Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Information Sources, Interest, and Perceived Knowledge

People get news and information about S&T from a variety of sources. However, television is where most adults throughout the world find out about the latest S&T developments. Although the Internet is not the leading source of news for Americans, it is the only medium that has been gaining viewers in recent years, and it is now the first place people go to get information about specific S&T subjects (figure 7-1 figure.; appendix tables 7-1 Excel table., 7-2 Excel table., and 7-3 Excel table.).

Although most Americans claim to be at least moderately interested in S&T, few science-related news stories attract much public interest. In addition, few people feel well informed about new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies.

This section takes a detailed look at the various sources of news and information about S&T in the United States and other countries, focusing on television as the longstanding leading source and the Internet as a powerful competitor. The section also examines indicators of both the public's interest in S&T and how well informed people feel about S&T.

S&T Information Sources: Television Leads Worldwide

For decades now, television has been the top source of news and information in most U.S. households. (See sidebar, "Television and Other Forms of Popular Culture Influence What Adults Know and Think About Science.") The same holds true for other countries. However, the Internet has been gaining ground as a competing source of news and information for an increasing number of people throughout the world.

In the United States, in 2004, about half (51%) of those responding to an NSF-sponsored survey named television as their leading source of news about current events in general, about the same as the number (53%) recorded in 2001. In both years, newspapers and the Internet ranked second and third, respectively. However, the percentage of respondents naming newspapers as their main source of news about current events in general declined from 29% in 2001 to 22% in 2004. At the same time, those citing the Internet increased, from 7% to 12%. In fact, the Internet has been the only news medium to grow in popularity in recent years (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

When survey respondents were asked about their leading source of news about S&T, television once again came in first, with 41% naming it in 2004. (The comparable statistic for 2001 was 44%.) The Internet was a distant second (18%), followed by newspapers (14%) and magazines (also 14%).[2] Between 2001 and 2004, the Internet went from being the fourth most popular source of news about S&T to being the second (figure 7-2 figure.).

When people get information about science from television, they tend to do so inadvertently. That is, they pick up tidbits about science and science-related issues from watching the news or other programs that are not specifically about science (the exception would be viewers who purposefully seek out science programs such as Nova). In contrast, obtaining science information from the Internet is more likely to be purposive.[3] For example, the number of people naming the Internet as the place they would go to learn more about a scientific issue such as global warming or biotechnology rose from 44% in 2001 to 52% in 2004. Most of the gain apparently came at the expense of books. In 2001, nearly a quarter of those surveyed named books as their main source of information about a specific scientific issue. That percentage was cut in half (12%) in 2004, an indication that print materials, such as encyclopedias and other reference and technical books, are now taking a back seat to the Internet as research tools for the general public.[4] At the same time, the number naming television increased from 6% in 2001 to 13% in 2004. In both 2001 and 2004, magazines and newspapers were identified by less than 10% of those surveyed (figure 7-3 figure.).

One reason the Internet is supplanting traditional media such as print encyclopedias is that these sources are available on the Internet, where search engines have replaced thumbing through pages. For example, the Encyclopedia Britannica and Encarta are accessible online. Buying an online encyclopedia subscription has several advantages over visiting a library or purchasing the volumes. The online subscription is cheaper, more convenient, and less prone to obsolescence, and it requires no storage space. Current issues of major newspapers and newsmagazines are also available online. Arguably, it is easier to access the New York Times or Washington Post online than to read stories interspersed with page after page of advertisements.

According to the NSF survey data, people with more education and those with more income are less likely to rely on television as the chief source of both news in general and S&T information and more likely to use the Internet to get news and information. Also, men are more likely than women to rely on the Internet for news and S&T information. It is not surprising to find that reliance on the Internet is higher among these groups, given that they were the first to use the Internet extensively.

Television is also the leading source of news about S&T in other countries. For example, 60% of respondents to the 2001 Eurobarometer ranked television as either their first or second most important source of information on scientific developments, followed by the written press (37%), radio (27%), school or university (22%), scientific journals (20%), and the Internet (17%). In general, these preferences varied little across countries (European Commission 2001).

Similar statistics were also collected in Russia (Gokhberg and Shuvalova 2004). Once again, television was by far the leading source of news and information about S&T. (One reason television is such a dominant news source in Russia is that Internet access is relatively limited there, as in many other countries.)

In 2003, 87% of those surveyed in Russia named television as a source, compared with 82% in 1996. Newspapers and magazines also showed a gain between 1996 and 2003, from 45% to 50%. Radio ranked third (44% in 2003), followed by conversations with colleagues, friends, and family members (29%); advertising (17%); and scientific and popular science journals and books (13%). Only 6% named the Internet, and 2% named museums and S&T exhibitions. In 2003, 5% of Russians responded that they "have no concern about S&T news."

Statistics from several Asian countries show a similar pattern.[5] In Japan, 91% of those surveyed in 2001 said they obtained S&T information by watching television news. Newspaper articles ranked second, at 70%, followed by television documentary programs (53%), articles in magazines and weekly journals (35%), and conversations with friends and family (20%). Only 12% identified the Internet as a current method of obtaining S&T information, and only 2% said they read S&T magazines often. Another 16% said they read S&T magazines occasionally.

In South Korea, half of those surveyed in 2004 named television or radio as their leading means of gathering S&T information, followed by newspapers (21%), the Internet (13%), books and other publications (4%), and magazines (3%).[6]

Television is also the leading source of S&T information in China, with 83% of survey participants providing that response in 2001. Newspapers and magazines were second (52%), followed by "chatting with relatives or colleagues" (20%). Only 2% identified the Internet as a source of S&T information. Men, urban residents, and individuals with high levels of formal education were more likely than others to say they got information about S&T from books, newspapers, and magazines, and from the Internet. (See sidebar, "Internet Use Growing Rapidly in China.")

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The Internet: An Increasingly Popular Source of S&T Information

According to an ongoing media consumption study, the Internet has established a foothold during the past decade as an important source of news, although "going online for the news has yet to become part of the daily routine for most Americans, in the same way as watching television news, reading the newspaper, or listening to radio news" (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).[7] In 2004, nearly three-quarters (73%) of survey respondents had a computer at home (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004), up from about one-third (31%) a decade earlier (table 7-2 table.).[8] According to NSF survey data, 70% of adults had access to the Internet at home in 2004, up from 59% in 2001. More men (74%) than women (66%) were online. In addition, 90% of college graduates had access to the Internet from home in 2004, compared with 65% of those with only a high school education and 29% of those who did not graduate from high school. Also, the higher the family income, the more likely a person was to be online in 2004.[9] (See appendix table 7-4 Excel table. and sidebar, "Broadband Changes Everything.")

Trends in the Internet as a News Source

The number of people going online for news at least 3 days per week rose dramatically in the late 1990s, from 2% in 1995 to 23% in 2000, and has continued to increase during the early part of this decade, although at a much slower pace (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004). In 2004, 29% of those surveyed said that they went online for news at least 3 times per week (figure 7-4 figure.). In addition, online newspaper readership has been rising steadily since 2001 (Cole 2004).

Characteristics of Internet News Users

Internet news audiences tend to be younger, more affluent, and better educated than the population as a whole. They are also more likely to be male, although the gender gap has narrowed in recent years, as has the racial divide. Between 2002 and 2004, the proportion of African Americans going online for news at least 3 days per week increased from 15% to 25%. The increase was similar in the Hispanic community, from 22% in 2002 to 32% in 2004 (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

Education has always been the most important determinant of online news use. At least half of college graduates use the Internet for news on a regular basis, compared with less than one-fifth of high school graduates and less than one-tenth of those who did not finish high school. Little growth has occurred in Internet news use among those without a college degree, regardless of age or sex (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

Categories of News Sought Online

Weather has been the most popular category of news sought online since 2000, with more than three-fourths (76%) of those surveyed in 2004 saying that they sought that kind of information (table 7-3 table.).[10] Science and health has been the second most popular category in every year of the survey except 1998 (when it led the other groups).[11] The types of science-related information sought online seem to be of a practical, personally relevant nature. People do not seem to be very curious about scientific research or policy-related issues.

In 1996, when data collection on Internet news began, technology was the most popular topic: 64% of those surveyed in 1996 said that they sought news about technology. However, as more people go online for news, technology has slipped in ranking: in 2004, it ranked fifth. Since the 2000 survey, the number of people going online for international and political news has grown. The 2000 and 2004 presidential elections, the events of September 11, 2001, and the subsequent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq generated increased interest in political and international news (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

Internet users and nonusers have different news interests. In 2004, Internet users were more likely than nonusers to be interested in news about political figures and events in Washington, international affairs, S&T, and culture and the arts, and they were less likely than nonusers to be interested in news about weather, crime, health, local government, and religion. Among Internet users, 18% said they followed news about S&T very closely, compared with 13% of nonusers (table 7-4 table.).

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Public Interest in S&T

Most Americans say they are interested in S&T. When asked in a survey about their interest in S&T issues, very few adults admit to not being interested in these subjects. That was the usual pattern in NSF surveys conducted between 1979 and 2001. Similar surveys conducted in other countries indicate that the overall level of public interest in S&T is less than that in the United States. However, Americans may not be as interested in S&T as they claim. Indicators from other surveys point to relatively little interest in S&T topics and news.

Interest in S&T Around the World

Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations consistently show that Americans are interested in issues related to S&T. In 2001, about 45% of NSF survey respondents said they were very interested in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. About the same number said they were moderately interested in these subjects. Only about 10% were not interested at all.[12]

In Europe in 2005, 30% of survey respondents said they were very interested in new scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies, about half (48%) said they were moderately interested in these subjects, and one-fifth said they were not at all interested. There was considerable variation in interest across countries, and the overall level of interest was down somewhat from 1992, the last time these questions were asked.  The reasons cited most often for disinterest in S&T were lack of understanding and lack of concern (European Commission 2005a).

U.S. and European findings coincided in two areas: more men than women expressed an interest in S&T, and respondents were more interested in medicine and the environment than in S&T in general. However, the number of Europeans claiming to be very interested in new medical discoveries and environmental pollution declined significantly between 1992 and 2005 (European Commission 2005a).

Like Americans, Russians are more interested in "achievements in medicine" than in any other issue. In a group of 13 items in a 2003 survey of public interests, scientific discoveries and new inventions and technologies ranked seventh and ninth, respectively, after international affairs, the economy and business, environmental issues, education, and problems of age and life expectancy. However, interest in both issues increased between 1996 and 2003 (Gokhberg and Shuvalova 2004).

Citizens in several Asian countries seem to express less interest than Americans and Europeans in S&T (the Chinese are a notable exception). In 2001, the average levels of U.S. public interest in new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies were, on a scale of 0-100, 69 and 66, respectively. The comparable numbers were much lower for Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia. However, the levels for China were about the same as those for the United States (figure 7-6 figure.; appendix table 7-5 Excel table.).

Interest in new medical discoveries seems to be much lower in Asian countries than in the West. In the United States in particular, nearly everyone is interested in new medical discoveries. Year after year, more people expressed interest in this subject than in any other. For example, in 2001, about two-thirds of the NSF survey respondents reported they were "very interested" in new medical discoveries. (None of the other survey items, except local school issues, received such a high percentage of "very interested" responses.)[13] In the U.S. survey, new medical discoveries is the only item that has consistently produced interest index scores in the 80s. In contrast, it yielded much lower scores in the four Asian countries.

Interest in environmental pollution is high in most countries, including the United States, where the index score for this item was 70 in 2001. However, more recent data seem to indicate that interest may have waned during the first part of this decade (see "Environmental Issues" section in this chapter). In both South Korea and Japan, where pollution is an increasingly serious problem, environmental pollution issues attract more public interest than other S&T issues. China also had a relatively high index score for environmental issues. However, in Russia, interest in environmental issues declined between 1996 and 2003 (Gokhberg and Shuvalova 2004).

Despite all the newsworthy events taking place in space during the past few years, interest in issues related to space exploration is relatively low in all of the countries surveyed. The topic ranked at or near the bottom in the United States, Europe (in 2001), Russia, China, and Japan.

Attention to S&T News

Despite the American public's professed interest in S&T issues, there is reason to believe that interest may not be as strong as the NSF survey data indicate. Since 1986, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press has maintained a news interest index. For a story to be included in the list of top news items, at least 1% of those surveyed had to say that they were following the story "very closely." Relatively few S&T-related stories have made the list. (See sidebar, "Few Science-Related News Stories Attract Public Interest.")

A Pew Research Center survey also shows that weather is by far the most popular type of news followed by most Americans.[14] The other types of news tracked most closely by Americans in 2004 were crime, community affairs, health, and sports.[15] S&T ranked tenth, lower than all other categories except entertainment, business and finance, consumer news, and culture and arts. Only 16% of those surveyed said that they followed news about S&T very closely. (See table 7-6. table.) However, S&T ranked higher (fifth) among college graduates, after weather, international affairs, national political news, and health. In contrast, the top categories among those who did not graduate from college were weather, crime, community, health, and sports.

Men and adults ages 30-64 were more likely than others to say that they followed S&T news very closely. The breakdown by race and ethnicity is similar to that for all respondents, with one exception: Asian Americans were disproportionately more likely than others to say that they followed S&T news very closely (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

Visits to Museums, Zoos, and Libraries

Interest in news about S&T is only part of the story. The millions of people who visit science museums every year are also demonstrating interest in science without necessarily being interested in science news.

Surveys show that S&T museums are more popular in the United States than in other countries. In 2001, 30% of NSF survey respondents said they had visited such a museum in the last 12 months, compared with 16% of Europeans (in 2005), 13% of Japanese, 14% of Chinese, and 1% of Russians (2003).

Although the rate of S&T museum attendance in Europe seems to be about half that in the United States, the 2005 rate for Europe was about 50 percent higher than that recorded in 2001 (European Commission 2005a). When Europeans who had not visited an S&T museum were asked their reasons, about one-third said they "don't understand" S&T, and an approximately equal number said they "did not care" about S&T (European Commission 2005a). Within Europe, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Luxembourg, and Iceland have the highest rates of S&T museum attendance (appendix table 7-6 Excel table.).

S&T museums are not the only public attractions that are less popular in other countries than in the United States. More than half (58%) of Americans reported that they had visited a zoo or an aquarium during the past 12 months, compared with 43% of the Japanese respondents, 32% of Chinese, 27% of Europeans, and 9% of Russians.

Americans also go to libraries more often than the citizens of other countries and are more likely than Europeans (other than citizens of Iceland, Denmark, the Netherlands, Sweden, Switzerland, Norway, and Finland) to visit an art gallery. Finally, only 14% of the Americans surveyed said they had not visited any of the establishments included in the survey, compared with 4 of 10 Europeans (41%) and 7 of 10 Russians (71%) (European Commission 2005a; Gokhberg and Shuvalova 2004).

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Feeling Well Informed About S&T Issues

Despite the public's expression of interest in S&T, few people feel well informed about these subjects. In 2004, only about 15% of NSF survey respondents described themselves as very well informed about new scientific discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. About one-third of those surveyed considered themselves poorly informed about these topics (appendix table 7-7 Excel table.).[16]

Among the issues included in the survey, Americans feel the most informed about local school issues and the economy and business conditions. In 2004, the index scores for these two topics (on a scale of 0-100) were 56 and 51, respectively. Five items (new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, military and defense policy, new scientific discoveries, and the use of new inventions and technologies) had index scores between 40 and 46. Space exploration had the second lowest index score (36) in 2004 (appendix table 7-8 Excel table.).

For 8 of the 10 issues included in the NSF survey, men were more likely than women to feel well informed. Among the science-related issues, the widest gender gap (14 points) was for space exploration; the gap for the use of new inventions and technologies, new scientific discoveries, and environmental pollution was 10, 5, and 3 points, respectively. In contrast, women were more likely than men to feel well informed about new medical discoveries (appendix table 7-9 Excel table.).

With few exceptions, the NSF survey data show a strong, positive relationship between education (both level of formal education and number of math and science courses completed) and feeling well informed about public policy issues. This is particularly true for four of the five science-related issues in the survey (the relationship between education and feeling well informed about new medical discoveries was not as strong as that for the other four issues). In contrast, the relationship between family income and feeling well informed about science-related public policy issues is either much weaker (than that for education) or nonexistent (appendix table 7-9 Excel table.).

Survey data from several Asian countries, Europe, and the United States indicate that, compared with the citizens of Japan, Malaysia, and South Korea, Americans and Europeans consistently feel better informed about science-related issues, with one exception: environmental pollution. However, it is difficult to draw definitive conclusions from these data because the citizens of other countries may have different reference points for describing their level of knowledge.

Analysis of data from the United States, Europe, and four Asian countries (China, Japan, South Korea, and Malaysia) revealed similar relationships between interest in S&T and feeling informed. In all of these countries, the level of feeling informed about S&T is considerably lower than the level of professed interest in S&T issues, although the level of feeling informed about a specific issue is positively related to the level of interest in the same issue (Park 2005).

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[2] In a recent survey, 67% of respondents said that they "would like to see more information in newspapers, magazines, or on television about scientific and medical research," 25% said "about the same amount," and 5% said "less information" (Research!America 2005).

[3] However, with increasing fragmentation of television audiences, it seems likely that exposures to science-relevant information from both media are increasingly intentional, even if those exposures are not always for a specific purpose.

[4] In a survey on Americans' attitudes toward genetically modified food, most (88%) said that they had never looked for information about the subject. However, when "asked to speculate where they would turn for information about genetically modified food if they were so inclined...57% said they would search the Internet for information;...10% said they would go to the library for information" (Hallman et al. 2004).

[5] In this chapter, all data for Asia (unless otherwise specified) were collected by the following: the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology; the Korea Science Foundation; the Malaysian Science and Technology Information Centre (MASTIC) of the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment; and the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy of the Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology in Japan. For more information, see sidebar, "Data Sources."

[6] Among Asians surveyed, South Koreans were most likely to say information on the Internet is reliable and accurate, and Japanese citizens were least likely to say that (Cole 2004).

[7] For example, when people were queried about their news habits on a typical day ("yesterday"), only about a quarter (24%) said they got news online, whereas 60% watched the news on television, 42% read a daily newspaper, and 40% listened to the news on a radio. In addition, the survey revealed that people spend far less time per day obtaining news online than getting news from other sources (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

[8] In the Pew Research Center survey, 8% of those with a home computer did not have access to the Internet.

[9] A study of data collected with the NSF surveys revealed that the most important predictor of home computer ownership was labor force participation (Losh 2004).

[10] In the Pew Research Center survey, those respondents who reported that they go online for news were then asked if they looked for particular types of news online.

[11] According to Harris Interactive polls, the most popular categories of online news are weather (sought by 60% of respondents in 2004), national news (56%), international news (44%), and local news (36%). (S&T was not among the choices given the respondents.) The Harris polls also found that the number of people who went online often or very often to obtain information about health or diseases rose from 15 to 21% between December 2003 and December 2004 (Harris Interactive 2004d).

Another survey conducted in 2004 found that 58% of respondents had used the Internet to look for information on specific diseases, 33% had looked for information on nutrition, and 32% had looked up information on prescription drugs. In 2004, most Americans thought that health information on the Internet was either strongly helpful (31%) or somewhat helpful (38%) and either very useful (23%) or somewhat useful (42%). Only 19% thought it was harmful, and 21% thought it was not useful (Research!America 2005).

[12] Other surveys had similar findings (VCU Center for Public Policy 2004). When asked about their interest in scientific discoveries, only 10% of respondents said they were "not much interested," and only 5% said they were "not at all" interested; 42% said they had "a lot" of interest, and 42% reported "some" interest. (These numbers have changed little since 2001.)

[13] The VCU surveys also show a high level of interest in new medical discoveries (VCU Center for Public Policy 2004). In the 2004 survey, 46% of respondents answered "a lot" when asked how much they were personally interested in new medical discoveries; 44% answered "some"; 7%, "not much"; and 2%, "not at all." (These numbers also have shown little variation since 2001.)

[14] The Pew Research Center question was: "Now I'm going to read you a list of different types of news. Please tell me how closely you follow this type of news either in the newspaper, on television, or on radio...very closely, somewhat closely, not very closely, or not at all closely?" Note that the question did not include online news consumption.

[15] Although the number of Americans who follow hard news-especially international news-has increased in recent years, interest in most news topics has remained stable (Pew Research Center for the People and the Press 2004).

[16] An examination of the NSF data revealed a positive relationship between feeling well informed about S&T and providing correct answers to science literacy questions; however, the relationship was statistically weak (Losh et al. 2003).

National Science Board.