Jon D. Miller
The health of American democracy in the twenty-first century will depend on the
development of a larger number of scientifically literate citizens. Today’s
political agenda includes a raging debate over the causes and consequences of global
climate change, a continuing bitter debate over the use of embryonic stem cells
in biomedical research, a spirited set of disagreements over future energy sources,
and a lingering concern over the possibility of a viral pandemic. In Europe, the
political landscape is still divided over nuclear power and genetically modified
foods. No serious student of public policy or science policy thinks that the public-policy
agenda will become less populated by scientific issues in the twenty-first century.
Yet only one in four Americans has sufficient understanding of basic scientific
ideas to be able to read the Science section in the Tuesday New York Times
(Miller, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2004, 2010). Some research suggests that the proportion
may be substantially lower when citizens are faced with strong advocates on both
sides, as in the current global warming debate and the embryonic stem cell debate.
At the same time, most adults will learn most of their science information after
they leave formal schooling. How many current adults can claim that they studied
stem cells or nanotechnology when they were students? In the years and decades ahead,
the number and nature of new scientific issues reaching the public-policy agenda
will not be limited to subjects that might have been studied in school, but will
reflect the dynamic of modern science and technology.
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 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 college-level 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,
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.
THE DEFINITION AND MEASUREMENT OF CIVIC SCIENTIFIC LITERACY
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 job-related 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 knowl-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 twenty-seven 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.
Table 1: Percentage Correct on Selected Knowledge Items, 1988, 1997, 2007
Provide a correct open-ended definition of “what it means to study
Provide a correct open-ended definition of an “experiment.”
Understanding of the meaning of the probability of one in four.
Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “molecule.”
Indicate that light travels faster than sound.
Agree: “Electrons are smaller than atoms.”
Disagree: “Lasers work by focusing sound waves.”
Agree: “The universe began with a huge explosion.”
Agree: “The center of Earth is very hot.”
Indicate that Earth goes around the Sun once each year.
Agree: “The continents on which we live have been moving their
location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.”
Agree that astrology is not at all scientific.
Provide a correct open-ended definition of “DNA.”
Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “stem cell.”
Agree: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species
Disagree: “The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.”
Agree: “All plants and animals have DNA.”
Agree: “More than half of human genes are identical to those of mice.”
Disagree: “Humans have somewhat less than half of their DNA in common with
Disagree: “Ordinary tomatoes . . . do not have genes but genetically modified
Disagree: “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.”
Number of cases
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.
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 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.
Alternately, we could determine a threshold measure of CSL and examine the proportion
of adults who attain that level. For this purpose, a careful analysis of various
combinations of potential correct and incorrect responses sug-gested that individuals
with a score of seventy or higher would have a command of a set of basic scientific
constructs that would allow them to read moderately sophisticated popular science
material such as the writing in the New York Times Tuesday Science section
and make sense of most of the basic ideas. This level of scientific literacy is
still insufficient for head-to-head discourse with a scientist, engineer, or professional
in the field, but it represents an ability to read the vocabulary of scientific
ideas and to understand at a lay level the nature of scientific inquiry. Using this
threshold measure, the percentage of American adults who scored seventy or higher
on the CSL increased from 10 percent in 1988 to 29 percent in 2008. (See Figure
Figure 1: Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 1988–2008
Source: Data for 1988 through 1999 from NSF Science and Engineering Indicators
surveys. (See Miller, 2004, 2010.) Data for 2004, 2005, and 2008 from Science
News Studies. (See Miller, Augenbraun, et al., 2006; Miller, 2010.)
Given this pattern of growth in CSL over the last two decades, it is appropriate
to consider how the media influence adult CSL in the United States.
PATTERNS OF MEDIA CHANGE
We live in the midst of a revolution in communication technologies and media availability
and utilization. The sixty years since the end of World War II have witnessed the
introduction of television, computers, satellites, transistors, optical fiber, wireless
communication, and the Internet. Who would have thought that both our children and
our parents would be sending us digital pictures over the Internet?
Citizens of advanced technological societies like the United States have never had
access to so much information so inexpensively and have never been able to communicate
with so many other individuals over vast distances so quickly. The Internet has
become the library for the global village, and evidence suggests that it is being
used for a variety of purposes, including the acquisition of scientific and medical
information. To understand these broad generalities, it is useful to look at some
specific patterns of change over the last twenty years.
Using data collected by the Pew Research Center since the early 1990s, it is clear
that reading newspapers in print has declined from 58 percent in 1994 to 34 percent
in 2008. (See Figure 2.) The readership of weekly newsmagazines has declined even
more sharply, and these results are often cited to mean that American adults no
longer read. But an examination of television viewing patterns shows that adult
viewing of network television shows has dropped more drastically than the reading
of print newspapers, falling below the market share held by local television newscasts
and cable newscasts. The major growth in the last decade has been in the use of
online news sources—including online newspapers—and these sources are
heavily reading-oriented. The recent National Endowment for the Arts report (2007)
on reading points to a troubling decline in the ability of many young adults to
read complex material, but a review of the data from Pew and from other national
studies suggests that many adults are reading more material online.
Figure 2: Patterns of Media Use, 1993–2008
Source: Data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (See Pew,
The 2007–2008 Science News Study1 included all of the items necessary
to measure CSL and an extensive set of items concerning media use and information
acquisition. Many of the items replicated questions used earlier by Pew and others,
and some new questions were developed to capture adult involvement in reading and
posting blogs, seeking and printing digital information, sharing digital pictures
and information, and seeking information for specific medical, travel, or other
questions. Because the 2007–2008 study included all of the items necessary
to measure CSL and media use, it is possible to examine the relationship between
media use and CSL empirically.
Before formally analyzing the impact of various media on adult CSL in the United
States, it is useful to examine briefly the rates of adult usage of various media
reported in 2007. (See Table 2.) Approximately a third of adults reported that they
watched a network television newscast three or more days each week. Thirty-six percent
indicated that they read a science or health magazine regularly, and 30 percent
claimed to have read one or more science or health books in the preceding year.
Half of adults claimed to read a print newspaper at least once a week, although
only 34 percent reported to Pew in the same year that they read a print newspaper
three or more times each week. (See Figure 2.) Only 11 percent of adults reported
that they read a newsmagazine regularly, suggesting that the market for week-old
news is declining.
Table 2: Use of Traditional and New Media, 2007
Reads a print newspaper more than once/week
Watches 1+ science television show/month
Reads a science or health magazine regularly
Watches network/cable TV news 3+ days/week
Read 1+ science/health books in last year
Reads a newsmagazine regularly
Looked for current news on the Web last year
Looked for info (map, weather) on Web last year
Searched for health information on Web last year
Has computer access at home or work
Printed material from the Web at home or work
Has high-speed home computer connection
Reads an online newspaper more than once/week
Looks at online news report 3+ days/week
Looked for science information on the Web
At the same time, nearly 70 percent of adults said that they looked for current
news information on the Web during the preceding year, and 67 percent said that
they looked for specific kinds of non-news information—maps, directions, and
weather—on the Web during the preceding year. (See Table 2.) Sixty percent
of adults reported that they have access to a computer at home or at work and that
they have looked for health information on the Web during the preceding year. Half
of American adults indicated that they have printed information from the Internet
at home or at work, demonstrating that the Internet is becoming a reference resource
for a wide array of purposes. Fifty percent of adults reported that they have a
high-speed link from their home computer to the Internet, which undoubtedly facilitates
the use of video materials and the downloading of printed materials. Approximately
a quarter of American adults reported that they read an online newspaper at least
once each week and seek news information from a website three or more days each
week. (See Table 2.) Thirteen percent of adults indicated that they sometimes look
on the Web for science information.
An examination of the data from the Pew studies over the last two decades, together
with the more recent 2007–2008 Science News Study, shows a pattern of mixed
use, with most adults continuing to use a wide array of traditional media—primarily
print and broadcast—while simultaneously beginning to increase their acquisition
and use of new electronic communication technologies: computers, mobile phones and
handheld email devices, wireless devices, and the Internet (Pew, 2006; Horrigan,
2007). A substantial majority of Americans has at least one foot in the electronic
media pool, and large pluralities of adults are beginning to rely on the Internet
for current news, weather, and health information. The growth of high-speed links
to the Internet, access to better-quality home printers, and an expanding array
of useful Web resources have fueled a major transformation in the ways that Americans
To assess the impact of these emerging patterns on CSL and other outcomes of interest,
it is necessary to develop a conceptualization or typology to characterize the major
clusters of media use and information acquisition. Horrigan (2007) has proposed
a ten-category typology that is loosely hierarchical and heavily descriptive. The
number of categories and the absence of a clear ordinal logic among them make this
typology minimally useful as part of a larger model to understand how media and
other factors interact to influence a specific outcome, such as CSL.
A simpler approach is to treat the traditional media and information technologies
as a group and to cluster the new electronic technologies as a second group. A confirmatory
factor analysis is a method to assess whether a hypothesized clustering of items
or behaviors fits the actual data. A set of seventeen items collected in the 2007–2008
study was examined in a confirmatory factor analysis, and a clear two-factor structure
emerged. Six traditional media items constituted one factor, and nine new media
items loaded on a second dimension. The two factors have a positive correlation
of 0.39, indicating that more frequent users of traditional media tend to be more
frequent users of new media. But the magnitude of the correlation suggests that
only about 15 percent of the variance in either traditional or new media use can
be accounted for by the other scale.
Using standard statistical techniques, the scores for each of the two factors were
converted into a zero-to-ten scale. The mean score on the Index of Traditional Media
Use was 2.1, and the mean score on the Index of New Media Use was 2.7. On balance,
these results indicate that American adults use slightly more new media information
sources than traditional information sources. The margin of difference is still
small, but the trend is clear.
IMPACT OF MEDIA USE ON CIVIC SCIENTIFIC LITERACY
We now turn to the impact of media on adult understanding of science and technology,
as reflected in the Index of Civic Scientific Literacy (CSL). To explore the possible
sources of influence on the development of CSL, a structural equation analysis2 of the 2007–2008 Science News data set was conducted (Jöreskog
& Sörbom, 1993). The analytic model included each individual’s age;
gender; highest level of education; number of college science courses completed;
presence or absence of minor children in the household; interest in science, technology,
medical, or environmental issues; personal religious beliefs; and level of use of
traditional and emerging informal science-learning resources. The dichotomous or
threshold measure of CSL was the dependent or outcome variable. (See Figure 3.)
Figure 3: A Path Model to Predict Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States,
A path model is useful for examining the relative influence of variables that have
a known chronological or logical order. Each individual has a gender at birth and
an age based on his or her birth date. An individual’s gender may influence
his or her education, although this influence appears to be diminishing in the United
States and several European countries. For most adults, educational attainment and
the number of college science courses are determined by the time an individual reaches
age thirty-five, although more adults are returning to formal education than ever
before. An individual’s level of CSL at any specific time may be thought of
as the result of the combination of these and other factors. (See Figure 3.) In
a path model, chronological or logical causation flows from left to right.
The product of the path coefficients is an estimation of the total effect of each
variable on the outcome variable—the threshold measure of CSL in this case.
It is useful to look first at the total effect of each of the variables in this
model, and then return to examine some of the specific path coefficients.
The number of college science courses taken was the strongest predictor of CSL,
with a total effect of 0.77. (See Table 3.) It is important to understand this variable
and its impact. The variable is a measure of the number of college science courses,
including courses in both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities.
The number of courses was divided into three levels:
(1) no college-level science courses, (2) one to three courses, and (3) four or
more courses. Individuals with one to three courses are the students who took college
science courses as part of a general education requirement rather than as part of
a major or a supplement to a major. The use of an integer measure of college science
courses would have given undue weight to majors and minimized the impact of general
education science courses in the analysis.
Formal educational attainment3 was the second best predictor of adult
CSL (0.70). This result indicates that students gain some additional value from
the full range of university courses, including other general education courses
in the humanities and the social sciences. The influence of formal educational attainment
may also reflect a greater respect for and acceptance of academic authority as a
source of knowledge about the world.
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.
Table 3: Total Effect of Selected Variables on Civic Scientific Literacy, 2007
College science courses
Children at home
Interest in science, technology, medical, or environmental issues
Use of traditional informal science-learning resources
Use of electronic informal science-learning resources
Degrees of freedom
Root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA)
Upper confidence limit (90%) of RMSEA
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.
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
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
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 college-level 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 techno-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 science-learning 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 non-college 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 science-learning
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 science-learning
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
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
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). More than 60 percent of American
adults now believe that human beings were created as whole adults directly by God
and are not a part of any evolutionary process (Miller, Scott & Okamoto, 2006).
The entire scientific community bears some responsibility for this result. For too
many years, too many physical scientists looked the other way while biology teachers
were being attacked on the evolution issue. Now, of course, the same fundamentalists
are attacking the Big Bang. If the trend toward the politicization of science continues,
the scientific community will need to learn to stand together and to argue for the
preservation and integrity of science in ways that we have not had to do for centuries.
Looking to the future, it is essential to increase the proportion of scientifically
literate adults in our society. As these results demonstrate, formal education and
informal science learning are partners in the process of advancing scientific literacy.
Without a solid foundation of reading and basic scientific constructs, even the
best science journalism and communication will fall on deaf ears. And no amount
of formal science education will prepare adults to make sense of new and emerging
science throughout their lifetime.
Scientific literacy is not a cure or antidote by itself. It is, however, a prerequisite
for preserving a society that values science and that is able to sustain its democratic
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