Americans on Science: Interested and Ignorant

The American public is more interested in new technologies and scientific discoveries than it has been in nearly two decades, but less than half know that the Earth circles the sun once a year, according to a new survey paid for by the National Science Foundation and released today.

The survey, Science and Engineering Indicators 1998, drew on data gleaned from 2000 telephone interviews. The results show that while public understanding of some scientific terms and concepts has increased slightly since the last survey in 1996, most Americans still do not grasp what a molecule is or what DNA does, or that lasers do not use sound waves.

Americans nevertheless are in first place among other industrial nations when it comes to both understanding and supporting science, says Jon Miller, vice president and director of the International Center for the Advancement of Scientific Literacy at the Chicago Academy of Sciences, who helped organize the survey.

Nearly half of all Americans say they are interested and informed about new technologies and scientific discoveries, a marked increase over the roughly 40% from just 2 years ago and the highest since the question was first asked in 1979. Miller cited recent headline science news, such as NASA's Pathfinder mission to Mars last summer and Hubble Space Telescope pictures, as possible explanations for the change. But he adds that while enthusiasm for science may have risen substantially, public understanding is improving at a more glacial pace.