Americans see science as lagging here

The public appreciates scientific advancement but thinks the U.S. has fallen from its pedestal, according to a new Pew survey. Scientists, ahem, disagree.

Lance Whitney Contributing Writer
Lance Whitney is a freelance technology writer and trainer and a former IT professional. He's written for Time, CNET, PCMag, and several other publications. He's the author of two tech books--one on Windows and another on LinkedIn.
Lance Whitney
2 min read

Both the American public and researchers have a high regard for scientific advancement. But they disagree over the standing of science in the U.S.

A full 84 percent of the public believes science's effect on society has been mostly positive, reveals a survey released Thursday by the Pew Research Center. And 70 percent feel scientists contribute a lot to society's well-being.

However, only 17 percent of the public think that U.S. scientific achievements rank as best in the world. That contrasts with 49 percent of scientists surveyed who feel U.S. science is still at the top compared with other countries.

Among the public, America's scientific prowess has declined over the past 10 years. In the current survey, only 27 percent of Americans cited scientific advancement as one of the country's most important achievements, compared with 47 percent in May 1999.

Pew Research Center

Scientists also have their own concerns. Among those surveyed, 85 percent see the public's lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem. Almost half criticize the public for having unrealistic expectations about scientific progress.

The media also shares in the blame, say scientists. About 48 percent of scientists say the news oversimplifies science. Newspaper coverage comes off best, with 36 percent of scientists rating it excellent or good. But TV coverage of science fares worse--only 15 percent of scientists see it as excellent or good.

Pew Research Center

The survey uncovered other differences in opinion between scientists and the public.

The majority of scientists firmly believe in evolution, with 87 percent saying humans and other living creatures have evolved over time through processes such as natural selection. Only 32 percent of the public believes the same.

A full 84 percent of scientists say global warming is the result of human actions, such as burning fossil fuel, while only 49 percent of the public agrees.

As part of the survey, the public was also quizzed on its knowledge of science, with mixed results. Fully 91 percent of those tested know that aspirin is used to prevent heart attacks. Around 82 percent said that GPS technology relies on satellites. But only 47 percent knew that lasers do not work by using sound waves, and a mere 46 percent remembered that electrons are smaller than atoms.

Pew Research Center

Pew's survey (PDF) of the general public targeted 2,001 adults by phone from April to June. The survey of scientists was conducted online in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and reached 2,533 members of the AAAS from May to June.