Survey Shows America’s Optimistic Yet Skeptical Attitudes Towards Science

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Every day at the Mass General Research Institute, we see what a profound impact science can have on our lives. Whether it’s finding new insights in the fight against Alzheimer’s disease, or exploring innovative solutions to the challenges of space travel, we witness firsthand how scientists are working to improve society and everyday life.

But does the rest of the country agree with us? According to a recent survey conducted by manufacturer 3M, most Americans share our fascination with science and are generally optimistic about what it will bring, but there’s also a fair amount of skepticism.

Exploring global attitudes about science

3M surveyed approximately 14,000 individuals from 14 countries, including about 1,000 Americans, with the goal of exploring global attitudes about science. Researchers defined “science” as the process of pursuing knowledge about the world and how things in the world work through logically gathering, observing, experimenting and applying truths on a particular subject.

This survey was one of the largest global studies to explore attitudes to science in recent years. The results were recently published in a report titled The State of Science Index.

Mixed viewpoints

In narrowing down the data to specifically look at results from American respondents, the survey overall reflects America’s captivation with science. The vast majority of respondents think science is fascinating, and most (82%) read or learn about science in some way.

Americans also seem to agree that science makes an impact, though the verdict is still out whether that impact is positive or negative. Nearly all Americans surveyed believe that science drives innovation, and that the world is a better place because of science. However, 41% at least somewhat agree that science causes just as many problems as solutions.

Additionally, Americans have mixed feelings about the validity and future of science. The majority of those surveyed feel hopeful in regards to science, and many respondents (67%) report being excited about the future impact of science on society.

However, despite most feeling trust in both science and scientists, 27% are at least somewhat skeptical of science.  The authors of the report note that skepticism may be fueled by a lack of knowledge, as 24% of skeptics globally know nothing about science versus an average of 18% among all participants.

There seems to be more consensus when it comes to science education and careers. Nearly everyone surveyed agrees they wish they knew more about science in general, and wish their kids knew more about science. And although less than half of respondents regret not pursuing a career in science, the vast majority would encourage kids to pursue a career in science.

Shifting attitudes around science

These results provide a glimpse into America’s complicated relationship with science as well as highlight potential ways to improve attitudes towards scientific exploration.

With news article and online sources cited as the top two ways Americans receive information about science, journalists and other science communicators have an opportunity to create engaging, lay-friendly, and factual content that draws in the general public and gets them excited about science.

Given parents’ reported support for STEM education and careers for their children, there’s also potential that the next generation will grow up feeling more engaged with science and develop an understanding of its importance from a young age.

While we’ll have to wait and see how STEM education and other factors influence public perception of science, this survey provides a baseline to help track shifts in attitudes about science over time.

Interested in reading more on this topic? Check out our other science communication posts, and if you’re in the Boston area, attend our Science Slam next Thursday, April 19th!

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