SOC: Survey of American Attitudes Toward and Knowledge of Science

Date: Fri Jun 23 2000 - 19:50:27 MDT

Newest Survey Shows Most Americans Have Confidence in Science, But Lack
Science & Engineering Indicators 2000 reports new data
A 1999 survey on the public's understanding of science shows that while
Americans' confidence and interest in science and technology is very high,
their understanding of basic science facts and principles remains quite low.

The results of the survey are published in the National Science Board's (NSB)
biennial report to the President for Congress on the state of U.S. science,
engineering and technology, Science & Engineering Indicators 2000. The survey
results show a slight improvement in public understanding of certain
scientific principles over the last two decades. However, the improvement has
been paralleled by a widespread belief in pseudosciences such as astrology,
alien abductions and extrasensory perception.

The vast majority of Americans say that science and technology are making
their lives better, and describe their general reaction to science and
technology with words like "hope" and "wonder." In contrast, only 17 percent
of respondents to the National Science Foundation-supported survey for S&E
Indicators described themselves as well informed about new scientific
discoveries and the use of new inventions and technologies. Thirty percent
said they were poorly informed.

Answering a series of 20 questions designed to test basic knowledge, only 50
percent of Americans know how long it takes Earth to circle the sun, and most
still can't correctly describe in their own words some basic scientific
terms, including molecules, the Internet, and DNA, marking little improvement
over surveys conducted in 1995 and 1997.

The scientific process isn't well understood either. Only 21 percent of those
surveyed were able to explain what it means to study something
scientifically, just over half understood probability, and only a third knew
how an experiment is conducted.

Most of what Americans know about science comes from television and
newspapers, the report says, citing widespread consensus among scientists and
journalists that important information about science and technology is not
reaching the public. It also cites several surveys that show belief in the
pseudoscience is commonplace in the U.S. and traces this belief to the
entertainment industry.

"Americans in the next decade will be asked to make important decisions that
will involve highly technical issues such as genetically engineered crops and
the preservation of biodiversity," says NSF director Rita Colwell. "To
understand these issues, the public must be better informed about basic
science and engineering, as well as the scientific process."

Even if they don't understand it, Americans respect science. In 1999 a record
82 percent voiced support for federal funding of basic research. While 14
percent thought the government was spending too much on research, 37 percent
said not enough, the report says. Americans consistently believe that the
benefits of scientific research outweigh any harmful results. Public
confidence in the medical and scientific communities, the report points out,
is higher than in other American institutions, including education, the
Supreme Court, television, and the media.

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