July 3, 2000 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.
Full volumes of Science and Engineering Indicators 2000: http://www.nsf.gov/cgi-bin/getpub?nsb001
Related news releases and backgrounders: http://www.nsf.gov/od/lpa/news/press/00/pr_indicators.htm
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