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New Genet Soc. 2005 Apr;24(1):31-56.

Attitudes to biotechnology: estimating the opinions of a better-informed public.

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Department of Sociology, School of Human Sciences, University of Surrey, Guildford, GU2 7XH, UK.


Public familiarity with basic scientific concepts and principles has been proposed as essential for effective democratic decision-making (Miller, 1998). Empirical research, however, finds that public 'scientific literacy' is generally low, falling well short of what normative criteria would consider 'acceptable.' This has prompted calls to better engage, educate and inform the public on scientific matters, with the additional, usually implicit assumption that a knowledgeable citizenry should express more supportive and favourable attitudes toward science. Research investigating the notion that 'to know science is to love it' has provided only weak empirical support and has itself been criticised for representing science and technology as a unified and homogenous entity. In practice, it is argued, how knowledge impacts on the favourability of attitudes will depend on a multiplicity of actors, not the least of which is the particular area of science in question and the technologies to which it gives rise (Evans & Durant, 1992). This article uses a new method for examining the knowledge-attitude nexus on a prominent area of 21st century science--biotechnology. The idea that greater scientific knowledge can engender change in the favourability of attitudes toward specific areas of science is investigated using data from the 2000 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 1999 Wellcome Consultative Panel on Gene Therapy. Together the surveys measure public opinion on particular applications of genetic technologies, including gene therapy and the use of genetic data, as well as more general attitudes towards genetic research. We focus our analysis on how two different measures of knowledge impact on these attitudes; one a more general measure of scientific knowledge, the other relating specifically to knowledge of modern genetic science. We investigate what impact these knowledge domains have on attitudes toward biotechnology using a regression-based modelling technique (Bartels, 1996; Althaus, 1998; Sturgis, 2003). Controlling for a range of socio-demographic characteristics, we provide estimates of what collective and individual opinion would look like if everyone were as knowledgeable as the currently best-informed members of the general public on the knowledge domains in question. Our findings demonstrate that scientific knowledge does appear to have an important role in determining individual and group attitudes to genetic science. However, we find no support for a simple 'deficit model' of public understanding, as the nature of the relationship itself depends on the application of biotechnology in question and the social location of the individual.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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