The XX Factor

Men Are From Space, Women Are From the Local Drugstore

Last week, the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), released a survey comparing how scientists and the general public view science . Lots of juicy nuggets were picked up in news stories- the difference between the public’s opinion of scientists and scientists’ opinion of the public, clashes on hot-button issues such as global warming, and the public’s view of the preeminance of American science .

But no one reported on the gap in science literacy between men and women . To measure general science knowledge, non-scientists were given a 12-question survey on basic science. (If you want to take the quiz yourself before reading further, go here .) Questions included “textbook” basic science facts (Is an electron bigger than an atom?) and “contemporary” science news questions (Scientists believe what gas causes global temperatures to rise?).

Overall, men answered 8.1 questions correctly, while women lagged at 7.4. Even when accounting for age and education (people 30-49 and people with the most education did best), men got more questions right than women. The biggest differences were on questions about lasers and Mars, those tropes of babes-in-space-bikinis sci-fi novels. Only 37 percent of women knew that lasers do not work by focusing sound, compared to 57 percent of men. And just over half of women (54 percent) knew that water had been recently discovered on Mars, compared to 69 percent of men.

The three questions in which women did better than men related to health. Women knew that aspirin prevents heart attacks (94 percent to men’s 89 percent), that stem cells could develop into many kinds of cells (54 percent to men’s 51 percent) and that antibiotics do not kill viruses (59 percent to men’s 49 percent).

Before I speculate on the reasons behind our delicate ladybrains containing less science, I want to note that the report did not provide obvious (at least, I couldn’t find them) measures of statistical significance. For example, if the standard error is plus or minus 2 percentage points, there might be no actual difference between men’s or women’s understanding of stem cells. However, a difference of 20 percentage points, as in the laser question, is certainly significant.

So why did women do worse than men in all but the health questions? Do men follow the science and technology news, supplementing Popular Mechanics with contemplation of laser-wielding Martians? Is Dr. Mom, that stalwart of TV pharmaceutical ads, a real life phenomenon? Or is the stereotype that women are the caretakers of their family’s health but just don’t care about hard science self-fulfilling?

I am totally in love with science and lasers so frankly I have no idea. Double X readers, you are smart and well-read people who are not necessarily into science. What do you think?