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«Edited by Donald Kennedy and Geneva Overholser AMERICAN ACADEMY OF ARTS & SCIENCES Science and the Media Please direct inquiries to: American Academy ...»

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This fact does not mean that formal schooling is irrelevant. When done well, formal science education in high school and especially in college can give individuals a strong foundation of basic scientific constructs for use in making sense of later events. American secondary schools do a poor job in providing this foundation of basic understanding, and the recent PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) report reconfirms our national mediocrity in 44 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA this area (Baldi et al., 2007). Unbeknownst to most Americans, the United States is the only major country that requires all its college and university students to complete a year of general education, including a full year of science.

Recent international comparisons have shown that approximately one in five American adults qualifies as scientifically literate and that exposure to collegelevel science courses is the primary factor in the performance of American adults in this capacity (Miller, 2000, 2004, 2010).

The need for adults to learn new science after formal schooling is obvious.

The overwhelming majority of American adults aged thirty-five or older could not have learned about stem cells, nanotechnology, or global warming in school twenty years ago because it was new information for scientists at that time and was not included in any textbook. Similarly, few current adults could have learned about the human genome project in school. However, the results of that work are often mentioned in public-policy debates, and surveys show that approximately 40 percent of American adults understand the role of DNA in heredity (Miller, 2001, 2004, 2010). Few scientists would assert that they could predict the science issues in the news twenty-five years from now, but the majority of today’s adults will have to make sense of those issues at some time in their lives if we hope to preserve more than the rituals of democracy.

For most of the last fifty years, the media—print, broadcast, and other forms of informal learning—have played an important part in sustaining adult science literacy, building on the foundation constructs retained from formal schooling and expanding both the scope and depth of that understanding (Miller & Kimmel, 2001; Miller, Augenbraun, et al., 2006). No one would assert that the job has been done perfectly, but there are numerous indicators of success in this area (Miller, 2004, 2010).

The task of this essay is to use available empirical evidence to describe the recent and current levels of adult understanding of science and technology and to examine the past, present, and future impact of media on adult scientific literacy in the United States. The essay will conclude with a discussion of the merging partnership between science, education, and the media in the development and maintenance of civic scientific literacy throughout the life cycle.


To understand the concept of civic scientific literacy, it is necessary to begin with an understanding of the concept of literacy itself. The basic idea of literacy is to define a minimum level of reading and writing skills that an individual must have to participate in written communication. Historically, an individual was thought of as literate if he or she could read and write his or her own name.

In recent decades, there has been a redefinition of basic literacy skills to include the ability to read a bus schedule, a loan agreement, or the instructions on a bottle of medicine. Adult educators often use the term “functional literacy”


to refer to this new definition of the minimal skills needed to function in a contemporary industrial society (Kaestle, 1985; Cook, 1977; Resnick & Resnick, 1977; Harman, 1970). The social science and educational literature indicates that about a quarter of Americans are not “functionally literate,” and there is good reason to expect that this proportion roughly applies in most mature industrial nations, with a slightly higher rate in emerging industrial nations (Ahmann, 1975; Cevero, 1985; Guthrie & Kirsch, 1984; Northcutt, 1975).

In this context, civic scientific literacy is conceptualized as the level of understanding of science and technology needed to function as a citizen in a modern industrial society (Shen, 1975; Miller, 1983a, 1983b, 1987, 1995, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010; Miller, Pardo & Niwa, 1997; Miller & Pardo, 2000). This conceptualization of scientific literacy does not imply an ideal level of understanding, but rather a threshold level. It is neither a measure of jobrelated skills nor an index of economic competitiveness in a global economy.

In developing a measure of civic scientific literacy, it is important to construct a measure that will be useful over a period of years and that will be sufficiently sensitive to changes in the structure and composition of public understanding. If a time series indicator is revised too often or without consciously designed linkages, it may be impossible to separate the variation attributable to measurement changes from real change over time. The periodic debates over the composition of consumer price indices in the United States and other major industrial nations are a reminder of the importance of stable indicators over periods of time.

The durability problem can be seen in the early efforts to develop measures of public understanding of science in the United States. In 1957, the National Association of Science Writers (NASW) commissioned a national survey of public understanding of and attitudes toward science and technology (Davis, 1958). Since the interviews for the 1957 study were completed only a few months prior to the launch of Sputnik I, it is the only measure of public understanding and attitudes prior to the beginning of the space race. Unfortunately, the four major items of substantive knowledge were (1) radioactive fallout, (2) fluoridation in drinking water, (3) the polio vaccine, and (4) space satellites.

Fifty years later, at least three of these terms are no longer central to the measurement of public understanding.

Recognizing this problem, Miller attempted to identify a set of basic constructs, such as atomic structure or DNA, that are the intellectual foundation for reading and understanding contemporary issues, but that will have a longer durability than specific terms, such as the fallout of strontium-90 from atmospheric testing. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s, when the National Science Foundation began to support comprehensive national surveys of public understanding and attitudes in the United States, there was little experience beyond the 1957 NASW study in the measurement of adult understanding of scientific concepts. In a 1988 collaboration between Miller in the United States and Thomas and Durant in the United Kingdom, an expanded set of knowlS C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA edge items was developed to ask respondents direct questions about scientific concepts. In the 1988 studies, a combination of open-ended and closed-ended items was constructed to provide significantly better estimates of public understanding than had been collected in any prior national study. From this collaboration, a core set of knowledge items emerged; it has been used in studies in Canada, China, Japan, Korea, India, New Zealand, and all twentyseven members of the European Union.

These core items have provided a durable set of measures of a vocabulary of scientific constructs, but it is important to continually enrich the mix to reflect the growth of science and technology. For example, Miller’s recent studies of the American public have included new open-ended measures of stem cell, nanotechnology, neuron, and neuroscience and new closed-ended knowledge items concerning the genetic modification of plants and animals, nanotechnology, ecology, and infectious diseases. It is useful to look briefly at the primary items used in the measurement of civic scientific literacy in the United States in recent years and at the percentage of American adults able to answer each item correctly.

A core set of items focuses on the meaning of studying something scientifically and the nature of an experiment. (See Table 1.) Looking at data collected over the last twenty years, the proportion of American adults who are able to define the meaning of a scientific study has increased from 22 percent to 29 percent. By 2007, half of American adults were able to describe an experiment correctly. Although these percentages are low in terms of our expectations, it is important to remember that each percentage point represents 2.3 million adults; thus we would estimate that 67 million adults understand the meaning of a scientific study, and 115 million adults understand the structure and purpose of an experiment. And we see evidence of growth in the proportion of adults who understand these basic constructs.

Similarly, the proportion of adults able to understand simple probability statements has increased from 56 percent to 73 percent since 1988. Nearly one in five American adults can describe a molecule as a combination of two or more atoms. Many adults know that atoms, molecules, and electrons are very small objects, but are confused about their relationship to each other. Four out of five adults know that light travels faster than sound, but only half know that a laser is not composed of focused sound waves. (See Table 1.) All these basic physical science constructs are part of middle school and high school science instruction and should have been acquired during formal schooling. If these constructs were understood during the school years, many adults appear not to have retained these basic ideas as adults and are unable to use them in reading a newspaper story or seeking to understand a television show.

Adult understanding of the universe and our solar system is uneven. Four out of five adults know that the center of Earth is very hot, and about 70 percent understand the basic idea of plate tectonics—expressed as continents moving their positions. (See Table 1.) Only 63 percent of adults know that Earth

–  –  –

The items listed above were included in the computation of the Index of Civic Scientific Literacy (CSL) but do not constitute the full set of items used. Given the size of the samples, differences from year to year of less than three points may reflect sampling error rather than real differences.

48 S C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA goes around the Sun once each year, and only 30 percent understand or accept the idea of the Big Bang. The slight decline in the acceptance of the Big Bang is undoubtedly the result of increased pressure from religious fundamentalists who reject both biological evolution and the Big Bang. Three in five adults recognize that astrology is “not at all scientific.” The level of public confusion is greatest in the life sciences, undoubtedly reflecting the same fundamentalist pressures noted above. Only 40 percent of American adults accept the concept of biological evolution, and the level of acceptance has declined over the last twenty years. (See Table 1.) One in three American adults can define DNA correctly, but only 15 percent can define the meaning of a stem cell. Only half of adults reject the idea that humans and dinosaurs coexisted. Although three out of four adults recognize that all plants and animals have DNA, a majority of American adults do not think that humans share a substantial majority of our genes with chimpanzees or mice. Misunderstanding is not limited to human genetics: only half of adults reject the statement that “ordinary tomatoes do not have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do.” On a more applied level, the proportion of adults who understand that antibiotics do not kill viruses has increased from 31 percent in 1988 to 55 percent in 2007. (See Table 1.) Other analyses of this result have shown that a large proportion of adults learn about the function of antibiotics during their adult years, largely from encounters with physicians and health personnel for personal and family reasons.

Although these descriptive results are interesting, it is useful to have a good summary measure of the level of adult understanding of these basic constructs. By using Item-Response-Theory (IRT), it is possible to construct a summary Index of Civic Scientific Literacy (CSL) with scores ranging from roughly zero to one hundred. The IRT is a standard testing technology and is widely used in many national tests, including the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) and other tests produced by commercial test publishers (Zimowski et al., 1996). IRT technology also allows the construction of time series measures over a period of years, even when the mix of questions asked in each year varied slightly.

There are two primary ways of looking at the distribution of civic scientific literacy. One approach is to look at the scores of each individual in the study on a full IRT metric, ranging from zero to approximately one hundred.

We could look at the mean CSL score for all adults in 2008 (55.9), for example, or we could look at differences in the mean score by gender, education, age, and other factors. This approach provides a reliable measure of central tendency, but it does not tell us how many adults have attained a level of scientific understanding to be able to function effectively as citizens or consumers.

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