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Monday, March 30, 2009

Hard science

Found an extraordinary exam question in a post called GCSEs are dumbed down and getting worse, by Cabalamat, taken from an actual physics exam (Edexcel GCSE Physics P1b reference 5010 taken on 9 November 2006) (via Ben Goldacre).

Our Moon seems to 'disappear' during an eclipse. Some people say this is because an old lady covers the Moon with her cloak. She does this so that thieves cannot steal the shiny coins on the surface.

Which of these would help scientists to prove or disprove this idea?

A - collect evidence from people who believe the lady sees the thieves
B - shout to the lady that the thieves are coming
C - send a probe to the Moon to search for coins
D - look for fingerprints

I have read this question several times, and I am still unsure what answer they are looking for.

A - Well, this is exactly the kind of thing that social scientists would probably do. The question doesn't specify what kind of scientists it is talking about.

B - Well, this is a good experimental approach. If shouting affected the outcome, and if shouting about thieves produced a significantly different outcome to shouting about other things, then this would be good evidence in support of the hypothesis. However, if shouting didn't affect the outcome, this wouldn't help to disprove the hypotheses because there is a vacuum between the Earth and the Moon and sound doesn't carry in a vacuum. The old lady might have cybertronic ears, but then again she might be deaf.

C - Finding or not finding coins doesn't really help us much. If there are coins, it could mean that the old lady has outwitted the thieves, or that the thieves thought it would be unlucky to take all the coins, or that there aren't any thieves. If there are no coins, it could mean we are looking in the wrong place, or it is the wrong time of the month, or Fred Goodwin's got them.

D - Fingerprints. Same as coins. By the way, are we looking for fingerprints on the coins, or fingerprints on the cloak?

I suspect that any child who really understands science and the scientific method will waste more time on this question than a child who hasn't a clue. So this isn't just dumbing down, it is levelling down.


  1. You're right. I think anyone with any sense would just look as far as "what is the answer they expect" rather than "what is correct". I recently saw a GCSE biology question which implied that bacteria and mitochondria don't have genes.

  2. Cabalamat's answer is the correct one. Empathic/Social intelligence (understanding what people want) is far more likely to win you points than actually thinking about the question.

    Having said that, the correct answer is:

    A if you're a social scientist. Or journalist.

    C if you're looking to revive your economy through intergalatic military technology.

    B if you're a politican. In fact, best to tell *everybody* the thieves are coming, and that the thieves could well be your neighbours, friends, or offspring.

  3. Working out what some idiot examiner thinks is the right answer is a lot harder and more time-consuming than just producing the correct answer. Students who aren't aware that bacteria have genes have an advantage over students who are, because they don't have to stop and think.

  4. Based on Scribe's answer, it would seem that a physics GCSE qualifies you to be a member of the political establishment rather than a "real" scientist.

    So that's Cabalamat's answer repeated at a higher logical level. The education system produces the qualifications that the political establishment expects, rather than the ones that might be "correct" (in the sense of corresponding with some old-fashioned notion of what these subjects are supposed to be about).

  5. Scribe: B if you're a politican. In fact, best to tell *everybody* the thieves are coming

    Ys, that way you can use the threat to clamp down on civil libeties!

  6. Having looked through several more GCSE science papers, I can divide the questions into four categories.

    1. Easy. My younger son (primary school) can do lots of these. Example: what do you use for looking at the stars (microscope, telescope, X-ray or synthesizer)?

    2. Reasonable. My older son (secondary school) can do these.

    3. Confused/confusing. I can't do these myself, because they are poorly worded, ambiguous, or plain wrong. For example, I found a question on the difference between analogue and digital radio, where none of the possible answers was strictly correct. (However, I have a pretty good idea which answer the examiners thought was correct.)

    4. Completely ridiculous. See above.