What Americans think of the present and future of science and technology

Where will science go in the future, and how will that impact our lives?

I’ve been tracking this question for a while, so it’s good to have fresh research to hand.  A new Pew Research survey asked Americans what they thought about the future of science.

The results are a bit counterintuitive and very important for anyone interested in technology or education.  I’ll pull out the findings I find most interesting and useful.

To begin with, Americans are very, very positive about science.  Despite the present techlash, despite Democrats’ fears of anti-science Republicans and Republicans’ worries about liberal woo, about 3/4ths of us hold a mostly positive views.  Only 3% deem science to be mostly negative.

views of science

Unsurprisingly, those attitudes towards science correlate with knowledge of science. Pew sketched out that information level not by educational attainment, but through an 11 question battery added to the poll.  I’m not sure how rigorous that is.  The results make intuitive sense:

views of science based on knowledge of science

There are significant divides by race, with the largest gap opened up between blacks and whites:

views of science by race

(Again, I wish Pew tracked Asian-Americans)

Pew then asked what Americans like most about science.  The results are fascinating:

what Americans like about science

Science for health care is the leader by far.  The digital world is far behind it, barely mustering a quarter – and this might be a sign of the techlash settling into American culture.

Looking ahead, Americans are as happy or even happier about science in the future as we are of it in the past.

Americans look ahead to science

That echoes the first result in this post and goes beyond it a bit.  Again, the techlash and various culture war science arguments seem to have little impact on our overall sense of science’s possibilities.

Racial differences persist here as well:

Large majorities of white and Hispanic adults (84% and 83%, respectively) and somewhat fewer black adults (74%) are optimistic that new scientific developments will improve lives.

Our love for science in health care extends to the future as well as the present:

Here, too, medical advances prevail in the public mind as a likely source for improvements ahead, with six-in-ten U.S. adults (60%) referencing this topic when asked to think about developments in science that will make people’s lives better.

Now, on the negative side, what do we fear about the future of science?  Here the techclash appears clearly, with the digital world leading the way:

what Americans fear about the future of science

What can we take from this?  A few thoughts.

The correlation between attitude and knowledge may influence efforts to increase science education.

I’m not sure what to make of the racial dimension going forward (the historical reasons are quite evident).  Perhaps a Democratic party striving to focus on black and Latinx voters and donors will be slightly less inclined to be publicly pro-science.

Mooney_GOP war on scienceWhat does it mean that a large majority of Americans are bullish about science and tech, while we also hold many anti-science views, from climate change denial to quack “medicines”?  I think four possible explanations are in play.

  1. Many forms of science skepticism just hasn’t won over many adherents.  Science studies, for example, never really climbed back up from its humiliation in the Sokal hoax.  Creationism/intelligent design has suffered nothing but failure in public policy.  Democratic candidate Williamson, while making splashy appearances, only polls around 1% (538).  Meanwhile, even though the techlash is going great guns, the technology companies move from financial and user base strength to strength.
  2. People compartmentalize.  They can believe that climate scientists are scamming the world, or that evolutionary biologists are destroying religion, or that NASA endorses magic skin patches, while at the same time enjoying the benefits of ibuprofen, cryptography, air travel, and GPS navigation.  While this may look like a contradiction, it’s quite liveable.
  3. People focus their dislike on a sliver of science, not the whole.  Climate science and evolution are tiny, tiny strands of the overall fabric of scientific inquiry, statistically.  While historians, economists, and academics in general tend to see all sciences as a big slab, or folded into STEM, it’s easy to separate out the different fields.  For a parallel, see conservatives who despise the academic humanities, but happily read into history, literature, religion, and philosophy.  Or for an example further afield: I despise American cheese, but love most cheeses, and don’t see the former as an obstacle to the latter.
  4. Health care is especially important.  My intuition here is that advanced health care is such a valuable good as to overpower or sidestep opposition to other parts of science.  It seems that people who worry about specialists being uncaring elites and folks who celebrate other forms of medicine will ultimately accept antibiotics.  We know that health care is enormously important in American politics and life.  We put up with all kinds of awkwardness, horror, and immiseration in its pursuit; it’s far easier to set aside qualms about Darwin or science’s colonial history when seeking cancer treatment.

One more thought: I wonder if the rise of geek culture into the mainstream has helped build science’s reputation.

What does all of this mean for higher education’s future?

It’s good news for allied health, of course.  Pre-med, biology, physiology, radiology, etc. are well thought of and unlikely to be attacked.

That 29% of people who see technology problems ahead can augur several changes.  Computer science might become unpopular – not in terms of enrollment, necessarily, but politically and culturally, from the national level down to campus.  Fields perceived as critical of tech – media studies, science studies – might become more popular.  The use of technology in research might receive some criticism, although that isn’t too visible now – and when it is, through lovely photos and video, we love it.  In contrast, that 29% might start to resist technology in instruction.

The tracking of low knowledge to high skepticism might translate to more support for general science education: public intellectual work, a la Neil DeGrasse-Tyson; more core curricular requirements for non-science majors; outreach to K-12.

For this survey and its topic, I’d love to see more details.  What results if we look at education, gender, geography, age?  This AAAS study gives some interesting insights that way.  Has anyone surveyed by comparative scientific field – i.e., asking folks what they think of biology versus astronomy, etc.?

And for you, dear reader: what does your immediate world think of science?

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