American adults are more informed than Japanese adults about certain technologies even though Japanese students consistently outscore their American counterparts on science tests, surveys show.
"This is the first time we've had data that suggests we're not being blown away," said Jon D. Miller, director of the Public Opinion Laboratory at Northern Illinois University."We have huge numbers of people who don't understand science and technology, but other countries like Japan also have many of these same problems," he said Friday at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
In a separate study, Hajime Nagahama of the National Institute of Science and Technology Policy in Japan found that Japanese adults recognize that their country excels in science, but they ranked science eighth when asked what aspect of their country they were proudest of.
Topping that list was Japan's maintenance of social order, followed by its natural beauty, its history and traditions, the diligence and talent of its people, the high level of education, the country's prosperity, and its culture and arts. All of those outranked Japan's science, Nagahama's survey found.
Miller compared Japanese and U.S. survey results on seven questions dealing with science and technology. Questions about lasers and antibiotics found that more Americans than Japanese understood those concepts.
When adults were asked whether they agreed with the statement that "lasers work by focusing sound waves," 41 percent of Japanese adults wrongly said yes. Only 26 percent of Americans said yes.
When adults were asked whether antibiotics can kill viruses as well as bacteria, 70 percent of Japanese adults wrongly said yes. Sixty percent of U.S. adults answered yes.
"We are not as bad off in the U.S. as we probably think we are," Miller said. "Their knowledge of technology was less developed than in the U.S."
Test data has shown for years that "students in Japan do enormously better than American students" on science tests, Miller said. He said he was puzzled by the findings that American adults seem to do better in some respects than Japanese.
Senta Raizen, director of the Washington-based National Center for Improving Science Education, said that science reporting on television and in newspapers may be responsible for the disparity.
"I don't believe that those particular bits of knowledge have to do with school learning," she said.