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New Poll Confirms What We Already Knew: Americans Don't Know Much About Science

A new Pew poll suggests that Americans can only answer a handful of basic science knowledge questions.
September 10, 2015, 2:00pm

Pew, one of the nation's most important polling organizations, decided to give Americans a pop quiz on science. Congrats, everyone, we scored an average of 66.66 percent, which is not a good grade but is probably good enough to get you a diploma anyway, depending on what school you went to.

The organization quizzed a representative sample of 3,200 Americans across racial, ethnic, gender, educational, and age groups. It found that we are very bad at knowing that water boils at a lower temperature at high altitudes (read the back of cake boxes for this info), identifying how light passes through a magnifying glass, and that our atmosphere is primarily made of nitrogen.

We are much better at knowing that the core is the Earth's hottest layer, uranium is needed to make nuclear weapons, and that comets have an icy core and a tail made of gas and dust. On average, more educated people fared better than less educated people, whites scored better than blacks and Hispanics, and men scored better than women.

The question, then, is what can a survey like this tell us? Pew provided an entire list of questions (available here) and, on average, it is little more than a list of ephemera that would be at home on an episode of Jeopardy or at your local bar trivia night. It seems difficult to make any sweeping statements about the state of science education and knowledge in the United States based on whether someone knows that Jonas Salk developed the polio vaccine.

That said, it's a general snapshot of scientific knowledge, and we didn't score particularly well. Add that to the fact that scores break down along such clear gender and racial lines, and you've got a concerning overall picture considering what we already know about science, technology, engineering, and math education in the United States. There has been a serious dearth of good, scalable programs that encourage women and minorities to pursue STEM careers.

This is yet another data point suggesting that the education system is failing those groups, but it's probably not a stronger one than the fact that women earn just 39 percent of physical science bachelor degrees and just 18 percent of computer science bachelor degrees or the fact that black men earn around just 6 percent of STEM bachelor degrees.

Meanwhile, women and blacks and hispanics make up just 23 and 12 percent of the STEM workforce, respectively. The scores of American 15 year olds ranked 27th in a global standardized test designed to measure science education, behind countries such as Macao, Slovenia, Latvia, and Liechtenstein.

So, yes, America's science education is the pits. But we didn't really need another poll to tell us that.