According to a report issued by the Pew Research Center, American adults have a sub-par knowledge of basic science. The organization surveyed 3,278 Americans of various social, racial and academic backgrounds. The questionnaire involved a simple set of 12 questions that assessed basic science competencies. Despite the quiz was far from demanding, most test-takers answered only 7.9 questions out of 12 correctly. That’s 66% or a big fat ‘D’.


Some of the questions included were:

  • This picture shows an object in space that has an icy core with a tail of gas and dust that extends millions of miles. What is this? (options: star, comet, asteroid, moon)
  • Which kind of waves are used to make and receive cellphone calls? (options: radio waves, light waves, gravity waves, sound waves)
  • What does a light-year measure? (options: brightness, time, distance, weight)
  • Which of these elements is needed to make nuclear energy and nuclear weapons? (options: uranium, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, sodium chloride)
  • See the rest of the questions and take the quiz yourself here.

Only 6% of the quizzed participants answered all 12 questions correctly. At the other end of the spectrum, 1% of those surveyed missed 11 of the questions, 2% missed 10 and 3% missed nine.

Some interesting findings from the report:

  • formal education predicted how well respondents fared on the quiz. Those who earned at least a graduate degree got 9.5 questions right, on average, compared to 6.8 for those who only finished high school.
  • men answered more correct questions than women, even when correcting for social background or education. Men outscored women, 8.6 to 7.3, on average.
  • whites did better on the test than Latinos or African Americans. Their average scores were 8.4, 7.1 and 5.9, respectively.
  • more than one in five respondents thought “the study of how the positions of stars and planets can influence human behavior” was astronomy, instead of astrology. For quite a few, it seems, the two are interchangeable.

Now, I don’t think this poll was the best way to gauge American interest or general knowledge in science, but it was interesting nonetheless. It shows the American public is still lagging behind the needs and expectations of an increasingly technology-driven society. It also means that people are more susceptible to fraud and rhetoric when discussing topics like climate change, genetically modified organisms or energy policy. The more you know, the harder you are to fool.

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