Chapter 8:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Americans express a high level of interest in science and technology. Despite this interest, they lack confidence in their knowledge of these subjects; in 1999, only 17 percent thought they were well informed about science and technology. Those with more years of formal education and those who have taken more courses in science and mathematics are more likely than others to express a high level of interest in science and technology and to believe that they are well informed about them.

Data on science literacy in the United States indicate that most Americans do not know a lot about science and technology. The percentage of correct responses to a battery of questions designed to assess the level of knowledge about, and understanding of, science terms and concepts has not changed appreciably in the past few years. In addition, approximately three-quarters of Americans do not understand the nature of scientific inquiry. Individuals with more years of formal schooling and who have taken more courses in science and mathematics were more likely than others to provide correct responses to the science literacy questions.

Americans have highly positive attitudes toward science and technology, strongly support the Federal Government’s investment in basic research, and have high regard for the science community. However, some individuals harbor reservations, especially about technology and its effect on society. In addition, the use of nuclear energy and the use of dogs and chimpanzees in scientific research do not have widespread support. Also, a sizeable minority of the public questions the value of the space program; however, support has been gaining ground in recent years. Finally, in the past few years, new pockets of concern about genetic engineering have arisen among the well-educated and those most attentive to medical issues.

Americans get most of their information about public policy issues from television news and newspapers. There is widespread consensus—among both scientists and journalists—that important information about science and technology and their value to society is not reaching the public. In addition, the media have come under criticism, especially by scientists, for sometimes providing a distorted view of science and the scientific process, and thus contributing to scientific illiteracy.

Computers and computer technology represent a relatively new way of acquiring information, including information about science and technology. Computer usage—including access to the Internet and the use of e-mail—has skyrocketed. This phenomenon is thoroughly explored in chapter 9, "Significance of Information Technologies."

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