In international comparisons, U.S. scores on two science knowledge questions are significantly lower than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked. Americans were less likely to answer true to the following scientific knowledge questions: “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of ani- mals” and “the universe began with a huge explosion.” In the United States, 43% of GSS respondents answered true to the first question in 2006, about the same percentage as in every year (except one) that the question has been asked. In other countries and in Europe, the comparable figures were substantially larger: 78% in Japan, 70% in China and Europe, and more than 60% in South Korea. Only in Russia did less than half of respondents (44%) answer true. Among the indi- vidual countries covered in the 2005 Eurobarometer survey, only Turkey’s percentage answering true to this question was lower than the U.S. percentage (Miller, Scott, and Okamoto 2006). Similarly, Americans were less likely than other survey respondents (except the Chinese) to answer true to the big bang question. In the most recent surveys, less than 40% of Americans answered this question correctly compared with over 60% of Japanese and South Korean survey respondents.
Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the big bang appear to reflect factors beyond unfamiliarity with basic elements of science. The 2004 Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes administered two different versions of these questions to different groups of respondents. Some were asked questions that tested knowledge about the natural world (“human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “the universe began with a big explosion”). Others were asked questions that tested knowledge about what a scientific theory asserts or a group of scientists believes (“according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals” and “according to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion”). Respondents were much more likely to answer correctly if the question was framed as being about scientific theories or ideas rather than as about the natural world. When the question about evolution was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution,” 74% answered true; only 42% answered true when it was not. Similarly, 62% agreed with the prefaced question about the big bang, but only 33% agreed when the prefatory phrase was omitted. These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas, even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas.