Chapter 7:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Chapter Overview

Science and technology have become integral components of the American culture. Over 85 percent of Americans believe that the world is better off due to science, and this level of general support has continued over the last four decades. Americans believe that scientists and engineers can cure diseases, explore space, and develop ever faster modes of communication. The growth of interest in science and technology is reflected in extensive use of informal science learning resources, from television to the World Wide Web. Paradoxically, this pattern of high expectation for science and technology is not matched by a comparable level of understanding of the scientific process or of basic scientific concepts.

In a democratic society such as the United States, it is important to understand attitudes about scientific and technological issues. Over the last two decades, the Science & Engineering Indicators studies have built a comprehensive database that helps to illuminate patterns of change. It is equally important to apply current social science theory to the understanding and interpretation of these data. A series of analyses describes the structure and patterns of change and stability in public attitudes toward science and technology.

Today, the means of communication change as rapidly as the substance of science and technology. It is important for the scientific community to communicate with the public about the promise and needs of science. To do so requires an understanding of the sources of information that people use and of which people use each of the various kinds of media for communication.

Chapter Organization

This chapter begins with a discussion of the level of public interest in selected areas of science and technology, and examines changes in the patterns of public interest in these issues over the last two decades.[1] The level of interest in science and technology issues is an indicator of both the visibility of the work of the scientific community and of the relative importance accorded science and technology by society.

The second section of this chapter examines the level of public understanding of basic scientific concepts and the nature of scientific inquiry, looking at patterns of change over the last decade. The level of public understanding of basic scientific terms and concepts is compared for 14 leading industrial nations.

The third section of the chapter examines two sets of general, or filtering, attitudes toward science and technology. One filter reflects an individual's belief in the promise of science and technology to improve the quality of life, while another reflects the level of concern or reservation about possible negative impacts from science or technology. General attitudes in the United States and 13 other industrial nations are compared.

The fourth section analyzes the linkage between these general attitudinal filters and the policy preferences of citizens regarding government spending for basic scientific research. The development of these structural relationships over the last decade in the United States is examined, and the patterns found in the United States are compared with those for 13 other industrial nations.

The fifth section analyzes the sources of information used by citizens to improve and maintain their understanding of scientific and technical issues. This analysis examines the growth of computer access and use in the United States. New information is provided about access to electronic networks and the purposes for which individuals use the Internet.

The final section summarizes the results described in this chapter and discusses some of their major implications.

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[1] Twelve of the 13 Indicators volumes published since 1972 have included a chapter on public attitudes toward and understanding of science and technology. The studies for the 1972, 1974, and 1976 Indicators were based on a block of 20 items inserted into an omnibus national personal interview survey conducted by Opinion Research Corporation of Princeton, New Jersey. The 1979 study was designed by Miller and Prewitt (1979) and analyzed by Miller, Prewitt, and Pearson (1980); the personal interviews were conducted by the Institute for Survey Research at Temple University. Additional national studies were supported by the 1982, 1985, 1987, 1991, and 1993 Indicators reports, with telephone interviews conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University. The chapter for Science Indicators 1985 was based on a national telephone study conducted by the Public Opinion Laboratory for Professor George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. In 1995 and 1997, the Chicago Academy of Sciences conducted studies that continued the core of attitude and knowledge items from previous Indicators studies and included telephone interviews with a random-digit sample of 2,006 adults in 1995 and 2,000 in 1997. The interviews for the 1995 study were conducted by the Public Affairs Division of Market Facts Incorporated. The interviews for the 1997 study were conducted by the National Opinion Research Center. The results can be found in past volumes of Indicators (NSB biennial series). The data from these studies are available for secondary analysis from the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the Chicago Academy of Sciences.

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