Chapter 7:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Summary

Science and technology are subjects of substantial interest to Americans. Using a 100-point Index of Issue Interest, the mean level of interest in new scientific discoveries has increased from 61 in 1979 to 70 in 1997, indicating that science and technology are becoming an increasingly integral part of the American culture. Individuals with more years of formal education and more courses in science and mathematics are more likely to show a high level of interest in science and technology. Comparatively, 70 percent of Americans expressed a high level of interest in medical discoveries and 52 percent indicated that they were very interested in environmental issues, but only 32 percent reported a high level of interest in space exploration.

Despite the high levels of interest, only 19 percent of Americans think that they are very well-informed about science and 16 percent about the use of new inventions and technologies. Americans with more years of formal education and more courses in science and mathematics are significantly more likely to view themselves as being very well-informed than others, and men are significantly more likely to indicate that they are very well-informed about science and technology, holding constant the level of formal education and the level of science and mathematics education.

Using a more objective standard reveals that many Americans have a limited vocabulary of scientific and technical concepts. On a 0-100 scale, the mean score on the Index of Scientific Construct Understanding was 55. This score has remained relatively constant since 1988. Individuals with more years of formal schooling and more courses in science and mathematics obtained significantly higher scores, demonstrating the pervasive effect of science and mathematics education throughout the adult years. Compared to 13 other industrial nations, the mean score for American adults on the Index of Scientific Construct Understanding was tied for first with Denmark, closely followed by the Netherlands and Great Britain.

Only 27 percent of Americans understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to be able to make informed judgments about the scientific basis of results reported in the media. Public understanding of the nature of scientific inquiry was measured through questions about the meaning of scientific study and the reasons for the use of control groups in experiments. Individuals who have completed more years of formal schooling and more courses in science and mathematics were significantly more likely to understand the nature of scientific inquiry than other citizens.

Approximately 27 million Americans-14 percent-are attentive to science and technology policy issues, a level that has increased since 1995. In complex modern societies, it is not possible for citizens to become and remain informed about the full range of public policy areas, and some degree of issue specialization is inherent in these societies. About half of Americans indicate that they are interested in and informed about at least one public policy area, and, among those citizens who follow any public policy issues, it appears that most of them follow two or three issues at any given time.

Americans get most of their information about public policy issues from television news and newspapers. When placed on a uniform scale of the number of uses or hours per year, the public consumption of television news and newspapers dwarfs all other information sources. In 1997, Americans watched an average of 432 hours of television news and read 196 newspapers. During that period, Americans watched 72 hours of television science programs. Individuals with cable or satellite TV service watch more science television programs than those without this service.

Fifty-seven percent of Americans use a computer at home or at work, and computer use has increased steadily during the last decade. In 1997, Americans used a computer at work for 369 hours and used their home computer for an additional 130 hours. A significantly higher proportion of college graduates use a computer than individuals with fewer years of schooling.

In 1997, nearly one-third of Americans had a home computer that included a modem, and 18 percent of adults reported that they had used an on-line computer service during the preceding year. This is a significant increase in home access to on-line resources in the last two years alone. Moreover, 29 percent of adults in the United States reported having a home computer with a CD-ROM reader, opening additional information acquisition opportunities. Nearly two-thirds of Americans with a graduate or professional degree have a home computer with a modem, and 41 percent reported that they use an on-line service.

Americans continue to hold the scientific community in high regard. According to the most recent General Social Survey in 1996, approximately 40 percent of Americans expressed a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community and in the leadership of the medical community. This confidence has been stable for nearly two decades and is far higher than the levels reported for the leadership of most other major societal institutions.

Americans have high levels of belief in the promise of science and technology, with an average score of 70 on a 0-100 scale. They hold low levels of reservation about science and technology, with an average score of 37. These levels of reservation are the lowest reported among citizens of industrial nations. Compared to the citizens of 13 other industrial nations, Americans registered a strong belief in the promise of science and the lowest level of reservation about science and technology.

Seventy-five percent of Americans believe that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any present or potential harms. This level of positive assessment of scientific research has been stable for nearly two decades and reflects the high esteem in which the public holds the scientific community. College graduates and citizens attentive to science and technology policy hold even more positive views of science.

Despite their positive views of scientific research, Americans are deeply divided over the development and impact of several important technologies. They are relatively evenly divided on the benefits and harms of using nuclear power to generate electricity, and this division has persisted for more than a decade. A similar division occurs over the benefits and potential harms of genetic engineering, but there is a clearer difference by level of education, with college graduates holding much more positive views of genetic modification research. Regarding the space program, a small plurality of the general public believes that the benefits of the space program exceed its costs. College graduates and the attentive public for space exploration have continued to hold very positive attitudes toward the space program throughout the last decade.

Overall, the American public appears to continue to expect science and technology to improve the quality of life, and the scientific community is accorded a higher level of trust and confidence than other major societal institutions. Nonetheless, the concerns regarding several specific technologies indicate that the public has not given the scientific community a blank check. The public wants to know what is happening, and the scientific community needs to communicate its work ever more clearly and effectively.


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