Chapter 7:

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding


Attitudes Toward Science and Technology Policy Issues


One of the areas of inquiry that social psychology and learning research has focused on is the development of public attitudes toward a variety of subjects. How humans learn, think, and develop cognitive structures is an evolving and complex area of research. Some of the social psychology concepts are helpful in the analysis of public attitudes toward science and technology. Some social psychology literature indicates that most individuals, when faced with a daily barrage of complex information, often construct schemas to filter and manage information (Schank 1977; Minsky 1986; Lau and Sears 1986; Milburn 1991; and Pick, van den Broek, and Knill 1992).

A schema is a psychological structure that humans use to integrate information and experiences into coherent clusters. Individuals have schemas for simple tasks (such as driving an automobile in traffic) as well as for more complex and abstract tasks (such as understanding the impact of science on society). Schemas are usually cumulative in character and help people categorize new information while also providing an initial filtering response to the information. For example, when a driver sees a lighted arrow pointing to one side of a highway, it is likely that the driver will assume the need to turn in that direction, and may also reason that it will be necessary to slow the vehicle first. The original observation of the lighted arrow activates various prior experiences and knowledge, bringing into short-term memory a set of alternative explanations and associated behaviors.

Similarly, when an individual hears or reads a news report that a new drug tested on a large number of animals was found to reduce the development of cancer, that information may be recognized as a "scientific study" and one or more schema relevant to this subject may be activated. Although the report involves tests of a drug on animals, the individual may recognize that the results could lead to studies with more advanced animals or with humans, ultimately resulting in a drug that might be useful to humans. An individual with a strong positive schema toward science may interpret this report optimistically, expecting new medications in the foreseeable future, and reinforcing a belief that science produces things that make life healthier, easier, and more comfortable. Conversely, an individual with a strong negative schema toward science may recall other test reports that have promised results, but failed to produce them.

It is important to explore the structure of public attitudes toward science and technology in the United States and to compare it with structures found in other industrial nations. To do that, a series of analyses was conducted, and two independent dimensions were found that support the view that most individuals hold two primary schemas toward science and technology. The first dimension appears to represent belief in the promise of science and technology. A careful reading of the four items included on this dimension indicates that they all reflect either the judgment that science and technology have already improved the quality of life, with the implicit assumption that this will continue, or make a positive assessment of the likelihood of future benefits. The second dimension appears to represent personal reservations about science and technology. The four items included on this dimension express concerns about the speed of change in modern life and a sense that science may, at times, pose conflicts with traditional values or belief systems.

It is reasonable to expect many combinations of these two schemas. Some individuals may have a strong belief in the promise of science and technology and a low level of concern, leading them to react positively to a wide spectrum of science news. Alternatively, some individuals may have lower expectations about the promise of science and technology and a higher level of concern, leading them to be doubtful or negative about scientific news. It is also possible for an individual to hold both hope in the promise of science and technology and real reservations about their potential harms or dangers. Given the low salience of science and technology to many adults, it is likely that some people will have both low expectations about the promise of science and technology and little awareness or concern about potential drawbacks.

To provide a common metric for comparison, a 0-100 index was constructed for the Index of Scientific Promise and the Index of Scientific Reservations. The mean score of U.S. adults on the Index of Scientific Promise was 70 in 1997, and the mean score on the Index of Scientific Reservations was 37.[10] (See appendix tables 7-13 and 7-14.) Although the ratio between the two indices may show the relative strength of positive and negative attitudes toward science and technology, both schema operate simultaneously in most individuals. This pattern means that most Americans hold strong beliefs in the promise of science and technology to improve the quality of life and have relatively low levels of reservation about possible harms. Comparable indicators from 1992 and 1995 suggest that this pattern of American attitudes has remained stable in recent years.[11]

A comparison of the United States and 13 other industrial nations shows that the citizens of most industrial countries hold strong positive beliefs about the promise of science and technology to improve the quality of life. (See appendix table 7-16.) The citizens of the other 13 industrial nations had a mean score around 70 on the Index of Scientific Promise, suggesting a pervasive belief in the potential benefits of science and technology to improve the quality of life.

There are, however, major differences among industrial nations in the level of reservation, or concern, about potential negative effects of science and technology on traditional values and on the pace of life. Among industrial nations, American adults report the lowest levels of reservation about science and technology, with a mean score of 37. Canadians and most Europeans recorded mean reservation scores between 50 and 60, but the citizens of Greece and Portugal displayed mean scores above 66. This pattern suggests that these citizens simultaneously believe in the promise of science and technology to improve the quality of life, and hold a slightly lower-but substantial-level of concern about potential negative impacts of science and technology.

Japan is an interesting exception to this pattern. The mean score for Japanese adults on the promise index was 55, but the mean score on the reservation index was 56. The level of reservation is comparable to Canada and most European countries, but the level of belief in the promise of science and technology to improve the quality of life is essentially equal to the level of concern. While this pattern is surprising in the context of Japanese success in science and technology in recent decades, it may be a reflection of a traditional society experiencing a faster pace of social and economic change than earlier generations.

The Linkage Between Schema and Specific Policy Preferences top

To learn how these general schema function with regard to specific policy preferences, it is useful to view the responses of Americans to the statement, "Even if it brings no immediate benefits, scientific research which advances the frontiers of knowledge is necessary and should be supported by the Federal Government." Nearly 80 percent of Americans agreed with that statement in 1997, and only 18 percent explicitly disagreed with it. (See figure 7-11 and appendix table 7-17.) The same question has been asked of Americans in each of the Science & Engineering Indicators studies since 1985, and the results suggest that this level of support has been stable for at least a decade. Approximately 90 percent of American adults with a baccalaureate degree have voiced approval for this statement since 1985.

A careful examination of the data from 1997 suggests that these two schema play an important intermediary role in the development of specific policy preferences, such as the preference for government funding for basic scientific research. About 54 percent of American adults who scored less than 50 on the Index of Scientific Promise agree that the Federal Government should fund basic scientific research. By contrast, 89 percent of adults with a score of 75 or more on the index supported that funding. (See figure 7-11 and appendix table 7-18.) Similarly, the level of support ranges from 67 percent among adults with a high level of reservation about the impact of science and technology to 90 percent among adults with a low level of reservation. By itself, this pattern would suggest that both of these schema operate simultaneously and in opposite directions, but other factors-such as level of education and the number of science courses taken-influence the general schema themselves; thus, the relationship is more complex. The influence of education, for example, can be seen in the percentage of support by schema score among those with different levels of education. (See appendix table 7-18.) These results confirm that both the promise schema and the reservation schema continue to operate within every level of formal education.

The results show that schema-general and long-term attitudinal filters-play an important role in the formulation and maintenance of more specific policy attitudes and preferences. It is useful to examine some additional indicators of public attitudes toward organized science in the United States.

One of the oldest indicators of the public attitude toward science and technology is the General Social Survey query (Davis and Smith annual series), which asks Americans whether they have a "great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all" in the people running selected institutions. About 40 percent of Americans express a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the scientific community, trailing only the leadership of medicine. (See figure 7-12 and appendix table 7-19.) Comparatively, only 10 percent of adults expressed a great deal of confidence in the leadership of the press or television in 1996. This level of esteem for the leadership of the scientific community has continued during the two decades that these data have been collected.

Perceptions of Scientific Research top

The longest available indicator of the relative benefits and harms of science is a question that Americans were first asked only weeks before the launch of Sputnik I in 1957. Asked to judge whether the world is better or worse off because of science, 88 percent of American adults said they thought the world was better off, and only 3 percent said that the world was worse off (Davis 1958). In the 1988 Science & Engineering Indicators study, this question was repeated and 88 percent still said that the world was better off due to science. In 1997, 40 years after Sputnik, 87 percent indicated that they felt that the world is better off because of science, and only 5 percent said that the world is worse off due to science. This pattern reflects a consistent post-war belief among Americans that science will improve the quality of life.

When asked in 1997 to weigh the benefits and harms of "scientific research," 75 percent of Americans indicated that the benefits had exceeded any harms, and only 12 percent took an opposing view. (See figure 7-13 and appendix table 7-20.) In 1997, 90 percent of Americans with a college degree indicated that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harms, compared to 58 percent who did not finish high school. Of the attentive public for science and technology policy (those most likely to become involved in science or technology policy disputes), 83 percent believed that the benefits of scientific research outweigh any harms.

Perceptions of Nuclear Power top

Americans are not as positive about all scientific issues as they are about scientific research generally. For example, they have been evenly divided for more than a decade over the use of nuclear power to generate electricity. In 1997, 45 percent of Americans believed the benefits of nuclear power outweighed any harms, while 37 percent held the opposite view, and 18 percent thought that benefits and harms were equal. (See figure 7-14 and appendix table 7-21.)

Individuals with more years of formal schooling, males, and citizens attentive to science and technology policy were slightly more favorable in their assessment of the benefits and harms of nuclear power than other Americans, but the differences were modest.[12] (See appendix table 7-21.) The relationship between education and the assessment of nuclear power was relatively weak.

Perceptions of Genetic Engineering top

During the last 15 years, media discussion of genetic modification has increased markedly. The subject has been raised on television and in films, criminal trials, and person-of-the year awards. Americans continue to be divided in their assessment of the benefits and harms of genetic engineering. In 1997, 42 percent of Americans thought that the benefits outweighed the harms, but 36 percent concluded that the actual or potential harms were greater than the benefits. (See figure 7-15 and appendix table 7-22.) In 1995 and 1997, more Americans were undecided or thought that the harms equaled the benefits than a decade ago.

Several interesting patterns emerge regarding education, attentiveness, and sex. (See appendix table 7-22.) With respect to education, individuals with less than a high school diploma gradually shifted from more positive attitudes toward genetic engineering to more negative assessments between 1985 and 1997. Increased media attention to this topic seems to have created more worries, which create negative assessments for this population. Among high school graduates, the positive assessment of genetic engineering has remained relatively stable, while negative assessments have declined slightly. This period has seen growth among high school graduates in uncertainty or in the belief that benefits equal harms. A similar pattern can be found for college graduates, with the majority believing that the benefits outweigh the harms, but an increasing proportion expressing either uncertainty or the view that benefits and harms are about equal. These findings are similar to what Nelkin (1977) saw regarding nuclear power in Sweden. Nelkin found that as information about nuclear power increased, the percentage of individuals who felt undecided about its use also increased.

These data show that a majority of the attentive publics for science and technology policy and for biomedical research (medical discoveries) has held a positive assessment of the benefits and harms of genetic engineering since 1985. (See appendix table 7-22.) For both attentive publics, the proportion of citizens who see the benefits and harms as about equal, or who cannot determine the difference, has been growing since 1985.

There is a clear difference by sex on this issue. In 1997, nearly 50 percent of men expressed a positive view of genetic engineering, compared to 37 percent of women. (See appendix table 7-22.) Approximately half of American men favored genetic engineering throughout the last decade. American women were nearly equally divided in 1997, with 37 percent indicating that the benefits outweigh the harms and 40 percent saying that the harms outweigh the benefits.[13]

Perceptions of Space Exploration top

The balance between benefits and costs, rather than benefits and harms, has been important in assessment of the space program. While a majority supported the program in 1985, a small plurality of the public thought that the costs exceeded the benefits of space exploration in the early 1990s; public perceptions shifted toward the view that the benefits of space exploration exceeded its costs in 1997. (See figure 7-16 and appendix table 7-23.) This pattern of change offers an interesting insight into the role of attentive publics for low-salience issues.

In 1985, immediately prior to the Challenger accident, 54 percent of Americans thought that the benefits of the space program outweighed its costs. However, 66 percent of the attentive public for science and technology policy, and 74 percent of the attentive public for space exploration, believed that the benefits outweighed the costs and tended to hold strong feelings on this matter. The explosion of the Challenger produced an immediate increase in support for the space program in all segments of the American public (Miller 1987), but the grounding of the shuttle program for more than two years eroded a great deal of that support. Through the late 1980s and early 1990s, support was declining in both the general public and among those attentive to science policy. By 1992, however, fully 82 percent of the attentive public for space exploration believed that the benefits of the space program were greater than its costs. Although the interviews for the present Indicators study were largely completed prior to the Mars landing, a series of successful shuttle flights and a steady flow of images from the Hubble Space Telescope produced a small surge in public support.

By the summer of 1997, 48 percent of American adults felt that the benefits of the space program exceeded its costs, while 42 percent of adults continued to think that the costs were greater than the benefits. (See appendix table 7-23.) At the same time, 66 percent of the attentive public for science and technology policy, and 76 percent of the attentive public for space exploration, indicated that the benefits exceeded the costs.

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Footnotes

[10] See appendix table 7-14 for the frequency distribution of the eight items included in the two schema.

[11] Some of the items included in the Index of Scientific Reservations and the Index of Scientific Promise were included in the Attitude Toward Organized Science Scale that was reported in previous Science & Engineering Indicators. (See appendix table 7-15.)

[12] These differences in attitudes by sex toward nuclear power are consistent with the findings of other studies conducted in the United States and Europe (Shapiro and Mahajan 1986, Norris 1988, and Poole and Zeigler 1985).

[13] Hoban and Kendall (1993), in a study conducted in the United States, also found that men hold more positive views of biotechnology. A 1993 European study of attitudes toward biotechnology also found that men hold more positive attitudes toward biotechnology and genetic engineering (see Marlier 1993).


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