December 11, 2015

Public Interest in Science and Health Linked to Gender, Age and Personality

Those who try to measure public understanding about science and technology often link science and technology with the health and medical domain. Yet, the reality is that different people find those distinct parts of science interesting.

Overall, a new analysis by Pew Research Center finds 37% of online adults say “health and medicine” is among the topics they find most interesting,1, while 32% identify “science and technology” in their top three. But the people who find each topic area to be particularly interesting are, by and large, different publics. Just 11% of online adults say both “science and technology” and “health and medicine” are of particular interest.

Women are especially likely to express interest in health and medical topics, while men are relatively more inclined to express interest in science and technology. About half of online women (52%) say health and medicine is among the top three topics of interest to them, compared with 22% among men. Men are about twice as likely as women to say science and technology is among the top three topics of interest to them (43% of men compared with 22% of women).

There are also some divides by age when it comes to interest in these topics. Younger adults (ages 18 to 29) are more inclined than older adults (ages 50 to 64) to cite science and technology as a topic of particular interest, while the reverse pattern occurs when it comes to interest in health and medicine.

Beyond demographic differences, personality differences underlie people’s interest in these topics. This survey used measures of the “Big Five” personality dimensions that are commonly studied in psychology. They are 1) openness to experience; 2) conscientiousness; 3) agreeableness; 4) emotional stability; and 5) extroversion. One notable finding tied to personality is that adults with a tendency to be open to new experiences, regardless of other characteristics, tend to express more interest in science and technology topics. Two-thirds of online adults (66%) who score high on openness to experience say they are interested in science and technology topics, including 39% who rank science and technology among the topics of most interest to them. By contrast, 23% of those lower on openness to experience identify science and technology topics as being of particular interest while 52% say these topics are not of interest.

There are more modest differences in interest across other Big Five traits. Introverts express more interest in science and technology topics than do extroverts. For example, 61% of those lower on a two-item extroversion index say they are interested in science and technology topics, compared with 52% among those higher on the extroversion scale. And those lower on a three-item index of conscientiousness tend to express more interest in science and technology topics (with 34% saying these topics are of most interest, compared with 26% among those high in conscientiousness).

These findings come from Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, a nationally representative panel of randomly selected U.S. adults. The data in this report were collected at a few different time points. The survey asking about interest in science and technology and health and medicine topics was conducted March 19-April 29, 2014, with 3,308 adults; some of the analysis relies on the 2,901 web respondents from this survey. Analysis of those interested in these topics uses measures collected on subsequent surveys (April 29-May 27, 2014, for personality traits and Aug. 11-Sept. 3, 2014, for science knowledge) and is based on the 1,815 respondents who completed several panel surveys (waves 1-9).

There are connections between public interest and public knowledge about science

These findings have meaning in the broad world of public policy and modern life because interest in science and knowledge about science are seen as important indicators of public engagement, especially by the scientific community.

A Pew Research Center survey of U.S.-based members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) suggested broad concerns among the scientific community about the general public’s knowledge of and interest in science topics. Fully 84% of AAAS members surveyed said the public’s limited science knowledge was a major problem for science. Three-quarters of AAAS members said too little K-12 science, technology, engineering and mathematics education (STEM) was a major reason for the public’s limited science knowledge. Some 57% said lack of public interest in science news is a major reason for the public’s limited knowledge. Fewer, by comparison, considered limited media interest (43%) or too few scientists communicating findings (40%) to be a major reason for the public’s limited knowledge about science.

Pew Research Center analysis of the American Trends Panel finds that public knowledge and interest in science topics are linked. Internet users with a particular interest in science and technology topics are also more likely to correctly answer questions on a science knowledge quiz asked several months later (mean score of 9.7 out of 12 items, compared with 7.2 among those not interested in these topics). Of course, interest in science and technology topics may help drive more knowledge and more knowledge on science and technology topics may help spur interest levels. It’s not possible to parse out the causal mechanisms behind this association between interest in science and higher levels of knowledge.

The relatively small news hole for science coverage does not necessarily match the public’s interest

Science intersects with many aspects of life, from innovations and inventions to policy debates and even mundane everyday activities. Yet, previous analysis of media coverage by Pew Research Center2 between 2007 and 2012 found just 2% of the annual news coverage in traditional media outlets focused on science and technology, while coverage related to health and medicine averages less than 10% annually. And with the changing media landscape, there are a dwindling number of science journalists to cover new scientific developments for traditional news organizations.3

The Pew Research Center survey findings suggest a disjuncture between traditional media attention to these topics and public interest. Majorities of online adults express a broad interest in science and technology (58%) and health and medicine (66%) topics; roughly a third or more of online adults rank science and technology (32%) or health and medicine (37%) as a topic of particular interest.

  1. Online adults includes 89% of the general adult population. The initial questions identifying topics of interest were asked of the general population while the follow-up questions identifying the top topics were asked only of online adults.
  2. See Science and Engineering Indicators 2014, Chapter 7, table 7-2. Also see Pew Research Center, interactive “State of the News Media 2012.”
  3. See Dudo, A., S. Dunwoody and D. A. Scheufele. 2011. The emergence of nano news: Tracking thematic trends and changes in U.S. newspaper coverage of nanotechnology. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 88, 55-75. For more on science news consumption in the contemporary media landscape see Su, L.Y., H. Akin, D. Brossard, D.A. Scheufele and M.A. Xenos. 2015. Science News Consumption Patterns and Their Implications for Public Understanding of Science. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 92(3), 597-616.