Survey Finds Few In U.S. Understand Science

Few people in the United States understand the scientific process and many believe in mysterious psychic powers and may be quick to accept phony science reports, according to a national survey.

Few people in the United States understand the scientific process and many believe in mysterious psychic powers and may be quick to accept phony science reports, according to a national survey.

The survey, part of the National Science Foundation’s biennial report on the state of science understanding, research, education and investment, found that the belief in “pseudoscience” is common in America. The study found that science literacy has improved only slightly since the previous survey and that 70 percent of American adults do not understand the scientific process.

America continues to lead the world, the study found, in scientific investment, in research and development and in technology advances. But it found weakness in some levels of scientific education and noted that the U.S. continues to depend heavily on foreign-born scientists and now faces increased competition from steadily improving scientific enterprises abroad.

In the survey of American attitudes toward science, the study found that doctors and scientists were the most respected of the professions, but it also found that “belief in pseudoscience is relatively widespread and growing.”

A survey of 1,574 adults found that 60 percent agreed or strongly agreed that some people possess psychic powers or extrasensory perception, a premise that is generally discarded as unproven by most scientists.

Although 57 percent of those surveyed disagreed that UFOs came to Earth bearing aliens, about 30 percent believe that some reported objects in the sky are really space vehicles from other civilizations.

The scientific validity of astrology — the belief that an alignment of the planets can affect events on Earth — is rejected by 60 percent of Americans, as is the idea that some numbers are lucky while others are not. But 43 percent say they still read the astrology charts at least occasionally in the newspaper.

Seventy-seven percent of those surveyed believe in the theory of global warming, that the planet is being heated by an excess of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Of those surveyed, 86 percent said global warming is a serious or “somewhat serious” problem.

Divided over genetic engineering

Americans were almost evenly divided about genetic engineering — the modifying of life forms by manipulating the genes. Forty percent thought the science would produce more good than bad effects, but 33 percent feared that there would be more harm than benefit.

About 48 percent of those surveyed said they were moderately or strongly opposed to the cloning of barnyard animals, even if the technique was used to make drugs to treat humans. The new science was supported by 47 percent, making opinions almost evenly divided.

Most Americans, about 59 percent, were comfortable with using mice in laboratory experiments, but the opinions shifted dramatically when the question was using dogs or chimpanzees in the scientific research instead of mice. About 53 percent of those surveyed disagreed with allowing scientists to experiment with dogs or chimps in medical research, while 44 percent said it was OK.

In an effort to assess the level of general scientific knowledge, the NSF survey asked a series of basic true-false or multiple-choice science questions.

In contrast to two years ago, when half of those surveyed were wrong, a majority, 54 percent, answered correctly when asked how long it takes the Earth to orbit the sun. (One year.)

True test

Some of the other questions, with the right answers and the percent answering correctly:

Lasers work by focusing sound waves. (False. Lasers focus light.) 45 percent.

Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria. (False.) 51 percent.

The universe began with a huge explosion. (True, according to the “Big Bang” theory widely accepted by scientists, but dismissed by some religious leaders.) 33 percent.

The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs. (False. Dinosaurs died off millions of years before humans appeared.) 48 percent.

Human beings developed from earlier species of animals. (True, according to the theory of evolution, which is accepted by the majority of scientists, but not by many religious leaders.) 53 percent.

Other results

Among findings of the NSF report:

  • Federal research dollars increased by about 50 percent for life sciences, such as medicine, but declined by about 25 percent for the physical sciences.
  • Other nations are beginning to train more of their homegrown scientists, but the United States remains a major destination for academics seeking advanced scientific or engineering degrees.
  • The percentage of foreign-born scientists and engineers is growing at all degree levels in America, with the highest ratio, 45 percent, in engineering.
  • Author:

    News Service: The Associated Press

    URL: http://www.cnn.com/2002/TECH/science/04/30/science.understanding.ap/index.html