Who Is the Weakest Link?

Who is the weakest link? We all are when it comes to science, says new research -- especially women.

It's no secret that the average American knows very little about science. But according to new research, many women are more likely to know the difference between a Libra and an Aquarius than whether the Earth revolves around the sun.

No one is more distressed by this than Florida State researcher Susan Carol Losh, who recently reviewed surveys of basic scientific knowledge conducted by the National Science Foundation. Men and women were asked 10 elementary questions (see chart). Women averaged 6.2 correct answers, men 7.4. "I was absolutely dismayed," says Losh. "I thought that once I took into account the level of education, age, and other factors, that the gap would vanish. But it didn't."

Most startling, women were much less able to answer such grade-school-level questions as whether Earth's center is very
hot, and whether oxygen comes from plants. "Something is going wrong at the grade-school-to-middle-school level," says Losh. She speculates that girls of that age are in the throes of hormonal distractions and focus their attention elsewhere: on boys. "Boys mature a little later, so they're likely to get distracted later."

But what accounts for women's belief in astrology, which 35 percent say is "sort of" a science, as compared with 25 percent of men? Losh believes it's partly because "women are less likely to feel in control of their futures." But she adds that when it comes to pseudoscience, men may be just as clueless. "Researchers always ask about astrology, so women sound like bimbos," she says. "When they ask about time travel and other 'beam me up, Scotty' fantasies, men are more likely to be believers." So why are the Star Trek questions seldom asked? "Most researchers are men," cracks Losh. "They probably believe in time travel themselves."

THE TEST: HOW LITLE WE KNOW This chart shows the percentage of correct responses from 12,000 Americans. Correct answers appear below right. men women MEN WOMEN
1. True or false: The oxygen we breathe comes from plants. 90% 81%
2. True or false: The Earth's center is very hot. 87% 75%
3. True or false: Lasers work by focusing sound waves. 64% 30%
4. True or false: Electrons are smaller than atoms. 59% 41%
5. True or false: The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. 55% 54%
6. True or false: Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. 47% 53%
7. Which travels faster, light or sound? 90% 67%
8. Does Earth go around the sun or does the sun travel around Earth? 84% 68%
9. True or false: Cigarette smoking causes lung cancer. 94% 94%
10. True or false: The continents . . . have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move in the future 86% 78%

ANSWERS: 1. True, 2. True, 3. False, 4. True, 5. False, 6. False, 7. Light, 8. Earth rotates around the sun, 9. True, 10. True