Saturday, March 26, 2011

Republicans are more scientifically literate than Democrats or independents are

++Addition++Razib looks at the same by political orientation (liberal/moderate/conservative) and finds liberals and conservatives to be pretty much at parity when it comes to scientific literacy, with moderates markedly less well versed. He then ran logistic regressions to look at how specific dependent variables correlate with scientific literacy. Education and intelligence consistently predict better performance (unsurprisingly).


It is often insinuated by major media sources that Republicans are less scientifically literate than Democrats are, primarily because of the former's skepticism over evolution and opposition to taxpayer funding of embryonic stem cell research. Jason Malloy dispelled this notion several years ago, but I wanted to present the GSS data on the topic in a more concrete and packaged form.

The following table shows differences in responses to the science module of items deployed by the GSS during 2004 and 2006* by partisan identification. Some of the questions are inverted for viewer ease so that in all cases, the higher the percentage, the more knowledgeable the group is. The gold-silver-bronze color scheme doesn't work too well on a white background, so green indicates the highest level of relative knowledge, black the middling amount, and red the lowest quantity:

Astrology is not scientific64.3%55.7%75.1%
The benefits of science exceed the harms73.3%66.2%78.0%
Understands the need for control groups in testing79.8%81.4%82.1%
The earth's core is very hot94.2%92.6%94.6%
Demonstrates a basic understanding of probability87.9%90.0%91.8%
Not all radioactivity is man-made79.2%78.5%85.9%
Father, not mother, determines a child's sex72.0%74.7%77.3%
Lasers are not made by condensing sound waves63.4%70.9%75.1%
Electrons are smaller than atoms71.4%71.3%72.8%
Antibiotics do not kill viruses55.7%55.4%65.8%
Continental drift has and continues to occur90.1%90.6%87.9%
Humans evolved from other animals57.6%50.7%41.5%
The earth revolves around the sun79.2%73.9%81.5%
It takes the earth one year to rotate around the sun75.8%78.8%78.9%
Respondent will eat genetically modified foods66.1%69.4%73.1%
The north pole is on a sheet of ice67.0%59.7%63.4%
Not all man-made chemicals cause cancer when eaten46.6%46.4%52.6%
Exposure to radioactivity doesn't necessarily lead to death67.5%67.1%77.0%
Exposure to pesticides doesn't necessarily cause cancer55.5%57.9%66.8%

The media insinuation is applicable when the issue is evolution, but for the rest of science, there is scant evidence to support the assertion that Republicans are more ignorant than Democrats and independents are. To the contrary, Republicans tend to be better informed.

The table includes all respondents, not just whites, in part because that is how the debate is framed (and so often Republicans would be able to use this to their rhetorical advantage if they were deft enough to) and in part because I'm planning future posts where the same items are considered by race and sex.

* With the exception of the last three questions, which were asked in 1993, 1994, and 2000.



Olave d'Estienne said...

One in three Democrats thinks they can avoid genetically-modified foods? That only dismayed me until I saw how many of them think EM radiation is 100% anthropogenic and carcinogenic.

Wm Jas said...

Wait, so only 73.9% of independents know that the earth goes round the sun, but 78.8% know that it takes one year to do so? How does that work?

Audacious Epigone said...


Right. When a question is asked in such an absolute way, the smart answer is false, almost irrespective of the content of the question being asked.

Wm Jas,

Yeah, I wondered the same thing. It looks like the time for the earth to revolve around the sun was asked after the question on geocentrism/heliocentrism, and it was multiple choice (one day, one month, one year).

OneSTDV said...

The table includes all respondents, not just whites, in part because that is how the debate is framed (and so often Republicans would be able to use this to their rhetorical advantage if they were deft enough to)

Isn't that ironic.

Fenris said...

It would be interesting to see a break down of liberals vs conservatives by race as thats huge confound here.

Audacious Epigone said...


Right, no question. And I will. I'm currently working on the same by race, and the expected white-NAM gap exists.

Anonymous said...

Astrology is as scientific as a ton of shit they teach in our social sciences departments around the country. It's an intersection of fractal cosmology and Jungian psychology, pop astrology of sign horoscopes notwithstanding.

Wegie said...

"It takes the earth one year to rotate around the sun."
The earth does not rotate around the sun, it rotates around it's axis. Which takes 24 hours.
The earth revolves around the sun whick takes 1 year.

SteveBrooklineMA said...

Yipe. The most surprising to me is "Not all man-made chemicals cause cancer when eaten" Half the people out there think every single man-made chemical causes cancer?

What the heck is the size of the electron? Is this notion even well defined within quantum mechanics? The electron question seems vastly more difficult than the others.

Audacious Epigone said...


As someone who has spent many hours trolling through the GSS, let me assure you that it has a fair share of sub-optimal word choice and grammatical correctness. But the content the questioner is getting at (almost always?) is.

Steve Brookline,

From high school physics class, that's the diagram I have in my head. Don't grill me on anything beyond the conventional knowledge, though, please!

raptros-v76 said...

For the electron/atom question, note that electrons can be contained within atoms, note that atoms have mass, and note that a system composed of elements that have mass has a mass that is the sum of the components; if the mass of an electron was larger than that of any atom it could be associated with, there would be a contradiction.

Harriet said...

It would be interesting to see a breakdown by educational level; D's attract more lower income voters.

Of course, most categories are close but evolution isn't.

Hypnos said...

Climate change is also missing. The party divide would be even bigger there.

Maya said...

Is there a reason you left out the questions about evolution (Humans evolved from animals) and the big bang, both of which show democrats significantly more likely to give the correct answers?

Maya said...

Ooops; the eovlution question was on your list. SOrry 'bout that.

Audacious Epigone said...


Unfortunately, the GSS doesn't address CAGW beyond asking silly questions like how much business leaders know about climate change, etc.

Matthew Ota said...

"It takes the earth one year to rotate around the sun"....

Wrong! You re making a common error in astronomy. The earth does not "rotate" around the Sun. It revolves around the Sun.

The Earth rotates around it's axis, it takes 24 hours to do so.

The Earth revolves around the Sun in an orbit whose period is 365.25 days.

Audacious Epigone said...


Yeah, it's a coding error on the part of the GSS. The variable is SOLARREV (REV as in "revolve"), yet the actual text of the question uses "rotate" instead of revolve, which could cause some confusion.

Anonymous said...

Almost everyday ( I have a lot of free time because of a health condition and read a lot ) I discover new evidence that contradicts what our liberal media, our liberal hollywood , our liberal academia and of course our liberal politicians assure us is the absolute truth.

and this in turn only proves that it is true that we are being brainwahsed daily by a liberal establishement.

How else can you explain that millions of people believe things that are not so?

If one has to spend hours digging trough non-liberal internet sites to find the real facts and figures, doesn't that confirm that the people in charge ( liberals of course, they even rule the United nations ) are working really hard to conceal facts that will not help them?

it also exposes their hypocrisy...

Alliumnsk said...

Unfortunately, in all of these questions the smart answer is yes.

So can we really say that Republicans tend to be better informed, rather than answering positively to a question on which they're unsure about?
This needs to be re-done separately on question groups where the smart answer is "yes", and where it is "no".

ncdave4life said...

Technically, it is not true that "The north pole is on a sheet of ice."

It is commonly said that the north pole is covered with ice, but, technically, the north pole is neither "on" nor "under" the ice sheet, for two reasons:

1. The "north pole" is simply a latitude: 90°N. Saying that the north pole is "on ice" makes no more sense than saying that most of the equator is "on water."

2. Occasionally there's open water there. Here's a photo: