Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding



Although Americans express strong support for science and technology (S&T), most are not very well informed about these subjects. The public's lack of knowledge about basic scientific facts and the scientific process can have far-reaching implications.

  • Knowledge of basic scientific facts and concepts is necessary not only for an understanding of S&T-related issues but also for good citizenship. Knowing how science works—how ideas are investigated and either accepted or rejected—can help people evaluate the validity of various claims they encounter in daily life.
  • Many in the scientific community are concerned that lack of knowledge about S&T may adversely affect the level of government support for research, the number of young people choosing S&T careers, and the public's resistance to miracle cures, get-rich-quick schemes, and other scams.

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Information Sources

Television is still the main source of information about S&T, but the Internet is a strong competitor.

  • In the United States and other countries, most adults pick up information about S&T primarily from watching television, including educational and nonfiction programs, newscasts and newsmagazines, and even entertainment programs.
  • The Internet is having a major impact on how the public gets information about S&T. In 2004, the Internet was the second most popular source of news about S&T, up from fourth place in 2001.
  • The number of households with broadband Internet connections has been growing rapidly. People with broadband are much more likely than those with dial-up connections to view the Internet as an important source of information.
  • The Internet is the preferred source when people are seeking information about specific scientific issues. In 2004, 52% of National Science Foundation survey respondents named the Internet as the place they would go to learn more about a scientific issue such as global warming or biotechnology, up from 44% in 2001.

The media can affect the public's view of scientific issues.

  • Television and other media sometimes miscommunicate science to the public by failing to distinguish between fantasy and reality and by failing to cite scientific evidence when it is needed.
  • A study found that the movie The Day After Tomorrow influenced individuals' opinions about climate change.

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Public Interest in S&T

Evidence about the public's interest in S&T is mixed.

  • Surveys found that S&T ranked 10th of 14 categories of news followed most closely by the public in 2004. 
  • Very few Americans (about 10% of those surveyed) say they are not interested in S&T issues.
  • S&T museums are much more popular in the United States than in other countries. The millions of people who visit science museums each year demonstrate interest in science without necessarily being interested in science-related news.

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Public Knowledge About S&T

Most people do not think they are well informed about S&T. In fact, Americans generally know little about science, but they may be more knowledgeable than citizens of other countries.

  • Many people throughout the world cannot answer simple, science-related questions. Nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. However, U.S. adults may be somewhat more knowledgeable about science than their counterparts in other countries, especially Russia and China.
  • Science knowledge in the United States is not improving. Survey respondents' ability to answer most questions about science has remained essentially unchanged since the 1990s, with one exception: more people now know that antibiotics do not kill viruses. This may be attributable to media coverage of drug-resistant bacteria, an important public health issue.
  • Although the U.S. survey has not shown much change over time in the public's level of knowledge about science, the most recent Eurobarometer does show an increase. The change occurred in almost all countries surveyed; Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands recorded double-digit increases between 1992 and 2005 in the percentage of correct responses to science literacy questions.
  • There is considerable variation in science knowledge across countries in Europe. 
  • Less than half the American population accepts the theory of evolution. Whether and how the theory of evolution is taught in public schools remains one of the most contentious issues in science education.
  • Belief in various forms of pseudoscience is common in both the United States and other countries.

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Public Attitudes About Science-Related Issues

Most Americans have positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T, but some have reservations, including concerns about moral issues. Support for government funding of research is strong.

  • Americans have more positive attitudes about the benefits of S&T than are found in Europe, Russia, and Japan. In recent surveys, 84% of Americans, compared with 52% of Europeans and 40% of Japanese, agreed that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results.
  • A sizeable segment of the U.S. population has some reservations about S&T. For example, in 2004 surveys, more than half of the respondents agreed that "we depend too much on science and not enough on faith," that "scientific research these days doesn't pay enough attention to the moral values of society," and that "scientific research has created as many problems for society as it has solutions." However, agreement with the last two statements declined in recent years.
  • In 2004, 83% of Americans surveyed agreed that "even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research that advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the federal government." Support is also strong in Europe and Asia.

Recent surveys on topics ranging from the environment to nanotechnology reveal a variety of perceptions and concerns.

  • Attitudes toward environmental protection have been shifting in recent years. In 2005, 53% of survey respondents viewed environmental protection as more important than economic growth, and 36% held the opposite view. The percentage choosing the environment rose 6 percentage points between 2003 and 2005, after declining steadily from a peak of 69% in 2000 to an all-time low of 47% in 2003.
  • Most Americans know little about genetically modified food and related issues. Although attitudes are divided, opposition to introducing genetically modified food into the U.S. food supply declined between 2001 and 2004. However, the vast majority of Americans (and others) believe that genetically modified food should be labeled.
  • Opposition to medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos has declined. In 2004, 36% of those surveyed said they were opposed to this type of research, down from 51% in 2002.
  • Most people have never heard of nanotechnology. Americans are somewhat concerned about the risks, but most believe the benefits will outweigh the risks. The biggest concern is loss of privacy from tiny new surveillance devices.

Most people have confidence in the scientific community and a high opinion of science as an occupation.

  • Since 2002, more people have expressed confidence in the leadership of the scientific community than in any other profession except the military.
  • Scientists share (with doctors) the top spot in the Harris poll of occupations having the most prestige; engineers are about in the middle of this ranking. Most Americans say they would be happy if their son or daughter chose a career in science.
National Science Board.