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Home > Publications > Research Papers > > Chapter 4: Civic Scientific Literacy: The Role of the Media in the Electronic Era
Science and the Media

Chapter 4: Civic Scientific Literacy: The Role of the Media in the Electronic Era

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, 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 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

Percent Correct
1988 1997 2007
Provide a correct open-ended definition of “what it means to study
something scientifically.”
22% 23% 29%
Provide a correct open-ended definition of an “experiment.” 39 50
Understanding of the meaning of the probability of one in four. 56 54 73
Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “molecule.” 11 18
Indicate that light travels faster than sound. 78 75 82
Agree: “Electrons are smaller than atoms.” 46 44 48
Disagree: “Lasers work by focusing sound waves.” 40 39 46
Agree: “The universe began with a huge explosion.” 34 32 30
Agree: “The center of Earth is very hot.” 82 82 80
Indicate that Earth goes around the Sun once each year. 50 48 63
Agree: “The continents on which we live have been moving their
 location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future.”
81 78 71
Agree that astrology is not at all scientific. 62 59 60
Provide a correct open-ended definition of “DNA.” 27 22 34
Provide a correct open-ended definition of a “stem cell.” 15
Agree: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” 47 44 40
Disagree: “The earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs.” 40 51 50
Agree: “All plants and animals have DNA.” 77
Agree: “More than half of human genes are identical to those of mice.” 34
Disagree: “Humans have somewhat less than half of their DNA in common with chimpanzees.” 40
Disagree: “Ordinary tomatoes . . . do not have genes but genetically modified tomatoes do.” 49
Disagree: “Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria.” 31 43 55
Number of cases 1,600 1,484 1,407

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 1.)

Figure 1: Civic Scientific Literacy in the United States, 1988–2008

Image of Figure 1

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.


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

Image of Figure 2

Source: Data from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. (See Pew, 2006.)

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

Traditional Media New Media
Reads a print newspaper more than once/week 50%
Watches 1+ science television show/month 41
Reads a science or health magazine regularly 36
Watches network/cable TV news 3+ days/week 35
Read 1+ science/health books in last year 30
Reads a newsmagazine regularly 11
Looked for current news on the Web last year 69%
Looked for info (map, weather) on Web last year 67
Searched for health information on Web last year 62
Has computer access at home or work 60
Printed material from the Web at home or work 51
Has high-speed home computer connection 50
Reads an online newspaper more than once/week 28
Looks at online news report 3+ days/week 22
Looked for science information on the Web 13

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 get information.

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.


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, 2007

Image of Figure 3

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

Total Effect
70+ CSL
Respondent age -0.11 -0.15
Gender (F) -0.18 -0.17
Educational attainment 0.55 0.70
College science courses 0.61 0.77
Children at home 0.03 0.04
Religious fundamentalism -0.08 -0.19
Interest in science, technology, medical, or environmental issues 0.07 0.08
Use of traditional informal science-learning resources 0.14 0.11
Use of electronic informal science-learning resources 0.17 0.25
R2 = 0.46 0.74
Chi-squares 221.2 223.1
Degrees of freedom 20 20
Root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA) 0.034 0.034
Upper confidence limit (90%) of RMSEA 0.047 0.047
N 1,157 1,157

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 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 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 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 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 values and traditions.8


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1. The 2007–2008 Science News Study is a three-wave national probability sample of 960 adults conducted online by Knowledge Networks (KN). The KN national sample is selected on a probability basis and households with a home computer connected to the Internet (now about 65 percent of households) are asked to complete two or three online surveys each month and are compensated with points that translate into the purchase of goods and services similar to frequent-flyer miles. Individuals in households without an online computer are offered an MSN box that allows them to use a television set and a local telephone line as a connection to the Internet. Households that opt for this arrangement are visited by a KN technician who installs the equipment and trains the residents in its use. The net cooperation rate for KN surveys is approximately 60 percent, using the appropriate AAPOR formula.

2. In general terms, a structural equation model is a set of regression equations that provides the best estimate for a set of relationships among several independent variables and one or more dependent variables. For the structural analysis presented in this paper, the program LISREL was used, which allows the simultaneous examination of structural relationships and the modeling of measurement errors. For a more comprehensive discussion of structural equation models, see Hayduk (1987) and Jöreskog and Sörbom (1993). For a more detailed example of the use of this technique in the analysis of CSL, see Miller, Pardo, and Niwa (1997).

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.

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).

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.

8. The U.S. national data sets for the years 1985 through 2007 were collected with support from the National Science Foundation (awards SRS8105662, SRS8517581, SRS8807409, SRS9002467, SRS9217876, SRS9732170, SRS9906416, ESI0131424, ESI0201155, ESI0515449). The 2008 wave of the Science News Study was funded by Dean Charles Salmon of Michigan State University. The 2008 participation in the American National Election Study was funded by Vice President Ian Gray of Michigan State University. The author gratefully acknowledges this support, but any errors or omissions are the responsibility of the author and not of the sponsors or any of their staff or officers.