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Science and Engineering Indicators 2004
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Chapter 7:
Information Sources, Interest, and Perceived Knowledge
Public Knowledge About S&T
Public Attitudes About Science-Related Issues
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Figure 7-6

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Figure 7-7

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Figure 7-8

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Figure 7-9

Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and

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Public Knowledge About S&T

Importance of Scientific Literacy
Understanding Scientific Terms and Concepts
Understanding the Scientific Process
Technological Literacy
Belief in Pseudoscience

Surveys conducted in the United States and Europe reveal that many citizens do not have a firm grasp of basic scientific facts and concepts, nor do they have an understanding of the scientific process. In addition, belief in pseudoscience (an indicator of scientific illiteracy) seems to be widespread among Americans and Europeans. Studies also suggest that not many Americans are technologically literate.

Importance of Scientific Literacy top of page

Scientific literacy in the United States (and in other countries) is fairly low. (Scientific literacy is defined here as knowing basic facts and concepts about science and having an understanding of how science works.) The majority of the general public knows a little but not a lot about science. For example, most Americans know that the Earth travels around the Sun and that light travels faster than sound. However, few know the definition of a molecule. In addition, most Americans are unfamiliar with the scientific process.[21]

It is important to have some knowledge of basic scientific facts, concepts, and vocabulary. Those who possess such knowledge are better able to follow science news reports and participate in public discourse on science-related issues. An appreciation of the scientific process may be even more important. Understanding how ideas are investigated and analyzed is a sure sign of scientific literacy. It is valuable not only in keeping up with important science-related issues, but also in evaluating and assessing the validity of any type of information and participating meaningfully in the political process (Maienschein 1999).

As noted earlier in this chapter, the science community has expressed concern that the public's lack of knowledge about science may have far-reaching consequences. Experts in science communication have identified challenges and successes in efforts to address this lack of knowledge. (See sidebar, "Communicating Science to the Public.")

The benefits of scientific literacy have become increasingly apparent in the wake of a landmark 1993 Supreme Court decision that addressed how particular types of evidence should be handled in legal proceedings (Kosko 2002). A recent survey revealed that many judges did not possess the knowledge necessary to determine whether evidence presented as scientific was, in fact, scientific. Seeking assistance in recognizing which scientific claims should be kept out of the courtroom, a group of judges recently approached a scientist who has spent part of his career helping the public distinguish valid from unfounded scientific claims. The judges asked the scientist to provide them with "indicators that a scientific claim lies well outside the bounds of rational scientific discourse." (See sidebar, "Science and the Law.")

Understanding Scientific Terms and Concepts top of page

Neither Americans nor Europeans got high marks in a 2001 quiz designed to test their knowledge of science. Both groups were asked 13 questions. On average, Americans answered 8.2 questions correctly, compared with 7.8 for Europeans.[22] Americans scored higher than Europeans on seven of the questions (figure 7-6 figure).

Response to one of the questions, "human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals," may reflect religious beliefs rather than actual knowledge about science. In the United States, 53 percent of respondents answered "true" to that statement in 2001, the highest level ever recorded by the NSF survey. (Before 2001, no more than 45 percent of respondents answered "true.") The 2001 result represented a major change from past surveys and brought the United States more in line with other industrialized countries about the question of evolution.

During most of the 20th century, probably the most contentious issue related to the teaching of science has been whether and how evolution is to be taught in U.S. public school classrooms.[23] The controversy has continued in the new millennium, erupting in Ohio, Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere. Contention about this issue also surfaced in England in 2001. (See sidebar, "More Than a Century After Darwin, Evolution Still Under Attack in Science Classrooms.")

Neither the U.S. survey nor the Eurobarometer has shown much change in the public's level of knowledge about science, with one exception: the number of people who know that antibiotics do not kill viruses has been increasing. In 2001, for the first time, a majority (51 percent) of U.S. respondents answered this question correctly, up from 40 percent in 1995. In Europe, 40 percent of respondents answered the question correctly in 2001, compared with only 27 percent in 1992.[24]

The promising trend in knowledge about antibiotics and viruses suggests that a public health campaign to educate the public about the increasing resistance of bacteria to antibiotics has been working. This problem has been the subject of widespread media coverage,[25] and whenever the main culprit—the overprescribing of antibiotics—is mentioned, so is the fact that antibiotics are ineffective in killing viruses. In addition, parents of young children, especially those prone to ear infections, have been warned by their pediatricians about this problem.[26] However, the message still has not reached a large segment of the population, in both the United States and Europe.

Americans apparently are also becoming more familiar with the terminology of genetics. In a 2001 NSF survey, 45 percent of respondents were able to define DNA. The percentage of correct responses to this survey question increased in the late 1990s, a trend that probably reflected the heavy media coverage of DNA use in forensics and medical research. More recently, a 2003 Harris poll found that 60 percent of adults in the United States selected the correct answer when asked "what is DNA?" (the genetic code for living cells), and two-thirds chose the right answer when asked "what does DNA stand for?" (deoxyribonucleic acid) (KSERO Corporation 2003).

Surveys also indicate that the American public lacks an appreciation of basic statistical concepts and terminology. If statistics were confined to academic journals and textbooks, this finding would be of limited interest. But daily newspapers and even television newscasts rely on tables and charts to illustrate all kinds of trends. (See sidebar, "Understanding Statistics.")

Understanding the Scientific Process top of page

NSF surveys have asked respondents to explain in their own words what it means to study something scientifically. Based on their answers, it is possible to conclude that most Americans (two-thirds in 2001) do not have a firm grasp of what is meant by the scientific process.[27] This lack of understanding may explain why a substantial portion of the population believes in various forms of pseudoscience. (See discussion of "Belief in Pseudoscience" in this chapter.)

In 2001, both the NSF survey and the Eurobarometer asked respondents questions designed to test their knowledge of how an experiment is conducted and their understanding of probability-two important aspects of scientific literacy.[28] Only 43 percent of Americans and 37 percent of Europeans answered the experiment question correctly. Both groups did better with probability: 57 percent of Americans and 69 percent of Europeans answered that question correctly.

Technological Literacy top of page

Most Americans are probably not technologically literate. They have little conception of how science, technology, and engineering are related to one another, and they do not clearly understand what engineers do and how engineers and scientists work together to create technology. Those are the major findings of a recent report issued by the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) and the National Research Council (NRC) (Committee on Technological Literacy 2002). In addition, the International Technology Education Association (ITEA) concluded from its 2001 survey that "adults are very interested in but relatively poorly informed about technology" (Rose and Dugger 2002).[29]

In the NAE/NRC report, technological literacy was defined as "one's ability to use, manage, assess, and understand technology." The concept includes an understanding of the nature of technology, the design process, and the history of technology; a capacity to ask questions and make informed decisions about technology; and some level of hands-on capability related to the use of technology. (See sidebar, "Characteristics of a Technologically Literate Citizen.")

According to the NAE/NRC report:

Technology has become so user friendly it is largely "invisible." Americans use technology with a minimal comprehension of how or why it works or the implications of its use or even where it comes from. American adults and children have a poor understanding of the essential characteristics of technology, how it influences society, and how people can and affect its development.

The report also notes that, "like literacy in reading, mathematics, science, or history, the goal of technological literacy is to provide people with the tools to participate intelligently and thoughtfully in the world around them." The following points are also made:

  • Technological literacy is particularly important for decisionmakers in business, government, and the media. However, as the report notes, "there is no evidence to suggest that legislators or their staff are any more technologically literate than the general public."

  • Technological literacy is extremely important to the health of the U.S. economy. Technological innovation is a major factor in the vitality of the economy, and an increasing number of jobs require workers to be technologically literate.

Although discussions of technological literacy imply agreement about the definition of technology, many people define technology far too narrowly. Their definition is usually restricted to computers and the Internet.[30]

In the ITEA survey, respondents were asked to name the first word that comes to mind when they hear the word "technology." Approximately two-thirds said "computers." Moreover, when given a choice of two definitions for "technology," 63 percent chose "computers and the Internet," whereas 36 percent chose "changing the natural world to satisfy our needs." Younger people were more likely than older people to choose the broader definition.

A majority of survey respondents (59 percent) associated the word design (in relation to technology) with "blueprints and drawings from which you construct something" rather than "a creative process for solving problems." College graduates were more likely than others to choose the latter definition.

The ITEA survey results suggest that most Americans feel confident in their knowledge of technology. More than three-fourths of those interviewed said they could understand and use technology either to a great extent (28 percent) or to some extent (47 percent). Younger respondents and college graduates were more likely than others to feel confident about technology.

Respondents were also asked whether they thought they could explain how certain technologies work. Most (90 percent) said they could explain how a flashlight works, 70 percent could explain how a home heating system works, 65 percent could explain how a telephone call gets from point A to point B, and 53 percent could explain how energy is transferred into power.

For each example except the flashlight, women were less confident than men in their ability to explain the technology. Respondents who said they had a "great" understanding of technology and those who held technology- or computer-related jobs were more likely than others to say they could explain the technology in the four examples.

Despite their apparent confidence about explaining how various technologies work, respondents had difficulty answering specific questions. About half (51 percent) did not know that using a portable phone while in the bathtub does not create a risk of electrocution, and only a fourth (26 percent) knew that FM radios operate free of static. However, 82 percent knew that a car operates through a series of explosions, and 62 percent knew that a microwave oven does not heat food from the outside to the inside.

Belief in Pseudoscience top of page

Although S&T are held in high esteem throughout the modern world, pseudoscientific beliefs continue to thrive, coexisting alongside society's professed respect for science and the scientific process. The science community and those whose job it is to communicate information about science to the public have been particularly concerned about the public's susceptibility to pseudoscientific or unproven claims that could adversely affect their health, safety, and pocketbooks (NIST 2002).

Pseudoscience has been defined as "claims presented so that they appear [to be] scientific even though they lack supporting evidence and plausibility" (Shermer 1997, p. 33).[31] In contrast, science is "a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed and inferred phenomena, past or present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation" (Shermer 1997, p. 17).

Belief in pseudoscience is relatively widespread.[32] For example, at least a quarter of the U.S. population believes in astrology, i.e., that the position of the stars and planets can affect people's lives. Although the majority (56 percent) of those queried in the 2001 NSF survey said that astrology is "not at all scientific," 9 percent said it is "very scientific" and 31 percent thought it is "sort of scientific" (figure 7-8 figure and appendix table 7-5 Microsoft Excel icon).

Belief in astrology is more prevalent in Europe, where 53 percent of those surveyed thought it is "rather scientific" and only a minority (39 percent) said it is not at all scientific (European Commission 2001). Europeans were more likely to say that astrology is scientific than to say the same about economics: only 42 percent of those surveyed thought that economics was scientific. Disciplines most likely to be considered scientific by Europeans were medicine (93 percent), physics (90 percent), biology (88 percent), astronomy (78 percent), mathematics (72 percent), and psychology (65 percent). History (33 percent) was at the bottom of the list. (Comparable U.S. data on the various disciplines do not exist.)

In the United States, skepticism about astrology is strongly related to level of education: 74 percent of college graduates said that astrology is "not at all scientific," compared with 45 percent of those with less than a high school education and 52 percent of those who had completed high school but not college. In Europe, however, respondents with college degrees were just as likely as others to claim that astrology is scientific.

Europeans were more likely than Americans to agree that "some numbers are particularly lucky for some people." The percentages were 46 percent and 32 percent, respectively.

Surveys conducted by NSF and other organizations suggest that at least half of the U.S. public believes in the existence of extrasensory perception (ESP), and a sizable minority believes in unidentified flying objects and that aliens have landed on Earth. In the 2001 NSF survey, 60 percent of respondents agreed that "some people possess psychic powers or ESP," and 30 percent agreed that "some of the unidentified flying objects that have been reported are really space vehicles from other civilizations."

Surveys even show increasing belief in pseudoscience (Newport and Strausberg 2001). Of the 13 paranormal phenomena included in a periodically administered Gallup survey, belief in 8 increased significantly between 1990 and 2001, and belief in only 1 (devil possession) declined. Belief in four of the phenomena (haunted houses, ghosts, communication with the dead, and witches) had double-digit percentage point increases between 1990 and 2001[33] (figure 7-9 figure).


[21]  Researchers have concluded that fewer than one-fifth of Americans meet a minimal standard of civic scientific literacy (Miller, Pardo, and Niwa 1997).

[22]  In Europe, residents of Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, and Denmark scored the highest, residents of Portugal, Ireland, Greece, and Spain the lowest.

[23]  The National Science Board issued a statement on the subject in August 1999 (National Science Board 1999).

[24]  Results from another survey indicate that most (93 percent) of the public has seen, heard, or read reports about the overuse of antibiotics causing a serious health problem. Although 79 percent of survey respondents were aware that colds and the flu are caused by viruses, not bacteria, and 61 percent knew that antibiotics are not effective in treating viruses, about half (49 percent) believed that antibiotics are at least somewhat effective in treating colds and the flu (Taylor and Leitman 2002).

[25]  Recent examples include the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and monkey pox during 2003.

[26]  A recent study found that the number of prescriptions for antibiotics for children in the United States declined significantly between 1996 and 2000 (Finkelstein et al. 2003) and that parents who demand antibiotics for their children's ear infections can be swayed by doctors to change their minds (Siegel 2003).

[27]  Correct explanations of scientific study include responses describing it as theory testing, experimentation, or rigorous, systematic comparison.

[28]  The question pertaining to experimental evaluation was: "Now, please think of this situation. Two scientists want to know if a certain drug is effective in treating high blood pressure. The first scientist wants to give the drug to 1,000 people with high blood pressure and see how many experience lower blood pressure levels. The second scientist wants to give the drug to 500 people with high blood pressure, and not give the drug to another 500 people with high blood pressure, and see how many in both groups experience lower blood pressure levels. Which is the better way to test this drug? Why is it better to test the drug this way?"

The text of the probability question was: "Now think about this situation. A doctor tells a couple that their 'genetic makeup' means that they've got one in four chances of having a child with an inherited illness. Does this mean that if their first three children are healthy, the fourth will have the illness? Does this mean that if their first child has the illness, the next three will not? Does this mean that each of the couple's children will have the same risk of suffering from the illness? Does this mean that if they have only three children, none will have the illness?"

Because the Eurobarometer report was translated from French to English, the question wordings may not have been identical to those in the NSF survey. However, approximate comparisons are possible.

[29]  Almost everyone surveyed agreed that technological literacy is an important goal. About three-fourths of the respondents said it is very important "for people at all levels to develop some ability to understand and use technology"; the remaining fourth said that it was somewhat important. Responses were similar for both sexes and all age groups.

[30]  Technology actually encompasses not only the tangible artifacts of the human-designed world (e.g., bridges, automobiles, computers, satellites, medical imaging devices, drugs, genetically engineered plants) but also the larger systems of which the artifacts are a part (e.g., transportation, communications, health care, food production), as well as the people and infrastructure needed to design, manufacture, operate, and repair the artifacts.

[31]  According to one group studying such phenomena, pseudoscience topics include yogi flying, therapeutic touch, astrology, fire walking, voodoo magical thinking, alternative medicine, channeling, Carlos hoax, psychic hotlines and detectives, near-death experiences, unidentified flying objects and alien abductions, the Bermuda Triangle, homeopathy, faith healing, and reincarnation (Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal).

[32]  A February 2002 CBS News poll found that 57 percent of Americans believe "that there are such things as ESP [extrasensory perception] or telepathy, or other experiences that can't be explained by normal means" (CBS News 2002). A Harris poll conducted in February 2003 revealed that 84 percent of those surveyed believed in miracles, 51 percent in ghosts, 31 percent in astrology, and 27 percent in reincarnation. Women and those with less formal education were more likely than others to believe in these paranormal phenomena (Taylor 2003).

[33]  Various researchers have demonstrated that a continuing parade of para-normal depictions in movies and psychic mediums on television distort some viewers' perception of reality and thus fuel such beliefs (Sparks, Nelson, and Campbell 1997; and Nisbet et al. 2002).

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