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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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3. Educational attainment was measured with a five-category ordinal variable. The lowest level included all individuals who did not complete secondary school or obtain a GED. The second category included high school graduates and GED holders. The third category included respondents with an associate’s degree, and the fourth category included individuals who earned a bachelor’s but not a graduate or professional degree. The highest category included all individuals who completed a graduate or professional degree.


The third strongest predictor of adult CSL was the use of new electronic science-learning resources4 (0.25). A parallel measure of the use of traditional science-learning resources5 had a total effect of 0.11. (See Table 3.) Although the frequency of use of electronic science-learning resources was only slightly higher than the use of traditional information resources, the impact of the use of electronic learning resources on adult CSL was twice the impact of the use of traditional science-learning resources. In the context of Sternberg’s theory of complex cognition, it would appear that these two sources of adult science learning both contribute to an individual’s schemas about science and technology and are mutually reinforcing.

The fourth strongest predictor of adult CSL was personal religious beliefs, with adults who hold fundamentalist religious beliefs6 being significantly less likely to be scientifically literate than other adults (-0.19). In this model, religious beliefs are current religious beliefs, and adults with more college science courses were slightly less likely to hold fundamentalist beliefs than other adults (-0.06). Women were more likely to hold fundamentalist religious beliefs (0.06), holding constant differences in age, education, college science courses, and the presence of children at home. Religious beliefs were not related to the use of traditional or emerging informal science-learning resources.

Gender was the fifth strongest predictor of adult CSL, with a total effect of -0.17. (See Table 3.) The negative coefficient means that men were more likely to be scientifically literate than women among U.S. adults, holding constant differences in age, educational attainment, college science courses, religious beliefs, and the level of use of adult science-learning resources.

4. The Index of Electronic Science Learning (ESL) reflects individual use reports on nine sources of adult science learning: read a newspaper online at least three days a week, searched for science information on the Internet, read online news reports three or more days each week, had access to a computer at home or work, had a high-speed link from a home computer to the Internet, engaged in frequent searches for health information on the Internet, engaged in frequent searches for news on the Internet, printed some material from the Internet at home or work, and sent and received email messages frequently. These nine items loaded on a single dimension in a confirmatory factor analysis and were converted into a zero-to-ten scale for use in this model.

5. The Index of Traditional Science Learning (TSL) reflects individual use reports on eight sources of adult informal science learning: read a printed newspaper three or more days each week, read a newsmagazine most of the time, read a science or health magazine most of the time, bought one or more science or health books in the preceding year, watched a network television news show at least three times each week, watched a cable television news show at least three times each week, watched one or more science television shows most of the time, and visited a science museum or other informal learning facility at least once in the preceding year.

All eight of these indicators loaded on a single dimension in a confirmatory factor analysis and were converted into a zero-to-ten scale for use in this model.

6. The index of religious beliefs is a count of the number of times a respondent indicated agreement with (1) “The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally”; and (2) “There is a personal God who hears the prayers of individual men and women”; and indicated disagreement with (3) “Human beings developed from earlier forms of life.” Individuals who scored three on this index were classified as fundamentalist (22 percent); individuals who scored two were classified as conservative (15 percent); individuals who scored one were classified as moderate (25 percent); and individuals who scored zero on the scale were classified as liberal-none (38 percent).

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Older adults were slightly less likely to be scientifically literate than younger adults (-0.15), holding constant differences in education, gender, college science courses, and other variables. Although older adults display a high level of interest in health and biomedical science issues and are frequently users of the Internet for health information, they are markedly less well informed about the genetic basis of modern medicine. This fact is reflected in this result.

The level of personal interest in scientific, technical, environmental, or medical (STEM) issues had only a small positive effect on CSL (0.08). The model shows that adults with more interest in STEM issues are more likely to be frequent users of traditional adult science-learning resources than other adults (0.34) and that they are more likely to use new electronic adult science-learning resources than adults with less interest in STEM issues (0.16).

The presence of preschool or school-age children in the home had a small positive effect on adult CSL in the United States (0.04). The path model indicated that the presence of minor children at home was related to the use of new electronic science-learning resources (0.15). The influence of children on the use of new electronic science-learning resources suggests a dynamic inside the family in which children may encourage the use of or even introduce new communication technologies into the home.

This model explains 74 percent of the total covariance in CSL among U.S.

adults using the dichotomous threshold measure of CSL. A parallel analysis was conducted of the same model using the continuous measure of CSL and the general result was almost identical in terms of the main effects. (See Table 3.)


In the continuous CSL model, college science courses and educational attainment were the strongest predictors of the outcome, and the use of electronic information resources and religious beliefs displayed similar patterns. The continuous CSL model accounted for 46 percent of the total covariance in that model because the dependent variable scores were spread over a much wider range. On balance, a comparison of these two models suggests that both models identify the same primary factors, but that the threshold measure of CSL provided a clearer image of the impact of each of the factors in the model.

Both models produced very good fit statistics. (See Table 3.)


What do these results tell us about the impact of media use on adult scientific literacy in the United States?

First, it is clear that education is a foundation for media use. Adults with weak reading and writing skills have significant problems in reading a newspaper, the label on a drugstore medicine bottle, or an insurance policy; they have problems in using the Internet as well. Reading really is fundamental to almost all forms of communication. The recent report of the National Endowment for the Arts (2007) on adult reading in the United States acknowledges the growing volume of reading being done apart from printed books and materials, but its summary of the declining reading skills of adolescents and young adults should be troubling to all Americans. The model constructed in this analysis provides an empirical estimate of the total effect of education (0.70), but a less quantitative reading of these results should remind us that education is the foundation for all communication and for the development of CSL.

Second, these results demonstrate that it is the college and university general education requirement to take at least a year of science that drives American performance on the Index of Civic Scientific Literacy for citizens outside the scientific community. A result of the positive impact of collegelevel science courses for non-science majors is that a higher proportion of American adults qualify as scientifically literate than do citizens in any other country except Sweden. At the same time, it is ironic that most Americans— including many science, education, and media leaders—do not recognize that this requirement is almost uniquely American. There was no single decision or starting point for this requirement, but a review of the literature on higher education in the United States points to an emerging consensus in favor of “general education” in the first decades of the twentieth century. We are approaching the centennial of this American experiment in higher education, and these results suggest that it has been a worthwhile experiment.

Third, the accelerating pace of scientific development means that most Americans outside the scientific community will learn most of their science after they leave formal schooling. Think about today’s scientific and technoS C I E NC E A ND THE MED IA logical issues. Few adults could have learned about stem cells, global climate change, or nanotechnology as students because the relevant science had not been done. The challenge today is to prepare our students to understand science that will not occur for another twenty years. It is not easy, but it is possible. Although we cannot know the precise dimensions of future science, we can be sure that existing constructs such as atom, molecule, DNA, and energy will still be applicable.7 Fourth, the model describes the relationship between media use and the development of adult CSL. The model shows that formal education and exposure to college science courses have substantial influence on the level of adult use of both traditional and electronic science-learning resources. The path coefficient from college science courses to traditional adult science learning is 0.26, and the path coefficient to the use of new electronic sciencelearning resources is 0.44. (See Figure 3.) These paths tell us that college science courses are the gateway to the awareness and utilization of traditional and electronic science-learning resources. This result does not mean that noncollege graduates or adults without a college science course cannot use and obtain value from various forms of informal adult science-learning, but it indicates that most of the adults who make extensive use of these adult sciencelearning resources have had some college science courses.

The path from the use of electronic science-learning resources to CSL has a path coefficient of 0.25, indicating that adults who use electronic sciencelearning resources extensively are significantly more likely to qualify as scientifically literate than adults who use these resources less often, holding constant the level of educational attainment and the number of college science courses.

Comparatively, the path coefficient from the use of traditional science learning to CSL is 0.11, indicating a positive but weaker relationship than the impact of the use of electronic science-learning resources. To understand this relationship, it is essential to note that the path coefficient from college science courses to CSL is 0.61. This path means that there is a substantial value to college science courses above and beyond their function as a gateway to traditional and electronic science-learning resources.

This pattern fits into our general sense of educational impact. A large proportion of individuals who have completed one or more college science courses will have acquired some understanding of a set of basic science constructs. They should know more about the nature and structure of matter, for example, than adults who have never taken a college science course. Similarly, adults who have had one or more college biology courses should know more about the nature and structure of life—cells, DNA, and natural selection— than adults who have never experienced those courses. An understanding of

7. In work reported elsewhere, I have found that adults who understand the concept of a molecule, for example, are more likely to eventually acquire a general understanding of the concept of nanotechnology than adults who do not understand the structure of matter.


these basic constructs might be expected both to encourage the use of informal science-learning resources—books, museums, aquariums, planetariums, and the Internet—and to make that use more effective. When new constructs such as stem cells or nanotechnology enter the popular media and public discourse, adults who have had college science courses will already have a larger array of scientific constructs in their minds than other adults, and they will be able to use those previously acquired constructs to make sense of the new concept more rapidly than adults who lack those constructs.

Finally, science policy has become a part of the political agenda, and it is unlikely to disappear from political agendas in the foreseeable future. In broad terms, it is possible to argue that the twentieth century was the century of physics and that the twenty-first century will be the century of biology. The twentieth century was characterized by enormous advances in transportation, communication, and nuclear science—from the radio to the airplane to the transistor. Although these new developments eventually changed the very character of American society, most of these new technologies successfully avoided direct confrontation with traditional beliefs and values, especially religious values. But as science continues to expand our understanding of the nature and structure of life and develops the technologies to intervene in those processes, the resulting political disputes are becoming more personal and more directly confrontational with fundamentalist religious values.

The current disputes over evolution and stem cell research are only the tip of the iceberg. The problem is exacerbated by the exploitation of antievolution attitudes by one political party (Mooney, 2005; Danforth, 2006).

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