About eight-in-ten Americans (83%) identify ultraviolet as the type of radiation that sunscreen protects against. Nearly as many (77%) know that the main concern about the overuse of antibiotics is that it can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria.
However, only about half (51%) of the public knows that “fracking” is a process that extracts natural gas, not coal, diamonds or silicon from the earth.
Similarly, knowledge of basic scientific concepts differs greatly across questions. While most Americans (78%) know that the basic function of red blood cells is to carry oxygen to all parts of the body, just 20% could identify nitrogen as the gas that makes up most of the atmosphere.
The quiz is part of a nationwide survey, conducted March 7-10 among 1,006 adults, which also probed opinions and perceptions about science and math in education. The survey was conducted with Smithsonian magazine for an edition focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education (see “How Much Do Americans Know about Science?”).
The public underestimates how well American high school students perform on standardized science tests compared with students in other developed nations. A plurality (44%) believes that 15-year-olds in other developed nations outrank U.S. students in knowledge of science; according to an international student assessment, U.S. 15-year-olds are in the middle ranks of developed nations in science knowledge.
Nearly half of Americans (46%) say that the main reason that many young people do not pursue degrees in math and science is mostly because they think these subjects are too hard; just 22% say it is mostly because young people think math and science are not useful for their careers while 20% say it is because they think these subjects are too boring. Women (54%) are more likely than men (37%) to say that the main reason young people do not pursue math and science degrees is because they think these subjects are too difficult.
The survey asked an open-ended question about what one subject K-12 schools should emphasize more these days; 30% of respondents say math; 19% say English, grammar or writing, while 11% say science; and 10% say history, social studies or government. Overall, 45% mention some aspect of science, technology, engineering or mathematics.