US survey finds science knowledge differs by race and politics


Despite evidence-free policies, conservative Republicans do well. Andrew Masterson reports.


Race, gender and political orientation all influence levels of science knowledge in the US.

Kirkikis/getty Images

Americans on the ideological edges of the political spectrum tend to know more about science than those in the centre, new research shows.

A detailed survey of 4464 people, conducted by Brian Kennedy and Meg Hefferon from the not-for-profit Pew Research Centre in Washington DC, found that conservative Republicans and liberal Democrats scored better on a science-themed questionnaire than their more centrist counterparts.

The result is one of a number of finds arising from the exercise, in which participants were asked 11 questions concerning various aspects of science. Subjects included the causes of antibiotic resistance, why the Earth has seasons, and what compounds comprise antacids.

Answers were totalled to give a raw score, and then correlated against other factors, such as ethnicity, gender and education levels, to provide a more nuanced picture.

The overall result was encouraging, yielding a mean figure of seven out of 11 questions correctly answered. Breaking that down by education revealed a pretty consistent positive correlation between knowledge and highest education level attained.

More detailed examination, however, revealed some troubling, and apparently entrenched, disparities.

Perhaps reflecting economic and social advantage, white males scored better as a cohort than white women and people of either gender with African-American or Hispanic heritage.

“Whites get an average of 7.6 correct out of 11 questions, while Hispanics average 5.1 correct answers and blacks 3.7 correct answers,” write the authors.

“Roughly half of whites (48%) are classified as having high science knowledge on the scale, answering at least nine questions correctly, compared with 23% of Hispanics and 9% of blacks.”

Kennedy and Hefferon suggest that differences in education status and access to science information could be factors in explaining the outcome. However, after further analysis controlling these elements, the differences remained robust.

Similar results, too, they note, were found in previous Pew Centre surveys carried out between 2006 and 2016. One analysis, published in early 2017, found white high school students were significantly more likely to express interest in a science career than their black or Hispanic counterparts.

Measured by gender, the Pew questionnaire found that, overall, men got more correct answers than women – the former averaging 7.4, the latter six – but the difference varied by subject. On questions concerning physics and earth science, men did consistently better, but results were pretty much equal for questions concerning life sciences.

In what may come as a surprise to some, conservative Republicans – a group traditionally associated with climate change denial and faith-based worldviews – answered more questions correctly than those towards the middle of the political spectrum.

The same differential was evident for Democrats. Kennedy and Hefferon point out that the finding is consistent with previous research that revealed “partisans to hold similar levels of science knowledge”.

The researchers, however, go on to note that levels of science knowledge do not correlate with positions on various issues, with political self-identity being a stronger determinant of opinion.

They point to earlier Pew research which found that among Democrats with a high level of science knowledge, some 93% thought climate change was due to human activity, compared to 49% of those with low level knowledge.

Among Republicans, high science knowledge did not produce a similar variation – the percentage identifying a human component in global warming was uniformly low.

The authors also counsel against regarding people with high science knowledge as potential supporters for evidence-based policy or positions.

“Levels of science knowledge do not typically have a direct relationship with positions on specific issues,” they write, “such as whether to mandate the vaccine for measles, mumps and rubella for children who attend public schools.”

  1. https://www.pewresearch.org/science/2019/03/28/what-americans-know-about-science/
  2. https://www.pewresearch.org/
  3. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/01/04/among-high-school-seniors-interest-in-science-varies-by-race-ethnicity/
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