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Indicators 2002
Introduction Overview Chapter 1: Elementary and Secondary Education Chapter 2: Higher Education in Science and Engineering Chapter 3: Science and Engineering Workforce Chapter 4: U.S. and International Research and Development: Funds and Alliances Chapter 5: Academic Research and Development Chapter 6: Industry, Technology, and the Global Marketplace Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding Chapter 8: Significance of Information Technology Appendix Tables
Chapter Contents:
Public Interest in and Knowledge of S&T
Public Attitudes Toward S&T, Scientific Research, Federal Funding of Scientific Research, and Specific Science-Related Issues
Public Image of the Science Community
Where Americans Get Information About S&T
Science Fiction and Pseudoscience
Selected Bibliography
Appendix Tables
List of Figures
Presentation Slides

Click for Figure 7-18
Figure 7-18

Click for Figure 7-19
Figure 7-19

Click for Figure 7-20
Figure 7-20

Science and Technology:  Public Attitudes and Public Understanding

Where Americans Get Information About S&T

Science on the Internet
Science on Television
Science in Newspapers and Museums

Science on the Internet top of page

Has the Internet displaced television and the print media as Americans' primary source of news about current events or S&T? According to a 2000 Pew Research Center survey, the Internet is making inroads. Apparently, part of the time Americans used to spend watching the news broadcasts of ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox is now being used to browse various news-oriented websites. (See sidebar "More Americans Are Turning to the Internet for News.") In addition, people who have access to the Internet at home seem to know more about science and the scientific process and have more positive attitudes toward S&T. (See sidebar "Internet Access Is an Indicator of Both Attitudes Toward and Knowledge of S&T.")

Despite its growing popularity, the Internet ranks a distant third as Americans' chief source of news in general. Only 7 percent of respondents to the NSF survey identified it as their main source of information about what is happening in the world around them. In contrast, 53 percent of those surveyed identified television, and 29 percent said that they got most of their information about current news events from newspapers. The corresponding statistics for radio and magazines are 5 and 3 percent, respectively. (See figure 7-19 figure and appendix table 7-42.)

Although 9 percent of respondents to the 2001 NSF survey said that the Internet was their main source of information about S&T, this percentage is still substantially below the percentage of respondents who identified television (44 percent), newspapers (16 percent), and magazines (16 percent) as their primary source of S&T news. (See figure 7-19 figure and appendix table 7-43.)

The Internet, however, is the preferred source when seeking information about specific scientific issues. The following question was asked in the 2001 NSF survey: "If you wanted to learn more about a scientific issue such as global warming or biotechnology, how would you get more information?"

The response to this question makes it clear that encyclopedias and every other information resource have lost a substantial number of customers to the Internet. A plurality (44 percent) of those surveyed chose the Internet as the resource they would use to look up information on the two scientific issues. About half as many (24 percent) chose books or other printed material. No other source, for example, magazines (8 percent), television (6 percent), or newspapers (4 percent), scored above 10 percent. (See figure 7-19 figure and appendix table 7-44.)

Although it is safe to conclude that the Internet is affecting what Americans know about S&T, it is also true that what most of them know about the latest developments in these subjects comes primarily from watching television.

Science on Television top of page

When most people think about science on television, their first thoughts are probably about educational series, like NOVA, on Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) programming, or programs aimed at children, such as Bill Nye the Science Guy. In addition, most U.S. households now have access to cable television or satellite systems (see appendix table 7-45), so many Americans are also aware of the Discovery Channel and its mostly science-related offerings.[42] Although programs and documentaries on PBS and the Discovery Channel are highly regarded, their audiences are relatively small. (See appendix table 7-46.) Other types of programming such as evening and morning news broadcasts and news magazines like 60 Minutes, 20/20, and Dateline reach far more people. Therefore, most television viewers are exposed to information about S&T from news shows and news magazines that occasionally cover these subjects.[43]

In response to the 2001 NSF survey, 90 percent of adults said they watched television news reports or news shows every day (63 percent) or a few times a week (27 percent).[44] (See appendix table 7-47.) In addition, 31 percent said that they watched television news magazines like 60 Minutes, 20/20, or Dateline regularly or most of the time, and 52 percent said that they watched those shows occasionally.[45] (See appendix table 7-46.) These television news magazines can be a leading source of news about science for the public, including members of Congress; for example, a 60 Minutes segment on cloning humans was shown at the beginning of a March 28, 2001, hearing held by the Oversight and Investigations Subcommittee of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

According to the 2001 NSF survey, 8 percent of Americans watch NOVA regularly or most of the time, and 29 percent watch the series occasionally. Twenty-two percent said they regularly watched public television programs other than NOVA, and 49 percent said they occasionally watched such programs.[46] Not surprisingly, a positive relationship exists between watching NOVA (as well as other PBS programs) and level of formal education. For example, 15 percent of those who had a graduate or professional degree said they watched NOVA regularly, compared with 11 percent of those who had only a bachelor's degree, 7 percent of those who had only a high school degree, and 4 percent of those who had not graduated from high school. Those who had a bachelor's or higher degree were also more likely than others to watch other PBS programs. (See appendix table 7-46). In response to a Pew Research Center survey, 37 percent said that they regularly watched documentaries on cable channels such as the History Channel or the Discovery Channel. More men (43 percent) than women (31 percent) said that they watched these shows.

Science in Newspapers and Museums top of page

The decline in newspaper readership during the past decade has been well documented. According to the NSF survey, the percentage of all adults who read a newspaper every day dropped from 57 percent in 1990 to 41 percent in 1999. The decline is apparent at all education levels and continued for the less-than-high-school-education group through 2001. However, newspaper readership among the other three education groups either rose or stayed the same between 1999 and 2001, indicating that the overall decline in newspaper readership may have leveled off in recent years.[47] (See figure 7-20 figure and appendix table 7-48.)

Sixty-six percent of those surveyed in 2001 reported that they had visited a science or technology museum at least once during the past year, the highest level of museum attendance ever recorded by the NSF survey. Museum attendance is positively related to formal education and attentiveness to S&T. (See appendix tables 7-45, 7-49, and 7-50.)


[42]  In March 2000, a two-hour special on the Discovery Channel, "Raising the Mammoth," drew 10.1 million viewers, the largest audience for a documentary in the history of basic cable television. Although a sequel, "Land of the Mammoth," attracted an audience only half the size of the original, that was still a laudable showing for a basic cable program (Carter 2001).

[43]  Science also shows up in entertainment programming, for example, children conducting science experiments on Late Night with David Letterman, or in an occasional storyline in a long-running show like Friends in which one of the characters is a research scientist. Also, each episode of The West Wing usually contains a science-related storyline. Because shows like these draw such large audiences, their conveying of information about science and science policy should not be discounted. They provide information and shape attitudes. A recent example of the influence of television on public opinion illustrates this point. During the 2000 presidential campaign, it was hard not to notice that a lot of voters were getting political news from entertainment talk shows, not just those on Sunday morning or the cable news networks or Nightline. Almost all major candidates felt compelled to do the talk show circuit, to appear on the Late Show with David Letterman, the Tonight Show, or the Oprah Winfrey Show, because of the growing recognition that their appearances on such shows proved to be an effective way of reaching Americans who do not watch the news or read a newspaper (Pfau et al. 2001).

[44]  According to another survey (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2000b), the percentage of Americans who report watching a nightly network news program has been declining significantly for more than a decade, from 71 percent in 1987 to 65 percent in 1995, 59 percent in 1998, and 50 percent in 2000.

[45]  According to the Pew Research Center survey, the percentage of Americans who say they regularly watch news magazines such as 20/20 and Dateline dropped from 37 percent in 1998 to 31 percent in 2000. Audiences for the three network morning shows also decreased, but by a smaller amount, during the past two years.

[46]  According to the Pew Research Center survey, PBS viewership has remained stable.

[47]  Data from the Pew Research Center also show a recent leveling off in the decline in newspaper readership. Data from the center show 47 percent of whites reading a daily newspaper compared with 37 percent of blacks and 32 percent of Hispanics. However, blacks are somewhat more likely (60 percent) than whites (56 percent) to watch TV news. In addition, weekly news magazines, such as Time and Newsweek, have lost readers. In 2000, only 12 percent reported that they regularly read a news magazine; the corresponding statistics in 1996 and 1993 were 15 and 24 percent, respectively.

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