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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


In assessing public knowledge and attitudes concerning S&T, two kinds of standards for judgment are possible. One standard involves comparing a country's knowledge and attitudes with those recorded in the past or in other countries. The second standard involves assessing what a technologically advanced society requires (either today or in the future) to compete in the world economy and enable its citizens to better take advantage of scientific progress in their own lives.

By the first standard, the survey data provide little or no evidence of declining knowledge or increasingly negative attitudes. Relative to Americans in the recent past, today's Americans score as well on knowledge measures and tend to be more skeptical about scientific claims for pseudoscience, such as astrology. In addition, three decades of U.S. data consistently show that Americans endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T, are optimistic about new technologies, and are favorably predisposed to increasing government investment in science. When Americans compare science with other institutions, science's relative ranking is as or more favorable than in the past. In addition, the prestige of the engineering profession grew in the last year.

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.

By the second standard, trend data show that significant minorities of Americans cannot answer relatively simple knowledge questions about S&T, they express basic misconceptions about emerging technologies such as biotechnology and nanotechnology, and they believe that relatively great scientific uncertainty surrounds the existence and causes of global climate change. Sizable parts of the population express reservations about how the speed of technological change affects our way of life or the use of animals in medical research.

Regardless of the standard used in assessing public knowledge and attitudes, one 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 when 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. Whether 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.


Science and Engineering Indicators 2010   Arlington, VA (NSB 10-01) | January 2010