September 15, 2015

The race gap in science knowledge

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t already done so, test yourself with our new Science Knowledge Quiz.

Science Knowledge Varies by Race, EthnicityThere is a significant gap in knowledge about scientific concepts along racial and ethnic lines in the U.S., according to a new Pew Research Center report released last week.

When asked a series of 12 science-related questions, whites, on average, fared better than blacks or Hispanics. While the average number of questions whites answer correctly is 8.4, for Hispanics that number is lower – 7.1 – and drops to 5.9 for blacks. (There were not enough Asian respondents in the sample to be broken out into a separate analysis.)

Our latest findings are consistent with previous Pew Research surveys and with data from the General Social Survey (GSS) conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. These differences tend to span multiple scientific disciplines, from life and earth sciences to physics and energy-related questions.

But why is this? Research suggests there might be several factors at play, and they often are interconnected. Educational attainment – such as the different shares of blacks and whites to have college degrees – may be one. Another issue might relate to the underrepresentation of blacks and Hispanics in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) workforce. And access to science information may also play a role in how well people cultivate an understanding of the subject.

Our report finds that, overall, Americans with more formal education fare better on science-related questions. Whites are more likely than blacks and Hispanics to hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree and whites also make up a larger share of science and engineering bachelor’s degree recipients. Some 63% of science and engineering degrees awarded in 2011 went to white students, compared with roughly 10% to Hispanics and 9% to blacks, according to a report by the National Science Board.

But there’s evidence that differences among racial and ethnic groups are seen at the elementary and high school level, too. Although achievement test gaps have narrowed somewhat over time, in general, black and Hispanic students continue to perform lower than whites and Asians on standardized tests. For example, among eighth graders, the average science score on the 2011 National Assessment of Educational Progress test was 152. Blacks’ and Hispanics’ average scores are lower, 129 and 137, while whites (163) and Asians and Pacific Islanders (159) fared better than the national average. According to another report, black and Hispanic high school students also are less likely than whites or Asians to take advanced science courses.

Mark Berends, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame, said if performance gaps persist throughout students’ academic careers, it follows that you could see disparities persist in higher education, employment and knowledge of certain subjects. Berends also explained that parents’ comfort level with science may influence how much interest a child shows in the subject. “A parent’s education level and familiarity with scientific subjects help bring kids’ imagination to life,” he said.

Another related factor may be that blacks and Hispanics are less likely to work in scientific fields. That might mean they have less exposure to scientific research and information. Historically, the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics have been predominately white and male and there is considerable effort in recent years to create initiatives encouraging a more diverse STEM workforce.

Cheryl Leggon, associate professor in the School of Public Policy at Georgia Institute of Technology, believes that this lack of diversity may influence blacks’ and Hispanics’ interest in science and science careers. “If we see someone that looks like us, then it does have an impact on us, in terms of our interest,” Leggon said. Greater diversity in these fields may give blacks and Hispanics a sense that a career in science could be a viable option for them, she said.

Even with efforts to improve diversity in STEM fields, blacks and Hispanics are consistently underrepresented. According to a 2013 U.S. Census Bureau report, blacks made up 11% of the total workforce in 2011, yet they only occupied 6% of STEM jobs. A similar pattern is seen with Hispanics, who make up 15% of the overall labor force, but held 7% of jobs related to STEM fields.

The census report also found that whites and Asians are overrepresented in the STEM workforce when compared with their total workforce populations. About two-thirds (67%) of the total workforce was white in 2011, but whites made up a higher share of STEM employees, at 71%. For Asians, the difference is larger: 15% of STEM workers were Asian, compared with 6% of the overall workforce.

Eric Plutzer, a political science professor at the Pennsylvania State University, said one factor is the “complex relationship between science and the African-American community.” Plutzer, who wrote about racial gaps in attitudes about science, explained that the legacy of the Tuskegee and Henrietta Lacks experiments are often in the background when it comes to African Americans’ confidence in science professionals and institutions. His analysis of GSS survey data found that while 45% of white adults express a great deal of confidence in the people running the scientific community, that share falls to 31% for blacks.

Lower literacy rates among black and Hispanic adults may also contribute to the ability to correctly answer science knowledge questions. These groups’ relatively low participation rates in clinical trials could be another factor that affects familiarity with scientific issues, while cultural dynamics, including language barriers, also may contribute to disparities in science knowledge.

Shirley Malcom, director of education and human resources programs at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said that science reporting in the Spanish language is not as widely available as it is in English media, which may hinder some people from obtaining information about science.

Malcom also suggested that racial disparities in science knowledge is not about a lack of interest by blacks and Hispanics, but has more to do with access to information. She said the scientific community and science news media could reach out more to these communities to help make science “more accessible and relevant to their lives.”

Topics: Education, Race and Ethnicity, Public Knowledge, Science and Innovation

  1. Photo of Monica Anderson

    is a research associate focusing on internet, science and technology at Pew Research Center.


  1. Anonymous1 year ago

    Found a multivariate model to explain the 15% gap in life expectancy that exists by ethnicity in America.…

    Correlated with educational attainment.

  2. Brian2 years ago

    I realize this is month old, but I’m surprised no one else has pointed this out.

    How is “who developed the polio vaccine?” a science question? That’s a history fact. A science question would be “how do vaccines protect against disease?” Science is about understanding how reality works, not knowing who the first person to figure it out was.

    1. Mike2 years ago

      It was a trick question. The *real* question was “did marie curie, albert einstein or isaac newton have anything whatsoever to do with the polio vaccine”.

  3. Dawn2 years ago

    One factor could be classroom time to engage with learning science, especially at the elementary level. The higher percentage of black students who are labeled special ed is documented and often those students are pulled out of classrooms for additional work on reading and math outside of those class times, so probably during science or social studies instructional time. That costs the opportunity to engage with that content, which is unfortunate because not only do they miss the material, they also miss the opportunity to experience activities and information that may be an area of interest or virtuosity.

  4. reginald hill2 years ago

    take a second look.blacks and hispanics do take science education.

    1. Joe Dubya1 year ago

      Of course. I got nine correct answers and I’m Hispanic. I had a STEM job at one point.

  5. Mark2 years ago

    Would be interesting to compare the educational and income levels of the whites who did badly, to those of the blacks and Hispanics who did poorly. Continuing to blame “race” for poor performance and underachievement ignores the economic system that creates and reinforces the racism that results in poor access to education, benefit and privilege.

  6. Beth2 years ago

    I do so agree with R Isaiah Cl’s comment. Just visit a few elementary, middle and high schools that have minimum 85% white kids and some that have minimum 85% blacks. In the former you’ll often find well-kept and/or newer buildings and equipment, more experienced teachers and other adults, fewer students per teacher and generally better discipline. This is the number one reason for lower accomplishment in science as well as other fields. Teachers have less time to teach. Politics is to blame; none of this is the kids’ fault.

    Other important factors are indeed the (average) educational levels of white and black parents as well as poverty and community expectations. Simply put, all of it comes down to racism.

    1. Tom2 years ago

      I disagree. The reason those schools with more white students have better facilities with better teachers and overall discipline is because those communities have more money. They have more money because more of the citizens that live in that zone work. Black communities are filled with people that don’t work and thus their community doesn’t have money to create the facilities needed to mold productive students. It’s a vicious cycle that starts with the breakdown, or never was, of the black family. Until blacks realize that a good solid family with moral upbringing is the key to success and they stop calling successful blacks uncle toms they will get no where.

  7. Johnny Pranke2 years ago

    Groups of people with recent hunter-gatherer ancestry score lower on measures of intelligence than groups who were subject to intense evolutionary pressure over thousands of years for their propensity to plan for the future and sustain themselves through freezing, unforgiving winters? Shocking I tell you! Absolutely shocking.

  8. R Isaiah Cl2 years ago

    I believe it has nothing to do with the lack of representation of blacks in STEM fields and more to do with the relationship between the entire public (K-12) education system and the black community – as Eric Plutzer somewhat hints at. All of those questions are topics that are covered in K-12. (Okay, maybe 6th-12th grades.) Anyway, for whatever reason, black children are not learning the material as the progress through the system. Therefore, the black children of yesterday become the adults of today who are reflected in this study.

    1. Art2 years ago

      Since most of the information used in the pole was pretty much 8th grade stuff in any school, perhaps these results are more related to cultural/societal issues rather than purely educational. It has been long considered for instance that Chinese think differently than Europeans, Japanese think differently than Indians, North Americans think differently than South Americans, etc.

      Not to say one culture is more intelligent than another, just saying that it is possible that our cultural brains are perhaps wired differently making different cultures better at some things than another culture. This is a phenomena that perhaps makes this world so wonderfully diverse.