Science and Religion Short Survey Reveals Interesting Quirk

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
May 2 2013 10:30 AM

Lord of All I Survey

Science and religion
How much do you know about science and religion?

Illustration by Shutterstock/ollyy

Last week, a couple of online surveys came to my attention. Both were from the Pew Research Center (a non-profit, respected group); one was about public knowledge of science, the other about religion.

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

If you haven’t taken them, they are very short (13 and 15 questions each) and will literally only take a couple of minutes for you to fill out—they don’t ask for any specific personal info, and the questions are very simply stated. So please, go take them both before you continue reading here.

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<sound of “Jeopardy!” theme>

OK, all done? How did you do?

Bragging time: I got all the answers right, on both quizzes. But, apropos of a test on religion, I have a confession: I guessed on the last religion question; I’m not all that clear on the First Great Awakening (though I knew it wasn’t Billy Graham, so my odds went up to 50/50 for my guess).

I found the questions and results interesting. I’ll note the religious test was given out in 2010 (32 questions were used in the phone survey; only 15 are listed online), but I didn’t find the questions particularly dated.

Not surprisingly, I was pretty confident in the science test, and knew my answers were right. I was shakier on some of the religious questions; I have a broad knowledge of many religions, but specifics not so much. Still, I did well.

Also not surprisingly, Americans didn’t fare so well in the science test (maybe we should make members of Congress pass both tests before being allowed to sit on the House Science Committee). But more interesting is which questions were answered incorrectly, and by what percentage; Pew reports the results.

For example, only 20 percent of the respondents were correct in answering that nitrogen is the most abundant element in our atmosphere (over three times more abundant than oxygen, which I’d guess is what most people think makes up the majority of our air). I think people should know that, in that I think people should have a broad working knowledge of basic science and its principles. On the other hand, it’s not critically important that people know that. It won’t directly impact their lives, for example.

On the other hand, only 58 percent knew that carbon dioxide causes rising temperatures. Global warming is a fantastically important issue, even if you think (incorrectly) it’s not real. Either way, it’s a big political topic, and one our economy (and our very lives) depends on. Yet 42 percent of Americans don’t know the single most basic fact about it.

That’s terrifying.

What I found most fascinating, though, are the percentiles of the overall surveys; that is, how many people got how many correct total. By getting all the science questions right, I did better than 93 percent of the people surveyed (only 7 percent got all 13 questions right). By getting all the religion questions right, I did better than 99 percent of the people surveyed (only 1 percent got them all right).

Mind you, only a few thousand people were surveyed, there was probably no overlap between the two groups, and it’s a small number of questions. Still, this implies something interesting: people know less about religion than science!

I’m not sure how strong an inference to take here. How do you compare the two questions? After all, most Americans are supposed to get a basic science education, but I expect it’s extremely unlikely that most will get a firm basic knowledge of religions other than their own (and sometimes not even then). I’d even bet there’s a bias against it, in fact.

So I wouldn’t read too much into this. It’s just interesting. I suspect the real impact of this survey is personal. What did you get right? What did you get wrong? How important is the distinction to you?

I think there’s always room for more learning, and if these surveys spur that on, even a little bit, then that’s a pretty good thing.

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