms of congenital adrenal hyperplasias which are overall much more serious defects which can produce ambiguous external genitalia usually from the overproduction of hormones with some androgenic properties causing genotype females to have somewhat male looking genitals. of note medicines such as proscar and propecia work by inhibiting the action of 5 alpha reductase.

slight correction to above: the problem is discovered when the “girl” is found to have “bilateral inguinal hernias”. it is then that the testes are found instead of hernias.

Anybody notice that question 1 contains the answer to question 2? Yet 25% still missed #2? Yipe.

Henry

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