Chapter 7: Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Public Knowledge About S&T

U.S. middle and high school students may not do as well in math and science as their counterparts in some other countries (see chapter 1, "Elementary and Secondary Education"). U.S. adults, however, seem to be slightly or somewhat more knowledgeable about science than their counterparts in other countries.

It is important to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts, concepts, and vocabulary. Those who possess such knowledge are able to follow science news and participate in public discourse on science-related issues. Having appreciation for the scientific process may be even more important. Knowing how science works, i.e., understanding how ideas are investigated and either accepted or rejected, is valuable not only in keeping up with important science-related issues and participating meaningfully in the political process, but also in evaluating and assessing the validity of various types of claims people encounter on a daily basis (including those that are pseudoscientific) (Maienschein 1999).

Surveys conducted in the United States and other countries reveal that most citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience seems to be widespread, not only in the United States but in other countries as well. This section explores these three indicators of scientific literacy. (Scientific literacy is defined here as knowing basic facts and concepts about science and having an understanding of how science works.)[17]

Understanding Scientific Terms and Concepts

International Patterns and Trends

A substantial number of people throughout the world appear to be unable to answer simple, science-related questions (figure 7-7 figure.; appendix table 7-10 Excel table.). Many did not know the correct answers to several (mostly) true/false questions designed to test their basic knowledge of science.

U.S. data do not show much change over time in the public's level of knowledge about science. In contrast, the most recent European data do show an increase. Belgium, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands recorded double-digit increases in the percentage of correct responses between 1992 and 2005, and most other European countries also recorded gains. There is considerable variation in science knowledge across countries in Europe.[18]

Knowledge scores were especially low in China and Russia. For example, in China, less than half the respondents answered "true" to the statements "the center of the Earth is very hot" and "the continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future."[19] In contrast, substantial majorities of the respondents in most other countries answered these questions correctly (the question on the center of the earth was not asked in Russia).[20]

On two questions, U.S. survey participants did considerably better than their counterparts in other countries:

  • More than 70% of Americans correctly answered "false" to the statement "all radioactivity is manmade." In the other countries, the percentage of correct responses was considerably lower.
  • Only in the United States, Europe, and South Korea did a majority correctly answer true to the statement "it is the father's gene that decides whether the baby is a boy or a girl." The percentage of correct responses in other countries ranged from 46% for Malaysia to 22% for Russia. In addition, the number of Europeans who answered this question correctly increased significantly between 2001 and 2005.

Less than half the respondents in each country knew that "lasers [do not] work by focusing sound waves." In contrast, most people seem to know that the Earth goes around the Sun (and not vice versa).

One question in particular shows a notable increase in the percentage of correct responses in both the United States and Europe: more people now know that antibiotics do not kill viruses. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51%) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up from 40% in 1995. In the United States, correct responses increased to 54% in 2004. In Europe, 46% of respondents answered the question correctly in 2005, compared with 40% in 2001 and only 27% in 1992.

The U.S. survey is the only one in which at least half the participants answered the question about antibiotics and viruses correctly. After Europe, the next highest percentage of correct responses was in South Korea (30%), followed by Japan (23%) and Malaysia (21%). Less than one in five Russian and Chinese respondents (18%) knew that antibiotics do not kill viruses.

The promising trend in knowledge about antibiotics and viruses in the United States and Europe suggests that a public health campaign to educate the public about the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics has been working. This problem has been the subject of widespread media coverage, and when stories mention that the main culprit is the overprescribing of antibiotics, they typically note the fact that antibiotics are ineffective in killing viruses. In addition, parents of young children, especially those prone to ear infections, have been warned by their pediatricians about this problem. However, the message still has not reached a large segment of the population throughout the world.

Americans apparently are also becoming more familiar with the terminology of genetics. In a 2001 NSF survey, 45% of respondents were able to define DNA. The percentage of correct responses to this survey question increased in the late 1990s, a trend that probably reflected heavy media coverage of DNA use in forensics and medical research. More recently, a 2003 Harris poll found that 60% of adults in the United States selected the correct answer when asked "what is DNA?" (the genetic code for living cells), and two-thirds chose the right answer when asked "what does DNA stand for?" (deoxyribonucleic acid) (kSERO Corporation, Inc. 2003). As mentioned earlier in the chapter, a popular television entertainment show such as CSI increases public understanding of DNA (see sidebar, "Television and Other Forms of Popular Culture Influence What Adults Know and Think about Science.")

In the United States, knowledge about science is positively related to level of formal schooling, income level, and number of science and math courses taken. In addition, younger respondents and those without minor children at home were more likely than others to have answered the questions correctly. Finally, men seem to be more knowledgeable about science than women: in 2004, men scored an average of 65%, compared with 55% for women (appendix tables 7-11 Excel table. and 7-12 Excel table.).

Evolution and the "Big Bang"

Americans were less likely than residents of other countries to answer "true" to the following scientific knowledge questions: "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and "the universe began with a huge explosion." In the United States, 44% of the respondents in an NSF-sponsored survey answered "true" to the first question in 2004, about the same level recorded in every year (except one) that the question has been asked. In contrast, 78% of Japanese respondents answered "true," as did 70% of the Chinese and European respondents and more than 60% of the South Korean and Malaysian respondents. Only in Russia did less than half (44%) of respondents answer "true." Similarly, Americans were less likely than other survey respondents (except the Chinese) to answer "true" to the "big bang" question.

U.S. responses to questions about evolution and the big bang appear to reflect more than unfamiliarity with basic elements of science. The 2004 Michigan Survey of Consumer Attitudes administered two different versions of these questions to different groups of respondents. Some were asked questions that tested knowledge about the natural world ("human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and "the universe began with a big explosion"). Others were asked questions that tested knowledge about what a scientific theory asserts or a group of scientists believes ("according to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" and "according to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion"). Respondents were much more likely to answer correctly if the question was framed as about scientific theories or beliefs rather than as about the natural world. When the question about evolution was prefaced by "according to the theory of evolution," 74% marked true; only 44% marked true when it was not. Similarly, 62% agreed with the prefaced question about the big bang, but only 35% agreed when the prefatory phrase was omitted. These differences probably indicate that many Americans hold religious beliefs that cause them to be skeptical of established scientific ideas, even when they have some basic familiarity with those ideas.

Surveys conducted by the Gallup Organization provide similar evidence. An ongoing Gallup survey, conducted most recently in 2004, found that only about a third of Americans agreed that Darwin's theory of evolution has been well supported by evidence (Newport 2004).[21] The same percentage agreed with the alternative statement that Darwin's theory was not supported by the evidence, and an additional 29% said they didn't know enough to say. Data from 2001 were similar. Those agreeing with the first statement were more likely than others to be men, well educated (65% of those with postgraduate education and 52% of those with a bachelor's degree), and live in the West (47%) or East (42%).

In response to another group of questions on evolution asked by Gallup in 2004, about half (51%) of those surveyed agreed with either of two statements compatible with evolution: that human beings developed over millions of years either with or without God's guidance in the process. However, 45% agreed with a third statement, that "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." These views on the origin of human beings have remained virtually unchanged (in six surveys) since the questions were first asked in 1982 (Newport 2004).

During most of the 20th century, probably the most contentious issue related to the teaching of science has been whether and how evolution is to be taught in U.S. public school classrooms.[22], [23] The controversy has continued in the new millennium, erupting in quite a few states, including Georgia and Pennsylvania, and making front-page headlines in major newspapers.[24] A survey conducted in 2005 revealed that Americans have been paying fairly close attention to newspaper and television news coverage about teaching alternatives to evolution (Nisbet and Nisbet 2005). Contention about this issue also surfaced in England in 2001 and in the Netherlands in 2005. (See sidebar, "More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms")

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Understanding the Scientific Process

NSF has used three survey items to assess "public understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry," i.e., how well people understand aspects of the scientific process. Understanding how science works is a major indicator of scientific literacy. Based on their responses to the three inquiry items, many Americans appear not to have a firm grasp of the nature of the scientific process. The same is true of Europeans.

In 2001, both the NSF survey and the Eurobarometer asked respondents questions designed to test their knowledge of two important aspects of scientific literacy: how an experiment is conducted and their understanding of probability.[25] Only 43% of Americans and 37% of Europeans answered the experiment question correctly. Both groups did better with probability: 57% of Americans and 69% of Europeans answered that question correctly. In 2004, 46% of Americans answered the experiment question correctly, and 64% gave a correct answer to the probability questions (appendix table 7-13 Excel table.). NSF survey respondents were also asked to explain in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. In 2004, only 23% of respondents gave a response that indicated they knew what it meant.[26]

Although 39% of Americans surveyed in 2004 correctly answered all three questions about the nature of scientific inquiry, 61% did not.[27] This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience.

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Belief in Pseudoscience

Although S&T are held in high esteem throughout the modern world, pseudoscientific beliefs continue to thrive. Such beliefs coexist alongside society's professed respect for science and the scientific process.

A recent study of 20 years of survey data collected by NSF concluded that "many Americans accept pseudoscientific beliefs," such as astrology, lucky numbers, the existence of unidentified flying objects (UFOs), extrasensory perception (ESP), and magnetic therapy (Losh et al. 2003). Such beliefs indicate a lack of understanding of how science works and how evidence is investigated and subsequently determined to be either valid or not. Scientists, educators, and others are concerned that people have not acquired the critical thinking skills they need to distinguish fact from fiction. The science community and those whose job it is to communicate information about science to the public have been particularly concerned about the public's susceptibility to unproven claims that could adversely affect their health, safety, and pocketbooks (NIST 2002). (See sidebar, "Sense About Science.")

Pseudoscience has been defined as "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility" (Shermer 1997, p. 33).[28] In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation" (Shermer 1997, p. 17).

Belief in pseudoscience increased significantly during the 1990s and into the early part of this decade (Newport and Strausberg 2001) and then fell somewhat between 2001 and 2005 (figure 7-8 figure.). The largest declines were in the number of people who believe in ESP, clairvoyance, ghosts, mentally communicating with the dead, and channeling.  Nevertheless, about three-fourths of Americans hold at least one pseudoscientific belief; i.e., they believed in at least 1 of the 10 survey items (similar to the percentage recorded in 2001).[29] In addition, 22% believed in five or more of the items, 32% believed in four, and 57% believed in two. However, only 1% believed in all 10 (Moore 2005b).

Belief in pseudoscience is widespread. For example, at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives. Although two-thirds (66%) of those queried in 2004 said that astrology is "not at all scientific," about one-third considered it at least "sort of scientific" (appendix table 7-14 Excel table.).[30]

Belief in astrology may be more prevalent in Europe. In 2001, 53% of Europeans surveyed thought astrology is "rather scientific" and only a minority (39%) said it is not at all scientific. In the 2005 survey, Europeans were asked whether or not they considered certain subjects to be scientific, using a 5-point scale (with higher values indicating that a subject is more scientific). About 4 out of 10 (41%) of those surveyed gave responses of 4 or 5 for astrology, the same as the score for economics. However, when the survey used the word "horoscopes" instead of astrology, only 13% gave a response of 4 or 5. Disciplines most likely to be considered scientific by Europeans were medicine (89%), physics (83%), biology (75%), mathematics (72%), astronomy (70%), and psychology (53%). History (34%) and homeopathy (33%) were at the bottom of the list (European Commission 2005a). Comparable U.S. data on the various disciplines do not exist.

Europeans were more likely than Americans to agree that "some numbers are particularly lucky for some people." The percentages in Europe were 37% (2005) and 32% (2001).[31]

In the United States, skepticism about astrology is strongly related to level of education: in 2004, 81% of college graduates said that astrology is "not at all scientific," compared with 51% of those with less than a high school education and 62% of those who had completed high school but not college. In Europe, however, respondents with college degrees were just as likely as others to claim that astrology is scientific.

In the United States, belief in astrology is also related to level of income (which, in turn, is related to education). Those in higher income brackets were less likely than others to say that astrology is either very or sort of scientific.

Like astrology in the United States and Europe, fortune telling is common in China and South Korea. However, only 1% of Chinese survey respondents said fortune telling is very scientific and 10% thought it is "a bit" scientific. In contrast, 74% answered either "not at all scientific" or "not very scientific." A similar item on a South Korean survey showed a larger percentage (37%) of respondents answering either "very scientific" or "sort of scientific" (figure 7-9 figure.; appendix table 7-15 Excel table.).

Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations suggest that at least half of the U.S. public believes in the existence of ESP (CBS News 2002), and a sizable minority believes in UFOs and that aliens have landed on Earth. In the 2001 NSF survey, 60% of respondents agreed that "some people possess psychic powers or ESP," and 30% agreed that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations." Similarly, one-third of the Chinese respondents (33%) believed in the existence of aliens.

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[17] Researchers have concluded that fewer than one-fifth of Americans meet a minimal standard of civic scientific literacy (Miller, Pardo, and Niwa 1997).

[18] In Europe, residents of Sweden, the Czech Republic, Finland, the Netherlands, Norway, Denmark, and Slovenia have the highest rates of scientific knowledge, and Portugal, Malta, Latvia, Bulgaria, Cyprus and Turkey the lowest. Also, in Europe, men, persons between the ages of 15 and 54, those with more years of formal schooling, and those who do not attend religious services are more likely than others to provide correct responses to questions designed to test their knowledge of science (European Commission 2005a). 

[19] In China, only 1.4% of the population possessed basic scientific literacy in 2001. The percentage was higher among men (1.7%) and urban residents (3.1%) (Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology 2002).

[20] In its own international comparison of scientific literacy, Japan ranked itself 10th of 14 countries included in the report (National Institute of Science and Technology Policy 2002).

[21] A recent analysis of public opinion concerning evolution suggests that "many members of the public underestimate the scientific evidence in support of evolution and overestimate the evidence supporting intelligent design" (Nisbet and Nisbet 2005).

[22] The cover of the November 2004 issue of National Geographic Magazine asked "Was Darwin Wrong?" The 33-page article concluded that "[t]he evidence for evolution is overwhelming."

[23] The National Science Board issued a statement on the subject in August 1999 (National Science Board 1999).

[24] In a 2005 CBS/New York Times poll, 57% of those surveyed favored teaching creationism along with evolution in public schools, down from 65% 4 months earlier. In the same 2005 poll, 35% favored teaching creationism instead of evolution in public schools, down from 37% in the previous survey. About half of those surveyed in both 2004 and 2005 opposed teaching creationism instead of evolution.

[25] The question pertaining to experimental evaluation was: "Now, please think of this situation. Two scientists want to know if a certain drug is effective in treating high blood pressure. The first scientist wants to give the drug to 1,000 people with high blood pressure and see how many experience lower blood pressure levels. The second scientist wants to give the drug to 500 people with high blood pressure, and not give the drug to another 500 people with high blood pressure, and see how many in both groups experience lower blood pressure levels. Which is the better way to test this drug? Why is it better to test the drug this way?"

The text of the probability question in 2004 was: "Now think about this situation. A doctor tells a couple that their 'genetic makeup' means that they've got one in four chances of having a child with an inherited illness. Does this mean that if their first child has the illness, the next three will not? Does this mean that each of the couple's children will have the same risk of suffering from the illness?"

[26] Correct explanations of scientific study include responses describing it as theory testing, experimentation, or rigorous, systematic comparison.

[27] Similar to questions about scientific facts and concepts, younger respondents, those with more formal education and higher incomes, and those without minor children at home were more likely than others to give correct responses to questions about the scientific process (appendix table 7-13Excel table.).

[28] According to one group studying such phenomena, pseudoscientific topics include yogi flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near-death experiences, unidentified flying objects and alien abductions, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal 2003).

[29] Those 10 items were extrasensory perception (ESP), that houses can be haunted, ghosts/that spirits of dead people can come back in certain places/situations, telepathy/communication between minds without using traditional senses, clairvoyance/the power of the mind to know the past and predict the future, astrology/that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives, that people can communicate mentally with someone who has died, witches, reincarnation/the rebirth of the soul in a new body after death, and channeling/allowing a "spirit-being" to temporarily assume control of a body.

[30] In the 2001 NSF survey, 56% of those surveyed agreed that astrology is "not at all scientific," 9% said it is "very scientific," and 31% thought it "sort of scientific." The difference between the 2001 and 2004 data may be attributable to differences in questionnaire design in the 2 years.

[31] Countries with the highest levels of agreement were Italy, Latvia, the Czech Republic, Ireland, and Austria. The "least convinced" were in the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Finland (European Commission 2005a).

National Science Board.
National Science Board.