A recent survey’s tracking of public confidence in the people running various institutions, surveyed every year or so since 1973, shows the scientific community ranked second among thirteen institutions, behind only medicine. Third was the military, followed by the U.S. Supreme Court. At the bottom of the list were Congress, the press, and TV.
Remarkably, among the thirteen institutions, the scientific community and the military were the only two that showed an increase in public confidence from 1973 to 1994. The survey data confirm the widespread drop in public confidence in U.S. institutions that virtually everyone has noted. For instance, public confidence in Congress, the executive branch of the federal government, and the press each dropped by about a factor of three over those two decades, and confidence in the leaders of education and organized religion dropped by about one-third. Confidence in the leaden of major companies dropped by about 15 percent.
Yet the percentage of adults who expressed a great deal of confidence in the scientific community rose slightly from 37 percent to 38 percent during the same two decades, with only slight year-to-year variations (low of 36 percent in 1977, high of 45 percent in 1987). Medicine retained its top ranking despite dropping over the two decades from a 54 percent to a 41 percent rating.
When the report was issued earlier this year, most of the attention was devoted to the public’s generally poor understanding of scientific vocabulary and concepts. Only 21 percent could give a satisfactory explanation of DNA and only 9 percent could explain what a molecule is. Only 44 percent knew that electrons are smaller than atoms, and 73 percent knew that the earth goes around the sun, meaning that 27 percent got it the other way around. As might be expected, only 44 percent said it was true that human beings developed from earlier species of animals. This less-than-majority agreement is probably at least as much a measure of religious resistance to the idea of evolution as a lack of knowledge. For example, a concept at least equally nonintuitive – that the continents on which we live move over periods of millions of years and will continue to do so – was correctly rated as true by 79 percent.
The more education, the more science education, and the more the respondents rated themselves as attentive to science, the better the scores. Males generally scored better, except on several biomedical-related questions.
Several questions asked about the nature of scientific inquiry. These asked about such things as the meaning of scientific study and the reasons for the use of control groups in experiments. The study found that only 23 percent of Americans understand the nature of scientific inquiry well enough to make informed judgments about the scientific basis of results reported in the media. Again, higher levels of education and greater exposure to science courses resulted in higher results.
So, as other commentators have noted before, the American public seems to have a strong appreciation for science but little substantive knowledge of it.
So what about the antiscience sentiment that has so concerned scientists – that has been the subject of books, articles, debates, and symposium sessions at the recent CSICOP twentieth-anniversary conference “Science in the Age of (Mis)Information”?
Well, this survey didn’t seek out attitudes among the populations where scientists say antiscience attitudes are rampant – in university humanities and social science departments and among other intellectuals and writers and opinion leaders. The concern, they say – and this was emphasized several times at the CSICOP conference by Nature’s John Maddox and others – is that antiscience attitudes are endemic among a relatively small but especially articulate and influential group of academics, including numbers of teachers of the next generation of liberal arts majors, our future politicians and business leaders.
Paul Gross and Norman Levitt’s much-discussed book on antiscience attitudes in academia, Higher Superstition, focused especially on the “peculiarly troubled relationship between the natural sciences and a large and influential segment of the American academic community,” which, “for convenience but with great misgiving,” they called “the academic left.”
“To put it bluntly,” they said, “the academic left dislikes science.” In addition to the academic left’s expected hostility to the uses to which science is put by the economic and military establishments, Gross and Levitt identify a “more surprising” open hostility to the content of science and to the assumption “which one might have supposed universal among educated people, that scientific knowledge is reasonably reliable and rests on a sound methodology” (p. 2).
In his new book Einstein, History, and Other Passions, subtitled “The Rebellion Against Science at the End of the Twentieth Century,” Gerald Holton indicts “a segment of academics, eloquent popularizers, and policy makers” for mounting “a challenge to the very legitimacy of science in our culture.” This movement, he says, “signals the resurgence of a recurring rebellion against some of the presuppositions of Western civilization derived from the Enlightenment period.” He adds, “The impact of this reviving rebellion on the life of the scientist, on the education of the young, on public understanding of science generally, and on the legislation of science support is measurably growing.”
It would be interesting to ask nonscience academics and other opinion leaders the same questions that are summarized in the Science & Engineering Indicators report and track the trends in their attitudes toward science over the years.
In the meantime, scientists can take some consolation from the fact that the Science & Engineering Indicators report shows that support and appreciation for science among the American adult general public remains strong and steady, while lamenting the very real concern about the public’s lack of understanding of the science they hold in such high esteem.
Public Less Positive about Certain Technologies
The one part of the National Science Board’s Science & Engineering Indicators survey that does show some public ambiguity toward science showed up in questions about the impact of several important science-based technologies.
The survey showed Americans evenly divided on the benefits and drawbacks of using nuclear power to generate electricity. This division has lasted more than a decade, say the survey authors.
A similar division exists over the benefits and potential drawbacks of genetic engineering; but the balance was slightly toward the positive, and there is a clearer difference by level of education. College graduates hold a more positive view of such research.
As for the space program, the general public was evenly divided over the relative benefits and costs. College graduates and those who say they are interested in space exploration were very positive about the space program.
In all these areas, those attentive to the related policy issues continue to have strong positive views of the technologies and programs, say the survey authors. But the attentive public remains fairly small, approximately 10 percent of adults.