In assessing public knowledge and attitudes concerning S&T, two kinds of standards for judgment are possible. One standard is some conception of what a technologically advanced society requires, either currently or in the future, to be well prepared to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to live satisfying lives. The other standard involves comparison with the past or with other countries.
By the first standard, individual judgments will inevitably vary, but it is safe to say that most proponents of S&T will find at least some of the data disquieting. They might view as causes for concern the significant minorities of Americans who cannot answer relatively simple knowledge questions about S&T, the proportion of Americans who express basic misconceptions about emerging technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, or the proportion who believe relatively great scientific uncertainty surrounds global climate change. For many, some attitudes might appear problematic, too, such as the sizable parts of the population who express serious reservations about the place of morality in science or the speed of technological change, or who favor coverage of nonscientific material about human origins in public school science classes.
Trend analyses that use past U.S. data as a basis for comparison paint a different picture. Relative to Americans in the recent past, today’s Americans score as well on factual knowledge and somewhat better on understanding the process of scientific inquiry, are more skeptical about scientific claims for astrology, and are at least as optimistic about new technology and favorably disposed to increased government investment in science. When Americans compare science with other institutions, science’s relative ranking appears to be as or more favorable than in the past. The survey data provide little or no evidence of declining knowledge or increasingly negative attitudes.
When the data are examined using other countries as a benchmark, the United States compares favorably. Compared with adult residents of other developed countries, Americans appear to know as much or more about science, and they express as much or more optimism about technology. The only circumstance in which the United States scores below other countries on science knowledge comparisons is when, as with beliefs about human evolution, many Americans experience a conflict between accepted scientific knowledge and their religious beliefs.
Regardless of the standard used in assessing public knowledge and attitudes, one strong and persistent pattern in the data stands out: more highly educated Americans tend to know more about S&T, express more favorable attitudes about S&T, and make discriminations that are more consistent with those likely to be made by scientists and engineers themselves. Thus, for example, they focus more heavily on process criteria for evaluating whether something is scientific, and their classification of fields as more and less scientific more closely resembles a classification that would be found in a university catalog. Along with their formal schooling, they appear to have acquired perspectives, attitudes, and knowledge akin to those found among the proponents of S&T. Whether or in what sense this association is causal is uncertain: although greater knowledge may affect attitudes and perspectives, pre-existing attitudes and perspectives may affect whether or not people acquire the kinds of knowledge available to them in school. What is clear, across a variety of indicators, is that Americans with relatively more years of education and more science knowledge also have perspectives and attitudes that more closely mirror those articulated by the leaders of the American S&E community.