How Does The American Public's Science Knowledge Stack Up?


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Ever wondered how the American public's science knowledge stacks up? Well, wonder no more. The Pew Research Center has released the results of a survey, exposing how people's level of knowledge varies by education, gender, race, and even political persuasion. 

A nationally representative group of 4,464 adults responded to 11 multiple-choice questions, which you can have a go at here.


You'll no doubt be glad to know that there were more correct than incorrect answers with the mean score being a solid 6.7. Four in 10 (39 percent) Americans racked up a point-score between 9 and 11 – achieving "high scientific knowledge" status. 

As for the questions themselves, it turned out that 8 in 10 respondents (79 percent) were able to correctly state that antibiotic resistance is a major concern in the overuse of antibiotics. While 3 in 4 (76 percent) accurately identified the definition of an incubation period as the time someone is infected with a disease but not showing symptoms. However, some other questions proved more challenging, including one on genetic engineering and another on hypotheses. 

"An antacid relieves an overly acidic stomach because the main components of antacids are…" appeared to be the question people struggled with the most, with just 39 percent of respondents answering correctly.

One question not included in the scale but still incredibly revealing asked the respondents to reveal how they viewed the scientific method. The vast majority (67 percent) said the scientific method "produces findings that are meant to be continually tested and updated over time", but 15 percent held the more rigid opinion that the method "identifies unchanging core principles and truths". 


Unsurprisingly, respondents with higher levels of educational qualifications tended to score better, with postgraduate degree holders scoring, on average, four more points than those with high school degrees or less. This stands up to results from previous surveys and the National Science Board's index of factual science knowledge. 

More shocking (and concerning) were gaps relating to gender and race. Men achieved a mean score of 7.4. This figure drops to 6 for women. Interestingly, the difference varied depending on the subject of the questions – the gender gap was starkest on questions related to the physical sciences and essentially non-existent on those related to life sciences.

The study also found that while white people achieved a mean average of 7.6 correct answers, that number falls to 5.1 for Hispanics and 3.7 for black people. While the gap diminishes with education, it persists. Among those with a college degree, for example, there was a 1.6 point difference between white and black respondents. Previous reports have suggested several factors from education to science information access to the underrepresentation of black and Hispanic people in STEM could be to blame. 

One categorization that didn't seem to make much of a difference was political orientation – a reassuring if curious discovery given the current administration's distinctly anti-science attitude. In fact, Republicans actually scored slightly better as a group than Democrats (7 versus 6.6 correct answers). This shifts slightly when you look at those at either end of the political spectrum, with conservative Republicans scoring a mean average of 7.4 correct answers and liberal Democrats scoring 7.8. 


Still, previous studies have only shown modest positive correlations between science knowledge and support for science research. What's more, on some particularly contentious issues partisanship appears to override any modicum of science knowledge. Take climate change – Republicans who possess high levels of science knowledge aren't any more likely to agree that climate change is mostly caused by human activity than those from their party who don't. Yet, Democrats with high levels of scientific knowledge are (93 percent versus 49 percent). 

Want to find out how you'd score? Take the quiz for yourself here.