July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 7: Science Interest and Knowledge

Most Americans express at least a passing interest in news about science, with 35% saying they enjoy keeping up with science news “a lot” and another 41% saying they enjoy keeping up with it “some.” Only about a quarter (24%) say they do not enjoy following news about science. By comparison, 54% of Americans say they enjoy keeping with the news in general a lot.

Nearly half of college graduates (46%) say they enjoy keeping up with science news a lot. Significantly fewer of those with some college experience (36%) or no more than a high school degree (27%) agree.

Consistent with broader trends in news consumption, people younger than 30 are less likely than older Americans to say they enjoy keeping up with science news. Overall, 29% of young people say this, the lowest proportion of any age group. Men are much more apt than women to say they enjoy science news a lot (40% for men, 29% for women).

What the Public Knows about Science

To gauge the public’s familiarity with basic scientific concepts as well as science topics that have been in the news, a 12-item science knowledge quiz was conducted by telephone from June 18 to June 21 with a random sample of 1,005 adults. The public fared well on some of the items closely related to daily life but many people struggled with more basic scientific concepts.

On average, respondents correctly answered approximately eight of the 12 questions, or 65%; 10% of the public aced the quiz, getting a perfect 12-for-12, while another 8% could answer just three or fewer questions correctly. Below is a description of the items and how the public did on each of them. If you would like to take the quiz before reading this section, click here to be taken to the test. Otherwise, read on.

Fully 91% know that aspirin is an over-the-counter drug recommended by doctors to help prevent heart attacks. More than eight-in-ten (82%) know that GPS technology relies on satellites in order to work. About three-quarters each know that underwater earthquakes can cause tsunamis (77%) and that continental drift has happened for millions of years (76%).

About two-thirds (65%) know that carbon dioxide is the gas that most scientists believe causes temperatures in the atmosphere to rise. More than six-in-ten (63%) know that not all radioactivity is man-made. In the realm of astronomy, six-in-ten know that water is the substance recently discovered on Mars (61%) and that most astronomers no longer consider Pluto a planet (60%).

However, the public did not do as well on more complex science questions. Slightly more than half (54%) know that antibiotics will not kill viruses as well as bacteria, and roughly the same proportion (52%) knows that stems cells are different from other kinds of cells because they can develop into many cell types. Other ‘textbook’ science facts presented even greater difficulty. Fewer than half know that lasers do not work by focusing sound waves (47%). A comparable percentage of the public knows that electrons are smaller than atoms (46%).

Demographic Differences in Science Knowledge

As expected, well-educated people fare much better on the science knowledge test than do those with less education. More than half of college graduates (57%) are in the high knowledge segment – those who answered 10 or more of the 12 items correctly. That compares with 33% of those with some college and just 17% of those with a high school education or less.

More men (36%) than women (28%) are in the high knowledge category, and whites (37%) are far more likely than African Americans (10%) to fall into the high knowledge group.

On average, Republicans scored somewhat higher than Democrats on the science test, and 37% of Republicans are in the high knowledge group compared with 27% of Democrats. However, these differences are mostly a reflection of the different demographics of the two groups. After taking education, age, gender, race and income into account there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.

In Pew Research Center political knowledge surveys, older Americans have consistently done far better than young people. But that is not the case when it comes to science knowledge.

On average, those 65 and older score far lower than do those in younger age groups; just 17% are in the high knowledge category and nearly half (49%) are in the low knowledge group – by the far the highest share in any age group. By contrast, those younger than 30, who struggle with political knowledge, are relatively knowledgeable about science. More than a quarter (27%) are in the high knowledge group. People ages 30 to 64 are the most knowledgeable.

A Closer Look at Age and Gender

People in their 30s and 40s do particularly well on the science test; they are the only age group in which majorities answered each of the 12 questions correctly.

However, those younger than 30 were at least as likely as those 30 to 49 – and far more likely than those in older age categories – to identify Pluto as the object that is no longer considered by most astronomers to be a planet. Three-quarters of those younger than 30 (75%) know this as do 67% of those 30 to 49 and 57% of 50-to-64 year-olds. Just 36% of those 65 and older know that Pluto is no longer considered a planet by most astronomers.

Though high school is a less distant memory for young people, they did not do particularly well on most “textbook” science questions. For most of these, greater proportions of those 30 to 49 than those younger than 30 answered questions correctly. The only exception was the true-false item stating that electrons are smaller than atoms; those 18 to 29 and 30 to 49 are equally likely (52% each) to correctly say this is true.

As might be expected, people in their late teens and 20s are far less likely than older people to identify aspirin as an over-the-counter drug recommended by doctors to prevent heart attacks. Yet they also are less likely than older people to know that not all radioactivity is man-made.

People 65 and older fared particularly poorly on the questions relating to Pluto and GPS technology. And on textbook knowledge, only about three-in-ten of those in the oldest age group know that electrons are smaller than atoms (30%) and that lasers do not employ sound waves (29%). Yet despite their lack of knowledge about Pluto, 64% of those 65 and older know that water was recently discovered on Mars. That is comparable to the percentage of those ages 30 to 64 who answered this correctly and greater than the share of youngest people (51%) who know this.

Overall, men answered 8.1 questions correctly on average and women got 7.4 right. Even when taking into account age and education, men on average did better on the science quiz than women.

There are significant gender differences on questions about the discovery of water on Mars (69% of men answered correctly vs. 54% of women) and about how lasers function (57% of men vs. 37% of women got this question right).

Yet there are exceptions to this pattern, particularly on issues related to health. More women (59%) than men (49%) know that antibiotics will not kill viruses as well as bacteria. And as many women as men know what distinguishes stem cells from other types of cells (54% of women, 51% of men).

Science Media

Two-thirds of Americans (67%) say they regularly watch television programs or channels about science such as Nova or Discovery Channel. Far fewer (20%) say they regularly read science magazines like Popular Science or Scientific American. And only 13% of the public say they regularly visit science web sites and blogs such as Discover.com, NOAA.gov or ScienceDaily.com.

There are only modest age and educational differences in science news consumption. Those ages 65 and older are somewhat less likely than younger people to say they regularly consume any science news. College graduates (28%) are more likely than those with no more than a high school education (21%) to report high science news consumption. As might be expected, those who enjoy science news a lot are far more likely than others to say they regularly get science news from several media sources.