Learning science in a hurry

How Americans Learned to Get Information About Coronavirus for Personal Health Decisions and Public Policy Judgments in the COVID-19 Pandemic

With the advent of the coronavirus pandemic, people were immersed in a situation that required them to obtain information about an emerging scientific problem in order to evaluate the adequacy of government actions and programs of significant personal importance to each individual.

There are other important scientific issues like climate change or energy sources, but few of them involve short-term life-or-death consequences like the COVID-19 pandemic.

An international team led by researcher John Miller of the University of Michigan found that people who earned a college degree and took the required science courses in college acquired a general level of biological literacy that allowed them to make more informed political decisions. judgments about the Trump administration’s effectiveness in dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic.

In the final week before the 2022 midterm elections, these results are important for understanding how citizens understand scientific or technical issues such as viral mutation and transmission and the efficacy of vaccines — and how their government works to protect them from a deadly virus .

Using a national probability sample of adults, Miller and colleagues asked respondents the importance of each of a dozen major issues, ranging from health care to immigration, in determining their vote in the 2020 presidential election, and then their views on the merits of each issue . Some of the traditional political issues were fully explained by an individual’s partisanship, but dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic showed an independent influence on vote choice above and beyond partisanship.

Educational attainment, biological literacy and understanding of the coronavirus were strong positive predictors willingness to vaccinate. Religious fundamentalism and conservative partisanship were strong negative indicators intention to vaccinate.

Miller’s team found that nearly 60 percent of respondents who completed a college or professional education had a highly critical assessment of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic, and 45 percent of those who completed one to three college science courses , are highly critical of the administration’s performance. By comparison, only 6 percent of respondents with one to three college science courses strongly support the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic.

Reflecting the polarized American political system, partisanship and religious beliefs were strong indicators of respondents’ assessment of the Trump administration’s handling of the pandemic. On some issues, such as the Affordable Care Act or climate change, the distribution of political attitudes was almost identical to ideological partisanship, but on the distribution of the assessment of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was considerable marginal variation that reflected differences in the biological knowledge and understanding of the coronavirus.

Prior biological knowledge aided acquisition and understanding of emerging news about the COVID-19 pandemic, and this information was especially important for the 1 in 4 American adults who consider themselves “independent” and avoid affiliation with a major political party.

This analysis was published in the International Journal of Lifelong Education.

In a separate analysis published earlier this year, Miller and his co-authors also examined how Americans decide to receive or decline a COVID-19 vaccination. They found that educational attainment, biological literacy, and understanding of the coronavirus were strong positive predictors of willingness to vaccinate, while religious fundamentalism and conservative bias were strong negative predictors of intention to vaccinate.

Sixty-one percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree reported that they would definitely or probably get a COVID-19 vaccination, and 70% of adults with a college/professional education reported the same. Only 39% of high school graduates said they were likely to get vaccinated.

More than half (54%) of American adults who completed one to three science courses in college—the general educational requirement at most universities—indicated they were willing to get vaccinated, while 65% of American adults who took four or more college science courses indicated the same. Seventy-three percent of adults who qualified as bioliterate on a bioliteracy scale said they would take the vaccine, while only 44% of adults who did not qualify as bioliterate said they intended to be vaccinated.

John Miller

“The majority of Americans had never heard of the coronavirus before the pandemic, but these parallel results show that citizens in the Internet age are looking for information when they need it, and the Internet makes that possible in a timely manner,” Miller said.

Looking at the performance of American adults in acquiring and making sense of complex information about the coronavirus in a relatively short period of time, Miller noted that the United States is uniquely positioned to deal with this kind of emergency.

“The United States is the only country in the world that requires all its students to have a year of a science major, regardless of their major,” he said.

Educators and public policy leaders have recognized the long-term benefits of this system, but the COVID-19 pandemic has shown its value in a public health emergency, Miller said.

The results of the analysis of vaccination intention were published in The FASEB Journal (Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology).

For both analyses, the researchers surveyed a group of 3,141 Americans in March and April 2020, then followed up with the same group in November and December 2020. A total of 2,737 completed the second survey.

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