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Poorly Worded Survey Questions And Prejudice

December 16, 2021

I have two questions for you:

1. Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?

2. Should schools in America teach the creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum?

I’ll bet I can bet how many of my friends and readers would vote. Conservatives would say:

No
Yes

Liberals would be reversed:

Yes
No

Am I generalizing? Sure. But, both questions are “bad” survey questions. And they are SO bad that they are very good survey question.

First, let’s talk a little about Bloom’s Taxonomy.

I used to write training materials, and more importantly, certification exams. We spent a lot of time talking about Bloom and his taxonomy.

The simplest questions to write are on the bottom. They are knowledge based questions. “When was the War of 1812?” “Who’s buried in Grant’s tomb?”

Knowledge based questions are typically considered poor exam questions. Memorizing is important for many fields, but knowing how to use that information is more important.

For example, knowing that Plutonium is symbol Pu and atomic number 94 with an atomic weight of 244 is not all that important. Knowing that ingesting .5 grams will kill you instantly is a lot more valuable to know.

Now, let’s look back at our survey questions.

1. Should schools in America teach Arabic Numerals as part of their curriculum?

2. Should schools in America teach the creation theory of Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre as part of their science curriculum?

In order to properly answer these questions you first need to know what Arabic Numberals are and who Father Georges Lemaitre was. And what was his theory?

Without that information you are just guessing. Survey questions, unlike certification exams, should focus on the lowest level of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

These were real survey questions. They were part of a poll conducted by CivicScience in May 2019. Here were the answers:

The majority of Americans don’t want use teaching Arabic Numerals and don’t want us teaching the creation theory of some Catholic priest in science class.

I mentioned these were bad questions. But, the research teams did a good job of writing their questions. Because they were not trying to figure out if Americans wanted to teach Arabic Numerals or the creation theory of Father Lemaitre. No, what they were really testing was would Americans allow bias to cloud their answers?

The research team assumed that a fair amount of the population would be unfamiliar with Arabic Numbers or Catholic Priest Lemaitre. And if they didn’t know, would they make a judgement based on incomplete information?

Would they show bias against Arabic and Catholic creation theory?

Would you consider donating money to El Kalah Shrine? What if I told you that the work they did was super important? You might be a little hesitant to donate. I’m guessing, you don’t know anything about El Kalah Shrine.

Have you heard of Shriners Hospitals? One is located in Salt Lake City. Shriners Hospitals are completely free to children. The hospital will even pay for parents to stay in a nearby hotel. My daughter was treated at a Shriners Hospital in Norther California.

The El Kalah Shrine is the organization behind Salt Lake City’s Shriner’s Hospital.

NOW would you consider giving them money? See how understanding the context changes the question?

Arabic Numbers are ALREADY taught in schools. In fact, other than some Roman Numerals used in English paper outlines, Arabic Numerals are ALL that’s taught. The digits 0,1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 ,9 are Arabic Numerals. Interestingly without the concept of Zero, we would be unable to do multiplication or division.

How many people taking the survey would have said NO, had they understood what Arabic Numerals were?

Oh, and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre’s creation theory? It has another name you are probably more familiar with. Father Lemaitre was the one who suggested the creation of the universe was a result of the Big Bang Theory.

How many people would object to teaching the Big Bang theory in American schools?

The writers of the survey were smart by being dumb. People thought they were answering questions about one thing and instead were actually revealing hidden bias.

Bloom would have been proud.

Stay safe

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His blog updates every weekday. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and grandchildren.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
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LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

(c) 2021 Rodney M Bliss, all rights reserved

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