Survey on genetics knowledge

By Razib Khan | January 24, 2012 2:23 am

A regular issue that comes up on this weblog is that many of my posts are difficult to understand. I am aware of this. Unfortunately a problem is that there is a wide variation in fluency in genetics knowledge among the readership. To get a better sense I have created a survey with 60+ questions. It may seem like a lot, but the questions go fast because there are only three answers to each, and you should immediately know how to respond. I will likely use these responses to guide me in future “refresher” posts and the like. The questions range from relatively simple to moderately abstruse. That’s by design. Thanks.

Note: The survey will not show up in the RSS, so please click through!

Create your free online surveys with SurveyMonkey, the world’s leading questionnaire tool.

  • Åse

    Interesting. Will we get the answers 😉 And, clearly I have some more boning up to do (given that I’m now getting increasingly interested in doing my research with an evolutionary slant).

  • Robert Dole

    “Does you understand what the neutral theory of molecular evolution is?”

    No I does not.

  • Larry Moran

    “Do you know what epigenetics is?”

    Trick question.

    Nobody knows what epigenetics is.

  • DK

    Trick question. Nobody knows what epigenetics is.

    Indeed. I deliberated but answered that I do know.

  • Ryan Cooper

    Yikes. I reckon those results will be a bit depressing for you.

    I hope you’ll be rounding up some basic background for people with reasonable ability. I also hope it’s not: “Get a PhD in biology.”

  • Razib Khan

    #5, a lot of the questions are kind of obscure. so i’m not going to be shocked.

  • Razib Khan

    just looked. only thing i’m shocked by is how few know who chet snicker is!?!?!

  • bfgc

    The survey will not show up in the RSS, so please click through!

    It doesn’t show up on iOS, either, if my iPod touch is any guide.

  • rimon

    i remember chet snicker :) what happened to him?

  • Razib Khan
  • S.J. Esposito

    I think it’s worth mentioning two things: (1) many of the times that I’ve had to read a blog post here twice and do some wiki reading are those blogs related to history and socio-ethno-cultural issues; these are a sizeable portion of the weblog and area(s) where I, personally, lack a robust knowledge base, and yet these subject areas lack presence in the survey. And (2) your writing is dense; even posts that have little to no “hard science” in them are thick reads. I don’t mind at all, and I love adding to my vocabulary everyday, but I know a few people who don’t necessarily not understand the genetics, but are deterred by the language in which you write.

    Whatever the case, I think it’s safe to say that this blog, more so than any other that I read, often spurs me to buff up on topics that I may not have a firm grasp of, and for that, I thank you.

  • Razib Khan

    #11, yes, but i use the term ‘haplotype’ and ‘allele’ a lot (actually, i often use ‘genetic variant’ to be more understandable). i don’t talk about the 6th century avar empire much. a lot of the obscure historical/ethnological stuff varies from post to post, and i can’t help that….

  • bfgc

    Chet who?

    For what it’s worth, I answered these questions “cold” — that is, without encyclopedia lookups. I couldn’t remember what homo- and heterozygosity were, but it all came back after looking at the first few paragraphs of the Wikipedia page. Would the following set of questions help get a better idea of your readership’s abilities?

    * yes
    * no, but it all came back after reading the Wikipedia page
    * no, but it kinda makes sense after reading the Wikipedia page
    * no, and it didn’t make sense after reading the Wikipedia page

  • Razib Khan

    #13, well, i didn’t want to take up too much time. and i just want to get a sense. i’m actually pretty pleased, but i assume there’s some skew toward those who know more about stuff, and those who know less about chet snicker.

  • Judith

    I’m going to drop off the bottom of whatever graph you’re planning to plot on this, I’m sure.

    But I enjoy the articles in any case and wouldn’t particularly want you to change anything. As #11 said, often the posts relate to ‘socio-ethno-cultural issues’ and I can understand the conclusions at that level even if I have to skip over the arguments on how you got to those conclusions. And anycase sometimes you write on issues unrelated to genetics – like the article on the teacher intelligence.

    It’s nice to read an ingroup blog; you get to see how the experts interact with each other and you learn something about the field of study.

    I’m considering this list of questions a nice starting point for a looonnggg wiki excursion…

  • Schrödinger’s Hat

    Knowing your predilection for typos I’m not sure whether the ‘genetic draft’ question was deliberate or not.

  • Razib Khan

    #16, it was correct. though i don’t expect non-pop gen ppl to know that term.

    also, just so ppl know i don’t consider myself an ‘insider’ or ‘pro’.

  • rimon

    good grief, I just ran the search and found that chet snicker was 5 years ago. time flies.

  • Nick Rowe

    But don’t dumb it down too much, just for ignoramuses like me. It’s still fascinating, even if I can barely understand half of it. Some stuff should go over our heads.

  • Razib Khan

    #19, i don’t plan to. rather, just some introductory posts. i actually try to ‘mix it up’ in terms of assumed knowledge, but doesn’t seem to be working….

  • Razib Khan

    btw, u guys can see the responses here.

  • Ria

    I’m surprised no one has commented on the “recessive gene” issue yet. After all, there are recessive alleles, but I’m not familiar with recessive _genes_. I answered “no” on that, figuring it was a trick question. No geneticist with whom I’ve worked uses the term, anyway…although it’s common to see “recessive gene” used in lieu of “recessive allele” in regular journalism. Just not in this blog (that I recall).

  • Razib Khan

    After all, there are recessive alleles, but I’m not familiar with recessive _genes_. I answered “no” on that, figuring it was a trick question.

    yes, it was a trick question (notice the quotations). the only one i put on the survey! i think it was a bad call in hindsight, as most people ‘corrected’ in their head.

    btw, only 40% of people who claim to know what heritability is know what additive genetic variance is.

  • mikey

    ditto to Ria. Had it pounded into me by John Kuspira that genes can’t be recessive. I answered “no”.

  • Nandalal Rasiah

    this is interesting but what would be more interesting is a test-see how many people who answered “yes” actually know what the term means or how to read a specific graph/plot.

  • Frank

    Please don’t change anything just because I caused a shift in your demographics.

    I read this blog because you write interesting things. . . On topics that I am unfamiliar with. . . That actually cause me to ‘think’.

    Thanks for taking the time.

  • Luciano

    You’ re a good writer and exposer, Razib. And given how curious people are about genetics these days, maybe you can even make a little money clarifying genetic concepts. A kind of “Khan Genetics Academy”.

  • ackbark

    Oh, honestly, Chet Snicker!

    The first guy ever to test the final form of the Snickers bar and who choked to death on it so they named it after him?

    Who doesn’t know that?

    17. hell, I assumed that was a typo for ‘genetic drift’ and answered yes.


    23. you tricked me. I know what people mean when they say that, but I wouldn’t know that’s not literally right.

    I think there were more than a couple of questions like that where I know the general idea but not the correct particular.

  • ackbark

    And why did people skip questions?

    Doesn’t ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ cover all possible levels of knowing something?

  • David Dobbs

    Took it. Humbling.

    BTW, I would bet this will exert a strong selection bias — that those who feel they have high knowledge will be far more likely to take the survey than those who know or suspect they don’t know so much. So overall reader knowledge probably lower than whatever your results actually show.

  • Razib Khan

    #30, i agree.

  • Tom Bri

    A lot of these terms I have a general idea of, but no honestly clear definition. I generally answered ‘no’ for these, occasionally ‘maybe’ if I felt I had a firmer handle. Nice little quiz.

  • Razib Khan

    #32, some of the questions would normally only be understood by specialists in population genetics. a human geneticist for example probably would not know the difference between hard and soft selection. so do’t feel too bad.

  • Spike Gomes

    Wow, I’ve been reading this place for years, and it’s surprising how little I honestly know about the subject, granted, I never took a real science class in college or any math higher than pre-calc (I’m probably on the left end of this blog’s readership IQ Bell Curve to boot).

    To tell the truth, while I find most of the genetics posts here fascinating, I only really “get” the breakdown and not the process by which the conclusion is reached the majority of the time, and sometimes don’t get the conclusion or even the whole post at all, this is contrasted to the posts on history and culture which are pretty followable for me (though I don’t really have much of value to say, since it rarely intersects with my areas of focus).

    One of these days I’m going to try to get myself a little more ground on the basics of genetics; even the basic genetics stuff on Razib’s booklist seemed kind of steep starting point when I flipped through it at Barnes and Noble’s.

    Anyways, I’m looking forward to the series of posts, to the point I’m probably going to take notes. Free science class! Probably should get “Genetics for Dummies” too.

  • Razib Khan

    spike, the focus on this blog in ‘genetics’ is a bit different than the norm though. you never hear me talking about RNA splicing or promoter bashing, for example. that’s more molecular bread & butter stuff. that’s really what genetics is for most ppl in academe going by the numbers.

  • Spike Gomes

    To be fair, I don’t really know all that much about the bread and butter stuff either, though I find what is discussed here far more interesting (I guess because it’s often an intersection of science and history/humanities).

    If you could make a three book reading list for someone who is completely lacking the basic scientific principles on which this blog rests on, which three would they be? I say that because I would go on Amazon and get them when the tax refund comes in. I say three, because when I’m interested in something, I generally grab 3 books if it’s a theoretical thing, or 5 books if it’s an applied thing.

  • DK

    u guys can see the responses here.

    Weird. Only 44.3% know Hardy-Weinberg yet 46.9% know the difference between sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavior genetics. 70.6% know what epigenetics is but only 56.8% know why methylation might be of interest to this blog.

  • Razib Khan

    #37, lot’s of strangeness like that. but do note that popular press treatments of epigenetics tend to avoid discussion about the molecular process, and focus on the “big picture” (violation of central dogma, etc.).

  • biologist

    Things like site-directed mutagenesis or the Wnt pathway in Drosophila just don’t warrant much in the way to public discussions; but evolution and quantitative genetics have obvious appeal from a human interest perspective.

    However, one area that probably deserves more public interest than it currents gets is developmental biology. Evo-devo tends to dominate discussions of dev bio, but the story of how a zygote forms a vertebrate is both amazing and comprehensible to non-experts. A documentary would probably be the best format for that.

  • pconroy

    I’m shocked that more people didn’t know the Chet Snicker story – either they are noobs, or very naive.

    I suspected I knew Chet the first time he posted, and the second time I definitely knew that I knew him…

  • Wulf Kurtoglu

    I agree with Judith #15. I’m willing to look things up, but anyway I’m here for a quick read to pick up a sense of what’s going on in somebody’s else’s discipline, so it isn’t necessary to understand every detail – the brain can make sense of a lot of things in context by means of spreading activation. I certainly wouldn’t want to see any changes on account of fellow travellers like myself.

  • Schrödinger’s Hat

    Regarding #37, some of these are buzzwords or keywords that may not stick with you if you don’t encounter them often or at all. Compare the results on genetic linkage (question 16) vs. genetic draft (question 57).

    I did expect to see more ‘maybes’ than negatives for Hardy-Weinberg though.

  • Razib Khan

    genetic draft is moderately obscure even among pop gen people. i think it was in hindsight a bad choice. as many people probably thought i mistyped ‘drift’ than even knew what draft was!

  • Engineer

    @Razib: now that I feel sufficiently humiliated, can you point me (us) to some nice video lectures where I can learn a bit? I’m an engineer.
    Maybe you have done so in the past already, but I discovered Discover Blogs only a few months ago, and so, I’m not aware of it.

  • Emil

    >I’m considering this list of questions a nice starting point for a looonnggg wiki excursion…

    I thought about that as well. This survey made me feel really stupid. :( That does not happen often. I feel like adding a textbook on genetics and population genetics (from the reading list!) on my to read list. Perhaps just some relatively short ones. I mean genetics is interesting all right, but other things are more interesting, to me.

    I did read The Blank Slate recently, though. I should have done that years ago! It was a great read, though I already agreed with Pinker about the three foes.

    Now, I feel like going back and reading something cool so that I can feel smart again: “Truth is a One-Player Game: A Defense of Monaletheism and Classical Logic”, Benjamin Burgis.

    Keep up the good work, Razib. One note about the survey. It does not appear if one has blocked javascript from the survey site. I had but didn’t know so I couldn’t find the survey on the screen and couldn’t see any links. Perhaps you can put a note about one having to enable scripts?

  • Tony Mach

    I answered this little quiz. Afterwards I read #30 and thought it was good that i did something against the strong selection bias.

    Oh my, how little I actually know of the details, concepts and terms here – compared what I “thought” I knew. I read “alleles” somewhere and think I know what it means and what concept it represents, but I guess my mind just makes me think “Yeah, I know that one”…

    Reading Dan Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” may have helped me getting a handle on some basic concepts, but it only gets you so far with regards to knowing the concepts (and terms) of evolution in general and genetics in particular…

    And some things like “homo- and heterozygosity” one has to sit down and simply learn the terms, I’d reckon. Though I look forward if you could write from time to time a introduction of terms made for scientifically-inclined lay-persons. Imagine you want to explain a genetics term to an non-genetics scientist, or engineer, or teacher, who has read a book or two from Dawkins or Dennett.

  • Brel

    Razib: perhaps you could label your posts “beginner” or “advanced” at the top, somewhat like Paul Krugman does with his “wonkish” thing, and make new categories for them. That way your readers can gravitate to the level of discussion that’s best for them.

    Those of us who haven’t taken a decent science course in years, let alone studied genetics, can still get a lot out of your blog. Thank you for doing so much, both in the blog and the comments, to take your readers into consideration!

  • Emily Hardesty

    Too bad for me there wasn’t a single button that would allow me to fill in ‘no’ on all 62 questions. It would’ve saved me minutes of time. 😉

    Thanks for putting this survey out there. Though its intent is for you to better understand your readers, it helps this reader to better understand some of the fundamental concepts she needs to become familiar with (if only in passing.)

    I visit one of the Discovery blogs on average a few times a week. I always visit Bad Astronomy, Cosmic Variance, and The Loom every week. I usually get to yours and Ed Yong’s and The Crux at least once every couple of weeks.

  • Meredith

    I don’t know most of these terms, but I can figure it out. I’ve done enough science that unfamiliar terminology doesn’t scare me off.

  • Anthony

    “25. Do you know what the difference between sociobiology, evolutionary psychology, and behavior genetics, is?”

    Do people in those fields have a reasonable agreement about the boundaries of their fields?

  • Razib Khan

    #50, yes. behavior genetics and evolutionary psychology in particular focus on disjoint domains (variable traits vs. universal traits). evo psych is really a narrowing and re-purposing of hunan sociobiology, with a stronger cognitivist focus.

  • ohwilleke

    Your survey suggests the desirability of an FAQ or glossary page for this blog.


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About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at


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