Sheril Kirchenbaum at her new blog Culture of Science has a post featuring three bar graphs depicting the correct response rate of males and females to three questions on simple scientific topics.  The data (which can be found in Table 7-4 of the National Science Foundation’s Science and Engineering Indicators) shown here comes from the 2008 version (the survey was also conducted in 2001, 2004, and 2006) of a survey done four times over the last four years asking men and women ten questions of scientific relevance, six in the physical sciences and four in the biological sciences.

Physical Science

Respondents were asked six questions regarding the physical sciences.  Five were true or false and the sixth was actually a complex of two questions in which respondents were asked the second question if they answered the first correctly.  Here are the questions with the answers in parentheses

  1. The center of the Earth is very hot. (True)
  2. All radioactivity is man-made. (False)
  3. Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False)
  4. Electrons are smaller than atoms. (True)
  5. The continents have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move. (True)
  6. Does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth? (Earth around Sun)
    How long does it take for the Earth to go around the Sun? (One year)

Here are the percentage of correct responses:

As is pretty clear from the chart, the men noticeably outperformed the women on all four questions.  As will be seen, the results for the biological science questions are more complicated.

Biological Science

The first two questions regarding biological science are true or false questions whereas the second two are significantly longer.  As above, here are the questions with the answers in parentheses:

  1. It is the father’s gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl. (True)
  2. Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False)
  3. A doctor tells a couple that their genetic makeup means that they’ve got one in four chances of having a child with an inherited illness. (1) Does this mean that if their first child has the illness, the next three will not? (No); (2) Does this mean that each of the couple’s children will have the same risk of suffering from the illness? (Yes)
  4. Two scientists want to know if a certain drug is effective against high blood pressure. The first scientist wants to give the drug to 1,000 people with high blood pressure and see how many of them experience lower blood pressure levels. The second scientist wants to give the drug to 500 people with high blood pressure and not give the drug to another 500 people with high blood pressure, and see how many in both groups experience lower blood pressure levels. Which is the better way to test this drug? Why is it better to test the drug this way? (The second way because a control group is used for comparison)

Here are the responses:

The results for the first two questions is similar to the result for the physical science questions, but in reverse: the females noticeably outperform the males.  On the second two questions, there is a slight difference between the correct response percentage for each sex, with males performing better on the third and females on the fourth.

Looking at the questions themselves, it’s pretty clear that all six physical science questions and the first two biological science questions fall under the category of “science trivia”.  They’re bits of information that one acquires when becoming familiar with the subject.  The last two questions, however, require a bit more understanding of the reasoning involved in science.  True, one has to know the meaning of probability and how a controlled experiment works, but answering those two questions requires a bit more reflection that the rest.

What generalizations can one make from these ten questions?  Well, when it comes to science trivia, men tend to outperform women on physical topics and women likewise outperform men on biological topics.  This supports the age-old folk observation that men and boys tend to be more drawn to the inanimate, while women and girls are more drawn to the living or another generalization that men tend to be more drawn to abstract theoretical topics whereas women tend to prefer to focus on practical knowledge.  Certainly, this is a small dataset and thus doesn’t provide sufficient data to back either generalization, but it is suggestive.

When it comes to the last two questions, it seems that men and women perform comparably well and furthermore, this trend is true for all four years that the questions were asked.  While this gives us even less data than the eight trivia questions, I’d say that it offers support to the notion that there is no noticeable difference in the tendencies of men and women to reason through topics.

In the end, these are broad generalizations pulled from a small dataset, but I do think that the results can tell us something.  A question to ask yourself is whether you would have expected this pattern of results.  If not, it is perhaps time to rethink some of the assumptions you had about men and women.