Phenomena, Comment & Notes

Most Americans believe science and technology make their lives better, two out of five are “very interested” in them, but not many know how they work

We are in a golden age of science in many fields, and yet this is not an easy time to be a scientist. Research budgets are being cut. Editors at Scientific American are writing books saying that science has gone about as far as it can go. More and more people, it seems, are ignoring real science to embrace astrology, healing with crystals, alien abductions and the like. Carl Sagan himself has a book out attacking this new Dark Axge of "pseudoscience and superstition." Most of all, scientists worry that their fellow citizens just plain don't understand science.

As a nation, we've been worried about public understanding of science since the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957. Schools changed their curricula. Newspapers increased their science coverage. Foundations even put up money to turn raggedy courthouse reporters into knowledgeable science writers. (Thank you, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation!) As a White House press officer might put it, an effort was made.

Now it's nearly 40 years later and it turns out we have a long way to go. Every two years or so, the National Science Board sends the President a report on what it calls science and engineering indicators. The 1996 edition is a 306-page text (with 321 pages of appended tables) that assesses science education from elementary school through graduate school and analyzes the scientific work force, trends in research and development, and so on. The running text is heavily marbled with charts, graphs and still more tables.

One section is called "Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Public Understanding." It is based on an in-depth survey of 2,006 people, supposedly a representative sampling of adult Americans in terms of gender, years of education, years of science education and interest in science. In many ways the news is good. The interest is there. About 40 percent of the population describes itself as very interested in scientific discoveries and new technologies. Medical discoveries, as might be expected, rank the highest, at 70 percent. Environmental issues are losing their appeal (they're down ten points from 1990) but are still of interest to just over half (53 percent) of the adult population. Space exploration, at about 25 percent, just noses out foreign policy.

Our interest in science exceeds our grasp, however. Despite all the good intentions, we just don't know much about science. Fewer than one in ten Americans can define a molecule. Many know a molecule is small, but they do not know how small it is compared with a cell or an atom. Just one in five can give a minimally acceptable definition of DNA. These were both essay questions, which some people don't do well on. The results of a couple of the multiple choice questions would worry anyone, however. Only 47 percent know that the Earth goes around the Sun once a year. Only 48 percent know that the earliest humans did not live at the same time as the dinosaurs. With those results, one could argue that half the adult population of the United States is scientifically illiterate.

The good news is that we did much better on some other questions. Almost 80 percent of us know the continents are moving and that the center of the Earth is very hot. Three-quarters of us know that light travels faster than sound and that the Earth moves around the Sun, not vice versa. And 91 percent know that smoking causes lung cancer.

Nearly a quarter of all adults can explain why there is a hole in the ozone layer, and about a third know of the potential dangers. Only 14 percent, however, know that the hole is over Antarctica. Forty-one percent of those polled said they had a clear or general understanding of acid rain, but only 5 percent could give a scientifically correct response; another 2 percent could give a general description, and the rest simply classified acid rain as pollution.

If we have trouble with knowing science, we have even more with how it works, the scientific method. Most of us just don't get it. Only 2 percent of Americans understand science as the development and testing of theory. Thirty-four percent have some idea that science has to do with experimental study, rigorous comparison and careful measurement. The rest, apparently, don't have a clue.

Now that we adults are out of school, some for decades, where do we get our information about science? It's no surprise that 63 percent of the respondents watch one or more hours of television news every day. It depresses me that only 47 percent read a newspaper. The totals are a little scary: adults spend an average of 1,019 hours (the equivalent of 25 workweeks) a year watching television, of which 408 hours is news. Americans average 81 hours a year watching television shows about science. That comes close to taking two one-semester courses, if my numbers are correct. That's impressive, and makes pretty clear where those concerned with scientific literacy should concentrate their efforts. There is no breakdown of how many hours people spend reading science stories in newspapers and newsmagazines (and no mention at all of general-interest magazines such as this one).

The report demonstrates that yes, we are now a computer society. More than half (54 percent) of all American adults have access to a computer either at home or at work. A fifth have access in both places. Two-fifths of college students can write programs in computer languages such as BASIC, PASCAL or C. (They might as well be at Starfleet Academy; I'll never catch up.)

Public confidence in the people who "run" science has stayed about the same since 1973, at 38 percent. Medicine is the only field with a higher score, and that has declined from 54 percent to 41 percent. Only the military has increased its score, from 32 percent to 37 percent. Confidence in the executive branch of the federal government has dropped from 29 percent to 11 percent; Congress and the press have both dropped from 23 percent to 8 percent. (Does it bother anybody that no institution on the list-the others include the U.S. Supreme Court, education, major companies, organized religion, television and organized labor-has even a 50 percent approval rating?)

There are two areas of science and technology on which the American public is evenly divided. One is nuclear power, on which subject 14 percent of the public believes the benefits equal the risks. The rest, in almost exactly even numbers, believe the benefits outweigh the risks or vice versa. The other is space exploration, about which respondents were asked to weigh the benefits and the costs rather than the risks. Again the break was almost exactly even. There were 46 percent on the benefits side, only 8 percent on the fence, and 45 percent who said the costs outweigh the benefits. With genetic engineering, another controversial area, the weight (43 percent) is on the benefits side, with 22 percent saying the benefits equal the risks and 35 percent saying the risks outweigh the benefits. Scientists should not worry about those rather low benefit numbers. Asked whether science and technology "are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable," a resounding 86 percent of those polled said yes.

It seems to me there are two parts to the problem of scientific literacy. One comes early in life, when a child's natural and strong curiosity about the physical world — the excitement of understanding fire and ice and sunsets and stars — is too often dimmed by difficult and boring science classes, where science sometimes seems to have little or nothing to do with the wonders of the world. And at the other end of life, we lose whatever science vocabulary we once had if we do not use it often enough, just as those lucky enough to have learned a second language will lose that if it is left unused.

I have no solution, except to ask those who do know science to work harder at explaining to the rest of us just how extraordinary the physical world really is, how high the human mind has been able to soar on the power of a three-pound brain. For me, it's time to buy a lounge chair and lean back for that 81-hour minimum yearly requirement of science television.

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