Chapter 8:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Chapter Overview  top

Most Americans have highly positive attitudes toward science and technology. There is strong support for government investment in basic research, and Americans also appreciate technological advancements, especially rapidly expanding communication capabilities such as the Internet, which have permeated-and are having a pervasive impact on-an ever expanding number of daily living activities.

The news about science literacy is less positive. Americans do not seem to know much about science, especially the scientific process. Moreover, the prevalence of scientific illiteracy, or a dearth of critical thinking skills, may mean that many Americans are not adept at making, or adequately prepared to make, well-informed choices at the ballot box or in their personal lives.

Most Americans rely on television and newspapers as their major sources of information. Although the media can be commended for providing more access to more information than ever before, there is some concern that the press-with more cooperation from the science and engineering community-could do a better job of informing the public about science and technology and their contribution to economic prosperity, national security, and the health and well-being of society. In addition, the increase in information has led to "information pollution" or the presentation of fiction as fact in a growing number of television shows. The fact that many Americans are having trouble distinguishing between the two has caught the attention of the science-and science policy-community, where concern about the state of scientific literacy has never been higher. A technological society, one that is increasingly dependent on the intellectual capacity of its citizens, cannot afford to ignore ignorance.

Chapter Organization  top

This chapter begins with a discussion of the public's interest in, and knowledge about, science and technology. The level of interest in science and technology is an indicator of both the visibility of the science and engineering community's work and the relative importance accorded science and technology by society. The first section also contains data on the level of public understanding of basic science concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry and information on the level of interest and understanding in other countries.

In the second section, public attitudes toward science and technology are examined. Data on public attitudes toward Federal funding of scientific research and public confidence in the science community are included. In addition, this section contains information on public perceptions of the benefits and harms (or costs) of scientific research, nuclear power, genetic engineering, space exploration, and the use of animals in scientific research.

The third section is devoted to a discussion of computer usage, which is a relatively new way for the public to have access to information about science and technology. The fourth section covers findings from a recent study on science and the media. Finally, concerns about belief in paranormal phenomena are examined in the last section of this chapter.

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