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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding


Interest, Information Sources, and Involvement

Four out of five Americans say they are interested in “new scientific discoveries.”

  • Other science and technology (S&T) related issues also interest many Americans; these include new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, and new inventions and technologies.
  • A survey of the United States and 10 European countries, including the 5 largest, suggests that interest in S&T in the United States is somewhat higher than in Europe.
The Internet has surpassed television as Americans’ primary source for information about S&T.
  • About 4 in 10 Americans cited the Internet as their primary source of S&T information in 2012 compared with about one-third in 2010. The percentage of Americans saying they relied on television as their primary source of S&T information dropped between 2010 and 2012.
  • Most of those who used the Internet for S&T information said they used online editions of newspapers.
A majority of Americans said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, natural history museum, or S&T museum in 2012.
  • Reported attendance at informal science and cultural institutions in 2012 was down slightly from 2008. The primary drop was for zoos and aquariums.
  • Attendance at informal science institutions was associated with higher education and income.

Public Knowledge about S&T

Americans correctly answered 5.8 out of 9 factual knowledge questions in 2012, a score similar to those in recent years.

  • A survey experiment showed that 48% of respondents said they thought it was true that “human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals,” but 72% gave this response when the same statement was prefaced by “according to the theory of evolution.” Similarly, 39% of respondents said that “the universe began with a huge explosion,” but 60% gave this response when the statement was prefaced by “according to astronomers.”
  • Levels of factual knowledge in the United States are comparable to those in Europe and are generally higher than levels in countries in other parts of the world.
  • Americans with more formal education do better on science knowledge questions.
  • Men do better on questions focused on the physical sciences, but there are few differences between men and women in terms of responses to questions focused on the biological sciences.
Most Americans could correctly answer two multiple-choice questions dealing with probability in the context of medical treatment and the best way to conduct a drug trial but had difficulty providing a rationale for the use of a control group or describing what makes something scientific.
  • Americans performed better than the average for residents of 10 European countries on a similar multiple-choice measure of probability, although the residents of several individual countries had better scores than U.S. residents.
Fewer Americans rejected astrology in 2012 than in recent years.
  • In 2012, slightly more than half of Americans said that astrology was “not at all scientific,” whereas nearly two-thirds gave this response in 2010. The comparable percentage has not been this low since 1983.

Public Attitudes about S&T in General

Most Americans continue to say that the benefits of science outweigh the potential harms and that the federal government should fund research that “advances the frontiers of knowledge.”

  • As in past years, about 4 in 10 Americans said the government was spending “too little on research.” In 2012, about half of respondents said government spending on scientific research was “about right,” and about 1 in 10 said there was too much research spending.
  • Americans are most likely to say that education has remained the area in which the government spends too little money. Majorities have also consistently said that they believe health, “alternative energy,” and environmental improvement and protection receive too little funding. The only area in which majorities say government spends “too much” is on “assistance to other countries.”
Americans are more likely to have a “great deal of confidence” in leaders of both the scientific community and the medical community than in leaders of any group except the military.
  • The scientific and medical communities are also among the most highly regarded groups in most other countries surveyed.
Americans hold positive views about both scientists and engineers. Attitudes are similar to those expressed about scientists in 1983 and 2001.
  • Less than half of Americans say they have an “excellent” or “good” understanding of what scientists and engineers do at work. Americans say they have a better understanding of engineers’ work than scientists’ work.
  • Many Americans say they think that “scientific work” and “engineering work” are “dangerous,” although scientific work is seen as more dangerous than engineering work.
  • Most Americans see scientists and engineers as “dedicated people who work for the good of humanity.”
Americans see many traditional research fields, as well as a range of applied fields, as “scientific.”
  • Only about half of Americans see the social science fields of economics and sociology as scientific. More Americans see applied activities such as computer programming, farming, and firefighting as scientific.

Public Attitudes about Specific S&T-Related Issues

Americans are about as concerned about the overall environment as respondents in many other developed countries.

  • In 2010, about one-third of Americans said they worried about “the quality of the environment.” Responses to this question have been similar in recent years.
Americans remain divided on views about climate change and hold views that are different from those of citizens of other countries.
  • A majority of Americans worried “a great deal” or a “fair amount” about climate change in 2013.
  • About 3 in 10 Americans say that “dealing with global warming” should be a priority for the president and Congress. In recent years, dealing with climate issues has been near the bottom of Americans’ list of potential priorities.
  • Many of the other countries surveyed show more concern than the United States about climate change.
  • Americans are more likely than residents of other countries to say they believe that any apparent change in temperatures is the result of natural rather than man-made causes.
Americans’ support for oil and nuclear energy has rebounded or stabilized following declines associated with major accidents.
  • About two-thirds of Americans supported “allowing more offshore oil and gas drilling” in 2012. Less than half of Americans supported drilling in a survey conducted in 2010, shortly after the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • Most Americans continue to express support for nuclear energy as “one of the ways to provide electricity,” although support remains lower than before the 2011 nuclear accident in Fukushima, Japan.
  • Americans are more supportive of nuclear energy than residents of most other countries.
Americans are less concerned about “modifying the genes of certain crops” than residents of most other countries surveyed, although most still see potential danger.
  • In 2010, about one-quarter of U.S. respondents said that modification could be “very” or “extremely dangerous.” Belgium was the only country where residents saw less danger.
Most Americans see using stem cells from human embryos in medical research as “morally acceptable.”
  • In 2013, 6 in 10 of Americans saw using stem cells from human embryos as acceptable. This percentage has stayed relatively stable since 2005.