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Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding

Information Sources, Interest, and Involvement

Americans' awareness and understanding of S&T are dependent, in part, on how much they monitor new S&T developments throughout their adult life. Because S&T are relevant to so many aspects of daily life and are often changing and evolving, information about S&T can help Americans make informed decisions and more easily navigate the world around them. Interest in and involvement with S&T can lead Americans to acquire more information and achieve greater understanding.

This section reviews the sources of information about S&T that are available to and used by the public, interest in and attention to media reports about S&T, and the amount of S&T news available from traditional and new media sources. It concludes with indicators of behavioral involvement in S&T through visits to museums and other cultural institutions.

S&T Information Sources

U.S. Patterns and Trends

The media environment has been changing over the past decade. Although a plurality of Americans say that television is their primary source of news about current events, fewer said that they relied on television news for S&T information in 2010 than in previous years. Also, a majority turn to the Internet as their primary source of information on specific scientific issues such as global climate change, stem cell research, GM foods, and nuclear power.

For news about current events, television is the primary source of information for 45% of Americans. Substantial percentages report that most of their current event news comes from the Internet (24%) or newspapers (16%) (figure 7-1; appendix table 7-1). The proportion of Americans getting information about current events from the Internet has increased considerably since the 1990s, and the proportion using newspapers for current events has declined (figure 7-2). Newspaper readership has strongly declined over the past decade (Project for Excellence in Journalism, PEJ 2010e). Patterns of reported media use over time are complicated by the fact that some of the readership for newspapers has shifted to online news sources by the same organizations that produce print newspapers.[1] Thus, the separation between print and online news sources is often blurred. (Also see sidebar, "The Blending of Print and Online Sources of Science News.")

For news about S&T, Americans are about equally likely to rely on the Internet as on television. According to the 2010 General Social Survey (GSS), 35% of Americans cite the Internet as their primary source of S&T information, up from 29% in 2008. The proportion citing the Internet as their primary source of S&T information has grown steadily since 2001. Conversely, reliance on television has dropped; only 34% of Americans report that television is their primary source of S&T news, down from 39% in 2008 (figures 7-1 and 7-2; appendix table 7-2).[2]

When Americans are seeking specific information related to S&T, they turn to the Internet as the dominant resource.[3] Asked "If you wanted to learn about scientific issues such as global warming or biotechnology, where would you get information?" 59% of Americans cited the Internet, up slightly from 55% in 2008. Television ranked as a distant second at 15%, down from 21% in 2008 (figures 7-1 and 7-2; appendix table 7-3).

In general, use of the Internet for news and information, including S&T information, is greater among younger audiences and increases with education and income. Conversely, the use of television decreases with education and income and increases with age (appendix tables 7-1, 7-2, and 7-3). According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, the Internet now outranks television as the primary source of news about national and international issues among younger adults (ages 18–29) (Pew Research Center 2011b).[4] There is no reason to expect younger generations who grew up relying more heavily on the Internet to shift to traditional media as they age.

National data that address the processes through which Americans acquire and sort through S&T information are scarce. A Pew Internet and American Life Project survey examined how Americans use the Internet to acquire information about science (Horrigan 2006). It found that a clear majority of Internet users had engaged in some information search activities, including "look[ing] up the meaning of a particular scientific term or concept" (70%), "look[ing] for an answer to a question you have about a scientific concept or theory" (68%), and "learn[ing] more about a science story or scientific discovery you first heard or read about offline" (65%). In addition, just over half had used the Internet to "complete a science assignment for school, either for yourself or for a child" (55%) or to "check the accuracy of a scientific fact or statistic" (52%). Fewer had used the Internet to "download scientific data, graphs, or charts" (43%) or to "compare different or opposing scientific theories" (37%). How skillfully or how often Americans engage in the search for scientific information—whether on the Internet or elsewhere—remains unknown.

Using information effectively involves more than just finding it. In an information-saturated society, people often need to assess the quality of the information they encounter and determine its credibility. Survey data provide some indication of how Americans assess the credibility of public information. For the past 10 years, Americans have become more skeptical of the information they encounter in major broadcast and print media, but recently this trend has leveled off. Americans' judgments of media credibility are shaped by factors other than critical thinking skills and the quality of the information provided. For example, judgments of the credibility of particular mass media information sources are associated with political party affiliations (Pew Research Center 2010a).

Evidence about how Americans judge the credibility of S&T information in the media is scant. The 2006 Pew Internet and American Life Project study of how Americans acquire science information indicates that Internet users who seek science information online do not always assume that the information they find there is accurate. The vast majority (80%) reported they have checked information at least once, either by comparing it to other information they found online, comparing it to offline sources (e.g., science journals, encyclopedia), or looking up the original source of the information (Horrigan 2006). (For additional details, see NSB 2008.)

International Comparisons

Information sources in other countries depend, in part, on access to the Internet and the prevalence of Internet news sources (Internet World Statistics 2010). Internet access is currently greater in North America than in any other region of the world. In many other countries, television is the leading source of S&T information, newspapers generally rank second, and relatively fewer survey respondents cite the Internet as an important source of S&T information. In Malaysia, for example, 82% cite television as their leading source of S&T news and information, whereas 62% cite newspapers, and 25% cite the Internet (respondents could choose multiple sources of S&T information). Television is also the dominant source of S&T information in India, where about two-thirds of survey respondents in 2004 said it was their main information source (Shukla 2005). Radio (13%) and friends/relatives (12%) ranked ahead of print sources such as newspapers, books, and magazines, which together accounted for 9% of responses. India's relatively low literacy rate (144th of 176 countries in a 2005 ranking) may contribute to this reliance on non-printed sources. On the other hand, in more widely connected South Korea, a 2008 survey found that more respondents named the Internet (28%) as their primary source of S&T information than newspapers (16%) (KOFAC 2009).

Public Interest in S&T

U.S. Patterns and Trends

Americans regularly express relatively high levels of interest in S&T news. More than four in ten Americans (41%) report being "very interested" in new scientific discoveries, half say they are "moderately interested," and just 8% are "not at all interested," according to the 2010 GSS survey (figure 7-3). The proportion of respondents "very interested" in new scientific discoveries in 2010 is about the same as in 2008 and down from 47% in 2001 (figure 7-4; appendix table 7-4).[5] Comparable data from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) show a stable trend in public interest in new scientific discoveries between 2001 and 2006; during this period, the proportion of Americans who said they had a lot of interest in new scientific discoveries fluctuated between 43% and 47% (VCU 2006). Interest in new scientific discoveries was greater among those with more formal education and more coursework in science and mathematics (appendix table 7-5).

Relative to other topics, however, the level of interest in S&T is not particularly high. Interest in new scientific discoveries and use of new inventions and technologies ranked in the middle among 10 areas considered on the 2010 GSS survey. Interest in S&T is roughly comparable to interest in economic issues and business conditions, and military and defense policy. It ranks well ahead of interest in agriculture and farming, space exploration, and foreign policy; and lags behind interest in new medical discoveries, environmental pollution, and local school issues (figure 7-3). Of course, a more inclusive concept of S&T might treat several of the topics on this list, such as space exploration and new medical discoveries, as part of the S&T category; furthermore, other topic areas often include substantial S&T content.[6]

Survey reports about attention to news show a smaller percentage of Americans paying close attention to news reports about S&T in 2008 relative to earlier years. In the 2008 Pew Research Center survey on media consumption, 13% of the respondents reported following S&T news "very closely." S&T news ranked 13th among 18 topics, tied with consumer news and ahead of entertainment, culture and the arts, celebrity news, and travel (table 7-1). As is the case for many other news topics, the percentage of Americans who said they follow S&T closely declined between 1996 and 2008. S&T's relative standing on the list of topics also slipped; it ranked ahead of seven topics in 1996, but ahead of only two of the same topics in 2008 (Pew Research Center 2008).

International Comparisons

International surveys often find similar or lower expressed interest in S&T, but few ask about interest levels using the exact same question wording, making direct comparisons difficult. In the 2010 European survey ("Eurobarometer"), 30% of respondents across all 27 European nations surveyed report being "very interested" in new scientific discoveries and technological developments, 49% are "moderately interested," and 20% are "not interested." Thus, expressed interest in S&T tends to be lower in the European Union (EU) than in the United States. The EU's average self-reported interest in S&T-related issues is about the same in 2010 as it was 2005,[7] but there is considerable variation among different countries. In both the United States and in Europe, men show more interest in S&T than women (EC 2010).[8]

About half of Chinese respondents (52%) report being interested in new scientific discovery; somewhat lower percentages are interested in new discovery and new technology (CRISP 2008).[9] Interest is lower in South Korea, where 24% of respondents were very interested in new scientific discovery (KOFAC 2009).

In other countries, the questions asked are not directly comparable to those asked in the United States. Brazilians showed a marked increase in interest about S&T in 2010 compared with 2006, along with a marked increase in interest about the environment (MCT of Brazil 2010). In Malaysia, interest toward S&T has been fairly stable between 1998 and 2008, whereas interest in environmental pollution has shown a gradual decline (MASTIC 2010).

Interest in medicine tends to be on a par with interest in S&T in Europe and China. Europeans are about equally likely to report being very interested in "new medical discoveries" as they are in "new scientific discoveries and technological development" (EC 2010). The Chinese are equally likely to report being interested in "new medical progress" and "new scientific discovery" (CRISP 2008). More Brazilians report being interested or very interested in medicine and health than in S&T (MCT of Brazil 2010); this pattern is consistent with U.S. survey data. The same pattern holds in Malaysia (MASTIC 2010).

Interest in space exploration has consistently ranked low in the United States and around the world, relative to other S&T topic areas. Surveys in Russia, China, and Japan have documented this general pattern in the past, though no recent data are available on this subject. In India, 19% of the public reported being "interested" in space exploration—lower than any other topic asked (Shukla 2005). Malaysia recently developed a space exploration program and put its own astronauts into space for the first time in 2007. In 2008, half of Malaysians indicated they were "interested" or "very interested" in space exploration (MASTIC 2010).

Availability of S&T News in the Media

The sources of information Americans rely on for news about S&T are at least partly a function of the availability of S&T information from different venues and news media. Recent research on media coverage across a range of public policy domains found that the amount and prominence of media coverage is positively associated with public awareness of specific policy-related facts (Barabas and Jerit 2009). Thus, the amount and depth of media coverage of S&T could both reflect public interest in the topic and also influence the amount of public attention to and awareness of developments in S&T.

How much and what kinds of S&T news coverage are available in the media? The Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ 2010a) has conducted an extensive content analysis of media coverage since 2007 using a broad sample of about 50 outlets in the following media sectors: print, Internet, network television, cable television, and radio. Each week, stories are classified into 1 of 26 broad topic areas, including a category for S&T.[10]

These data show that S&T make up a small percentage of the total amount of news in the traditional media—less than 2% annually from 2007 to 2010 (table 7-2).[11] News coverage on the environment makes up a similarly small proportion of the news. By comparison, coverage of health and medicine makes up a greater proportion of the news but is also more variable, ranging from approximately 3% to 9% during the 4-year period.

Which stories about S&T are covered by the media? Within the S&T news coverage, stories on cyberspace issues are most common—about 27% in 2010 and 18% in 2009. Other stories compose a much smaller portion of the S&T news coverage in the media. In 2010, stories about the NASA Space Shuttle mission accounted for 8% of the S&T news, roughly equal to the proportion of stem cell-related news in 2009 (table 7-3).

Analyses of the content on the three major broadcast networks (ABC, CBS, NBC) tell a similar story. The Tyndall Report has tracked the content of the three major broadcast networks for more than 20 years; the amount of air time on each nightly newscast is classified into 18 categories (Tyndall Report 2011a). Two categories with large science, engineering, and technology components are "science, space, and technology," and "biotechnology and basic medical research."[12] Neither category has ever occupied a large percentage of the approximately 15,000 minutes of annual nightly weekday newscast coverage on the networks. The airtime devoted to "science, space, and technology" averaged 339 minutes—about 2% of broadcast news—between 2000 and 2010, but fluctuated from 1% to 5% during this period (figure 7-5).[13] Time devoted to "biotechnology and basic medical research" was considerably lower, accounting for 1% or less of broadcast news (with some variation depending on the year).

The leading story on nightly news broadcasts in 2010 was the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico (9% of the year's news). Although not classified as such, stories on the oil spill often included substantial attention to science and engineering issues (Tyndall Report 2011b). The most-covered stories on science, space, and technology in 2009 and 2010 focused on developments in the nation's space program and new developments in high technology products and tools for consumers, such as flat screen tablet computers and social networking websites (table 7-4). In the category of "biotechnology and basic medical research," cancer research garnered the most coverage, as it has done since 2006.

The media environment is rapidly changing, with new media and social media outlets continuing to proliferate and attract users. The Project for Excellence in Journalism conducts a new media content analysis focusing primarily on news-focused blogs and Twitter posts (PEJ 2010c). The analysis tracks the most-linked-to news subjects on a sample of blogs in order to capture the priorities of bloggers. The same procedure is used for Twitter posts.[14] This provides another indicator of interest in and availability of S&T news. In 2010, S&T stories composed 12% of the most-linked-to blog subjects in a given week; in 2009, that figure was 17%. On Twitter, S&T made up 38% of the most-linked-to subjects in a given week in 2010, down from 48% in 2009 (table 7-5).

What kinds of stories go viral on blogs and Twitter posts? There is no available quantitative measure of the most-linked-to science stories. Recent examples of most-linked-to blog stories on science include the discovery of a new kind of large rat in Papua New Guinea, news that a chemical found in blue M&Ms might have therapeutic qualities, and the discovery of a meat-eating plant (PEJ 2010d). Climate change and the controversy surrounding e-mails from a British researcher on the subject was one of the top five subjects covered by bloggers in December 2009 and made up a third of the weekly blog links 3 months later, shortly after a BBC interview on the subject (PEJ 2010b).

Involvement

Involvement with S&T outside the classroom in informal, voluntary, and self-directed settings—such as museums, science centers, zoos, and aquariums—is another indicator of the public's interest in S&T.[15] By offering visitors the flexibility to pursue individual curiosity, such institutions provide a kind of exposure to S&T that is well-suited to helping people develop further interest.[16]

In the 2008 GSS, 61% of Americans indicated that they had visited an informal science venue during the previous year (appendix table 7-6).[17] About half (52%) said they had visited a zoo or aquarium, and more than one-quarter had visited a natural history museum (28%) or an S&T museum (27%). One in three Americans had visited an art museum and 64% had visited a public library. These data are generally consistent with data collected by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and the Institute for Museum and Library Services. (For more detail on these surveys, see NSB 2008.) Among those who visited each of these institutions, the number of annual visits was highest for public libraries, which averaged about 15 visits per year.

The proportion of respondents who reported visiting either a zoo or aquarium, an S&T museum, and a public library is down slightly from the last time these questions were asked in 2001.[18] Respondents in households with children 18 or younger were more likely to visit a zoo or aquarium, a public library, and also a natural history museum. Minors in the household did not make a difference in the proportion of adults who visited an art museum or an S&T museum (appendix table 7-7).

Americans with more years of formal education are more likely than others to engage in these informal science activities (figure 7-6; appendix table 7-7). Those in higher income brackets are more likely to have visited a zoo or aquarium, a natural history or S&T museum, or an art museum, but are just as likely as those in the lowest income bracket to have visited a public library. In general, visits to informal science institutions are less common among Americans who are 65 or older.

In addition, respondents who get most of their information about S&T from the Internet or use this medium to learn about scientific issues are more likely to have visited any informal science institution, even after controlling for expressed interest in scientific issues. This suggests that users experience these different sources of science information as complementing, rather than replacing, one another.

International Comparisons

Compared with the United States, visits to S&T museums are less common in China, Japan, South Korea, Malaysia, India, Europe, and Brazil (table 7-6). The proportion of respondents who indicate they have visited a zoo is similar in the United States, China, and Japan. Visiting a zoo is more common in the United States[19] than it is in South Korea, India, Malaysia, Europe, and Brazil. Unmeasured differences in the prevalence and accessibility of informal science learning opportunities across countries prohibit attributing different visit patterns to differences in interest.

Notes

[1] Data from Pew show that the proportion of Americans who read the newspaper declined from 40% to 34% between 2006 and 2008, and that newspapers would have lost more readers if they did not have online versions. Most of the loss in newspaper readership since 2006 came from those who read the print version of the newspaper—in 2008, 27% said they had read only the print version of a daily newspaper the day before, compared to 34% in 2006. However, audiences are getting news from both traditional sources (television, print) and the Internet and blending these sources together, rather than choosing between one or the other (Pew Research Center 2008).
[2] The 2010 GSS included two alternatives for distinguishing between print and online sources of information. The data in figure 7-1 are based on an approach that used followup questions asking whether references to newspapers, magazines, or the Internet included primarily print or online sources. An alternative approach offered response options that distinguish between online and print-format sources for newspapers and magazines, without branching into followup questions (see sidebar, "The Blending of Print and Online Sources of Science News"). Estimates of information sources for television, books, and other sources where there is no need to distinguish between print and online venues are comparable for both approaches to measurement. For most respondents, a response of newspapers appears to reflect reliance on print newspapers. Using the branched approach, the percentage indicating reliance on printed newspapers is similar to the percentage saying the same on the question with direct response options; less than 1% initially indicated a reliance on newspapers and then responded that they primarily relied on online newspapers in a followup question. When respondents are initially given options which distinguish between online newspapers and other online sources, however, somewhat fewer respondents indicate a reliance on any type of Internet source (31% vs. 35%).
[3] The Internet is also a primary source of information for most Americans when they are seeking information on other topics, such as health. See Pew Internet and American Life Project surveys (Fox 2010; Jansen 2010).
[4] Analyses that examine age differences in patterns of media use through repeated cross-sectional surveys hide considerable generational effects, because they only show a snapshot of a single point in time (Losh 2009).
[5] In 2001, this question was part of a single-purpose telephone survey focused on S&T. In 2008, these data were collected as part of a face-to-face multipurpose survey covering a broad range of behavior and attitudes. It is unclear whether these differences in data collection or a change in public opinion account for the decline in interest observed between 2001 and 2008.
[6] In interpreting survey data that use the phrase "science and technology," it is important to take into account the uncertainties surrounding its meaning and the different associations Americans make when they hear it.
[7] Note that the Eurobarometer surveys include a different set of countries because the composition of the European Union changes over time. In 2010, the survey included 27 countries; in 2005, it included 25 countries.
[8] The question asked on the Eurobarometer surveys has changed over time, making the data not always strictly comparable with previous Eurobarometer surveys or with U.S. data.
[9] The China survey asked about interest levels on a 3-point scale with response options translated as "interested," "ordinary" interest level, and "not interested."
[10] The analysis is based on a purposive selection of five media sectors, outlets within each sector, and specific programs or articles for study. The index is designed to capture the main news stories covered each week. Coding of programs and articles is limited to the first 30 minutes of most radio, cable, and network news programs, the front page of newspapers, and the top five stories on websites. Each selected unit of study is coded on 17 variables according to an established coding protocol. The team of individuals performing the content analysis is directed by a coding manager, a training coordinator, a methodologist, and a senior researcher. Intensive tests of intercoder reliability are conducted annually. For variables that require little or no inference, intercoder agreement was 97% in 2010. For variables requiring more inference, intercoder agreement ranged from 78% to 85% in 2010. Intercoder agreement was similar in earlier years. For more details, see http://www.journalism.org/about_news_index/methodology.
[11] The total amount of news consists of the space devoted to news in print and online news sources and the time devoted to news on radio and TV sources.
[12] "Science, space, and technology" includes stories on manned and unmanned space flight, astronomy, scientific research, computers, the Internet, and telecommunications media technology. It excludes forensic science and telecommunications media content. "Biotechnology and basic medical research" includes stem cell research, genetic research, cloning, and agribusiness bioengineering, and excludes clinical research and medical technology. Stories often do not fall neatly into a single category or theme.
[13] The peak in the coverage of the category "Science, space, and technology" in 1999 includes major network coverage of stories about the so-called Millennium Bug and business issues from the dot.com boom, such as the rise of Internet commerce and the browser antitrust wars.
[14] The sample of news links on blogs and Twitter posts comes from two prominent Web-tracking sites, Icerocket and Tweetmeme, using the links to articles embedded on the sites as a proxy for the subject of the blog post or Tweet. The Web-tracking sites provide a list of the most-linked-to news stories based on the number of blogs, tweets, or other sites that link to each. Typically, the linked-to stories originate from traditional media sources. PEJ staff manually capture the list of most-linked-to stories each weekday, and the coding staff categorize the top five linked-to articles from this list of approximately 50 linked-to articles each week. The coding procedures are similar to those used for the News Coverage Index of traditional media sources. For more, see http://www.journalism.org/commentary_backgrounder/new_media_index_methodology.
[15] People can become involved with S&T through many kinds of non-classroom activities. Examples of such activities include participating in government policy processes, going to movies that feature S&T, bird watching, and building computers. Citizen science is a term used for activities by citizens with no specific science training who participate in the research process through activities such as observation, measurement, or computation. Nationally representative data on this sort of involvement with S&T are unavailable.
[16] Involvement in informal S&T activities is also thought to foster learning and knowledge about S&T (see Falk and Dierking 2010).
[17] In the 2008 GSS, respondents received two different introductions to this question. Response patterns did not vary depending on which introduction was given.
[18] In 2001, this question was part of a single-purpose telephone survey focused on science and technology. In 2008, these data were collected as part of a face-to-face multipurpose survey covering a broad range of behavior and attitudes. It is unclear whether these differences in data collection or a change in visit behavior account for the decline observed between 2001 and 2008.
[19] In the United States, this measure included visits to a zoo or aquarium.
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