Technology Observed: Attitudes of a Wary Public

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Science  11 Apr 1975:
Vol. 188, Issue 4184, pp. 121-127
DOI: 10.1126/science.188.4184.121


Our analysis of the interviews with a sample of the California public about a range of their attitudes toward technology shows that a modification of our understanding of the collective state of mind on this subject is in order. The current assessment of the public as largely, and somewhat vacantly, enamored with science and technology does not hold. Nor does a picture of a public generally hostile and alienated by technology. Neither panglossian optimism nor prophecies of doom can be supported by these interviews. Rather a more mixed picture emerges. Out of that picture, a potential public can be isolated, whose mood it behooves science policy-makers to watch. This group tends to associate a number of related conditions with technological development; moreover, it is likely to make assessments on those relationships so perceived.

To the degree this group has "antitechnological" feelings, these feelings are clearly linked to the group's awareness that the social consequences of technology can produce conditions which threaten important values. The particular distribution of age and political identification suggests that those who are young and who identify themselves as "liberal" form the core of potential opposition to technological development and that such opposition is at least in part a function of different value preferences. The associations between political identification and attitudes about technology, distrust of decision-making, and concern for environmental impacts all make this point. In short, "technological dissent" cannot be written off as antiintellectual and without foundation. It is, in fact, preeminently sensible.

What the alignments visible within the potential public portend for the future is not clear, although they do not allow us to accept an inference drawn from past studies—that because the young retain confidence in scientists and engineers all is well for the general climate of science and technology. We can only speculate whether, as these younger people grow older, they will carry their uneasiness about technology with them. Were they to do so, and were this group to be joined by still younger people who also hold these wary attitudes, the context of scientific and technological work could become much more fraught with political controversy. Another point emerging from our interpretation is how very crucial to continued free scientific inquiry is the distinction between scientific work and technological activities apparently now made by a sizable portion of the public. Should this distinction become lost, perhaps through continual merging of science's role with technology's by the popular press, attitudes now mainly associated with technology could spill over to scientific research as well.

Yet our data also provide evidence of the successes of the scientific and technological communities. They have become such a critical part of life that people are seriously concerned with their future development. The opportunity is present for both communities to find ways of responding to the situation so that thoughtful action can be taken to implement technology for the benefit of the commonweal.