Test Your Science Smarts

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Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson

Online quizzes that my friends have taken often pop up in my Facebook feed. Their scores, good or bad, are displayed alongside a cheerful invitation to take the quiz myself and then compare my results to everyone else’s. I rarely ever take them and when I do I usually forego publicly posting my results, especially to most knowledge based quizzes - no one needs to know that I can't locate Uzbekistan on a map. On the other hand, a survey where I can check off all the different kind of beers I've tried? Don't mind if I do.

One quiz recently appeared in my feed that I all but jumped at the opportunity to take and proudly broadcast my score. It was The Pew Research Center’s Science & Technology quiz, to which I answered a stunning 13 out of 13 questions correctly. Yes, thank you, hold your applause please. Besides ego boosting, the purpose of the short test is to poll American public knowledge of basic scientific concepts as well as some topics that have been the focus of recent news stories and debate. The test was given over the phone back in March to 1006 men and women representing a span of ages and education levels. In conjunction, a short survey on opinions of science, technology and math (STEM) education was also given to participants. The test and survey were part of a special Smithsonian magazine issue, “How Much Do Americans Know about Science?”.

While answering the questions was fun in and of itself, the most interesting part of taking the quiz for data nerds like myself was the demographic breakdown of results at the end. Some of the points I found most interesting are summarized below but you can read the full report here.

Of the 13 quiz questions, 12 were answered correctly by at least 45 percent of respondents. However, one "textbook science" question seemed to stump most Americans and was correctly answered by just 20 percent of all participants (take the test to see which one!). On the other hand, over 80 percent of all respondents could identify the type of light waves that sunscreen helps to block.

Men, in general, answered more questions correctly than women (insert sad face here), but women did as well or better than men on health related questions.

Older respondents, those aged 65 and above, scored markedly low overall and particularly low on questions concerning relatively new technology such as nanotechnology and lasers. However, they performed well on current event questions about fracking and overuse of antibiotics; on these two questions they did as well or better than their youngest counterparts, those aged 18-29.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, college graduates consistently answered more answers correctly than those participants with a high school education or less. However, in many cases those with college degrees did about as well as participants who had had “some college exposure”.

Other interesting trends came to light when participants were asked their opinions on STEM education. Forty-four percent of survey takers assumed that American youth rank toward the bottom on standardized science tests compared to youth in other developed nations. College graduates seem to have a particularly bleak view; 56 percent of them believe that American youth fall behind other developed nations in science education. Somewhat encouragingly, this is untrue, Americans actually score somewhere in the middle on standardized science tests.

Thirty percent of people believe math needs more emphasis in grades K-12, while 11 percent felt the same way about science.  A little less than half (46 percent) of respondents said young people don't pursue science because it is "too hard", 22 percent believe science is “not useful” (incidentally, 22 percent of survey takers would never be my friend, ever), and 20 percent gave the answer that my Science Club kids often give; science is just “too boring."

So did you take the quiz? Were you surprised by your results? Do you think the number of questions and range of topics covered can give a fair survey of American scientific knowledge?

I'll note here that I also took the Pew Research Center's News IQ quiz afterwards, but I have decided to refrain from making my score public at this time.

Photo: From left to right: Louis Pasteur, Marie Curie, Neil deGrasse Tyson. I bet they would all do pretty well on the quiz.

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