June 22, 2010

Public Sees a Future Full of Promise and Peril

Section 1: Science, Technology and the Environment

Many Americans see dramatic scientific and technological advancements on the horizon, with big developments in medicine, engineering, space travel and computers. However, despite the widely anticipated scientific breakthroughs – including the elimination of fossil fuels and gas-powered cars – the public foresees a grim environmental future. Rising world temperatures, more polluted oceans and severe water shortages in the U.S. are seen as definite or probable over the next 40 years.

Fully 81% think computer science will have progressed to the point where a computer will probably or definitely be able to carry on a conversation indistinguishable from that of a human being – passing the so-called “Turing test” – by mid-century. And two-thirds of the public (66%) say that technological advancements will likely result in the development of “bionic” limbs – artificial arms and legs that perform better than natural ones.

There also is considerable optimism about the future of cancer research; about seven-in-ten people (71%) say that a cure for cancer will probably or definitely have been found by 2050. Nevertheless, optimism about this has declined since 1999, when 81% of the public thought a cure would be found by this date.

In the wake of recent shifts in NASA’s plans for manned missions to the moon and the imminent end of the space shuttle program, Americans by and large remain optimistic that astronauts will land on Mars in the next 40 years.

However, fewer now say this is likely than did so 11 years ago (63% today, 76% in 1999). While there are few demographic differences in predictions about space exploration, college graduates are more doubtful than others; 57% of college graduates say astronauts will definitely or probably land on the red planet within 40 years, while 67% of those without college degrees expect this to happen.

The public is more divided when it comes to other space-related scientific advancements. Half (50%) say that by 2050 there definitely or probably will be evidence that humans are not alone in the universe, while 45% say that this evidence probably or definitely won’t exist by then. And about as many people anticipate that within 40 years ordinary people will be able to travel in space (53%) as think it unlikely this will happen (45%).

Americans are also split in their expectations about the future of cloning. Roughly half of Americans foresee scientists bringing an animal species back from extinction through cloning (51%), while nearly as many (47%) say this will definitely or probably not take place by 2050. Views about whether human cloning is a probable part of the next 40 years are also mixed (48% say it is and 49% say it is not), little changed since 1999.

The embedding of computer chips in order to identify Americans – familiar to many through science fiction – also gets mixed predictions. While half (50%) say this probably or definitely will not occur by 2050, almost as many (48%) say that it probably or definitely will.

About four-in-ten (42%) say it is likely that scientists will be able to tell what people are thinking by scanning their brains, another prediction that may seem like something straight out of science fiction; yet researchers are currently exploring this through the use of functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI). However, a majority (55%) says this will definitely or probably not happen.

Only about three-in-ten college graduates (31%) and 37% of those with some college experience say brain scans will allow scientists to read minds, while 50% of those who did not attend college anticipate that this will definitely or probably happen within 40 years.

Paper Will Be Passé?

If the public’s predictions are to be believed, those working and living 40 years from now should be prepared for a paperless future. Nearly two-thirds (64%) say paper editions of newspapers will no longer exist, while 34% think they will still be around. Majorities of most demographic groups expect the demise of print newspapers, and those with at least some college experience are especially likely to do so.

A similar number (63%) thinks that paper money will definitely or probably cease to exist, with all financial transactions being electronic; some 35% do not think this will happen in the next 40 years. And with no newspaper clippings or cash-filled birthday cards to send, most predict that almost no one will send personal letters in the mail: 61% say this will definitely or probably happen; 37% of the public disagrees.

Energy and the Environment

Public opinion about the condition of the planet and the energy situation over the next 40 years includes several dire predictions as well as some optimistic ones. Across many of these measures, those who hold more pessimistic views about the future of the environment are also more likely to be pessimistic about the future of the country.

Nearly three-quarters (74%) say that it is likely that “most of our energy will come from sources other than coal, oil, and gas” while just 24% say that this is unlikely. A smaller majority (54%) thinks that production of automobiles powered by gasoline will have stopped by 2050; 41% say this is unlikely to happen. At the same time, 72% of Americans say that the world is likely to experience a major worldwide energy crisis by the end of the next four decades.

In terms of the overall quality of the environment, about as many expect it will not improve over the next 40 years (50%) as say it will get better (47%). Moreover, two-thirds (66%) say the earth will definitely or probably get warmer over this period; just 30% say this definitely or probably won’t happen. Six-in-ten (60%) say the world’s oceans will be less healthy in 40 years than they are today. And more Americans say the country is likely to experience severe fresh water shortages (53%) than say this is unlikely to happen (43%).

Young Are More Pessimistic about Environment

People younger than 30 are considerably more pessimistic than older Americans about the environment over the next four decades. About three-quarters (74%) of those under 30 say the oceans will be less healthy in 2050 than they are today, a view shared by 60% of 30 to 49 year olds, but smaller majorities of older Americans.

Similarly, a 62% majority of those under 30 expect that the quality of the earth’s environment will not improve by 2050, the highest percentage in any age group. There is also an age gap in predictions of a rise in earth’s temperature: 77% of younger Americans say the earth will definitely or probably get warmer, compared with 64% of those older than 30.

In general, Republicans are substantially less negative than Democrats and independents in their long-term environmental outlook. Fewer than half of Republicans (48%) say the earth will definitely or probably get warmer over the next 40 years, while large majorities of Democrats (83%) and independents (68%) expect the earth to get warmer over this period.

Moreover, just 37% of Republicans say the United States is likely to face severe water shortages in coming decades; 63% of independents and 56% of Democrats say severe water shortages in the U.S. are either definite or probable. And Republicans (52%) are less likely than Democrats (65%) to say that the world’s oceans will be less healthy over the next 40 years.

Since 1999, there has been a sharp decline in the percentage of Republicans and older Americans who say the earth is likely to get warmer by 2050. Eleven years ago, 68% of Republicans said it was at least probable that the earth would get warmer. That figure has fallen to 48% currently. Independents also are somewhat less likely to expect the earth to get warmer than in 1999 (76% then, 68% today). By contrast, there has been virtually no change among Democrats (81% in 1999, 83% today).

In addition, fewer people 65 and older anticipate the earth will get warmer than did so 11 years ago (78% then, 61% today); the percentage of those ages 30 to 49 who predict that the earth will get warmer also has declined (76% then, 63% today).

The sizable partisan and age differences in opinions about future global warming correspond to views about whether earth’s temperatures have been rising in recent decades. Pew Research Center surveys over the past few years have found a substantial decline in the proportion of Republicans saying there is solid evidence the earth’s temperatures have been rising (see Fewer Americans See Solid Evidence of Global Warming, October 22, 2009).