Are we science-savvy enough to make informed decisions?

Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions.

ByABC News
August 11, 2008, 11:53 PM

— -- For decades, educators and employers have worried that too few Americans are preparing for careers in science. But there's evidence to support a new, broader concern in this election year: Ordinary Americans may not know enough about science to make informed decisions on key questions.

Seventy-six percent of Americans say presidential candidates should make improving science education a national priority, according to a national Harris Interactive survey of 1,304 adults in November and December. Results were released this spring.

But only 26% believe that they themselves have a good understanding of science. And 44% couldn't identify a single scientist, living or dead, whom they'd consider a role model for the nation's young people.

These results are disturbing, science education experts say, because scientists aren't the only ones who must distinguish solid scientific methods from bogus ones. Some important scientific questions are being debated this year, including food safety, imported-product safety and the effect of biofuels.

Finding trustworthy sources

Whether a person is planning a child's diet or staking out a position on global warming, insights from science are indispensable, experts say, but only if someone knows which findings to trust.

"People will respond to demagoguery if they don't believe they have sufficient knowledge and sufficient confidence in their ability to weigh arguments and assess what's behind them," says Walter Massey, a board member of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, which commissioned the survey.

"The danger is that we move increasingly toward being a society where the most important decisions are ultimately made by fewer and fewer people."

Even figuring out which organizations to trust for guidance requires some basic knowledge of what constitutes good research methodology, Massey says.

Non-scientists can use Internet resources to get a handle on technical subjects as long as they exercise "healthy skepticism," says Donald Kennedy, former editor in chief of Science.