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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


The portrait of public knowledge and attitudes concerning S&T depends, in part, on the standard used for judgment. One standard involves comparing a country's knowledge and attitudes with those recorded in other countries. When the data are examined using other countries as a benchmark, the United States compares relatively favorably. Compared with adult residents of other developed countries, American adults appear to know as much or more about science, and they express as much or more optimism about technology.

A second standard involves comparing Americans' knowledge and attitudes today with those of the past. By this standard, the survey data, while not showing marked improvements in public understanding, provide little or no evidence of declining knowledge. Relative to Americans in the recent past, today's American public scores as well on knowledge measures and tends to be more skeptical about scientific claims for pseudoscience, such as astrology. Additionally, younger Americans are more knowledgeable about S&T than older cohorts; this pattern suggests that the long-term outlook for public knowledge is promising.

Similarly, general U.S. attitudes about the promise and contribution of science to society remain strongly positive. Three decades of data consistently show that Americans endorse the past achievements and future promise of S&T and are favorably predisposed to continued government investment in science. When Americans compare science with other institutions, science's relative ranking is equally or more favorable than in the past. In addition, the prestige of the engineering profession has increased in recent years.

A third 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 this standard, there is more reason for concern. Trend data show that significant minorities of Americans cannot answer relatively simple knowledge questions about S&T, often express basic misconceptions about emerging technologies such as nanotechnology, and believe that relatively great scientific uncertainty surrounds the existence and causes of global climate change. Sizable proportions of the population express reservations about how the speed of technological change affects our way of life, and about the use of animals in medical research.

Regardless of the standard used in assessing public attitudes and understanding of S&T, one pattern in the data stands out: Americans who are more highly educated—particularly those who are college-educated and have completed college courses in science and mathematics—tend to know and understand more about S&T. Although it is not clear whether this association is causal, the pattern underscores the need for continued attention to the education system and the possible role of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in fostering public understanding of S&T.