Public knows no more about genetics than in 1990
ARBOR, Mich.Despite a decade of highly publicized advances
in genetics, U.S. adults know no more about genetic testing than
they did in 1990, according to a University of Michigan study.
"The public needs to have more and better
education about genetics," said Eleanor Singer, lead author
of the study and a senior research scientist at the U-M Institute
for Social Research (ISR), the world's largest academic survey
and research organization.
For the study, Singer and ISR colleagues Toni
Antonucci and John Van Hoewyk compared data from a random-digit-dialed
national survey of 1,006 respondents conducted in 1990 with data
from later national surveys, including a random-digit-dialed survey
of 1,824 respondents conducted in 2000.
The topics included attitudes toward prenatal
testing, abortion, genetic testing in the workplace, genetic testing
for adult-onset untreatable diseases and a series of true-or-false
statements that they used to construct an "accuracy index."
Comparing the number of accuracy-index questions
answered correctly in 1990 and 2000, the researchers found that
even after controlling for demographic characteristics of the respondents
including age and education, the proportion of questions answered
correctly was significantly lower in 2000 than it had been in 1990.
In 1990, for example, 58 percent of those surveyed
correctly answered at least three out of five accuracy-index questions,
compared to just 24 percent in 2000. (Click
here for proportions answering knowledge questions
correctly, by year)
The questions included whether genetic testing
can detect a tendency to develop certain types of cancer and depression;
whether it can be used during pregnancy to find out if the baby
or fetus will develop certain diseases; and whether gene therapy
can be used to correct defects discovered through prenatal testing.
Because of changes in expert knowledge about genetics and genetic
testing, the wording of the questions used to measure accuracy changed
slightly between the two years. (Click
here for question wording) But while the question wording
changed slightly, the difficulty level of the questions was similar.
The following statement, part of the accuracy
index, appeared in identical form in both the 1990 and 2000 surveys:
"Genetic screening can be used in adults to predict whether
a person will suffer a heart attack." Fifty-five percent of
the adults surveyed in both years correctly said that the statement
was false. "In other words," Singer said, "as
measured by responses to this question, accuracy was not much better
than chance in either year."
In addition to gauging the accuracy of public
knowledge, the study compared how attitudes toward prenatal testing,
preferences for abortion in case of fetal defect and attitudes toward
genetic testing in the workplace had changedor remained the
In both 1990 and 2000, about two-thirds of respondents
said that if they or their partner were pregnant, they would want
to have prenatal testing to see if the baby had any serious genetic
But attitudes toward abortion in case of fetal
defect changed considerably over the 10-year period, Singer found,
with a much smaller percentage reporting that they would have an
abortion if a prenatal test showed a serious defect 22 percent
in 2000 compared to 32 percent in 1990.
In a May 15 presentation at the annual meeting
of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, Singer and
Antonucci presented data from the same surveys showing how these
attitudes and beliefs were related to demographic factors, including
race and ethnicity. In general, they found that African-American
and Latino respondents were more likely than whites to favor both
prenatal and adult genetic testing.
About 76 percent of Blacks, 74 percent of Latino
and 66 percent of whites surveyed in 2000 said they would want a
test to find out if their baby had any serious genetic defects.
"At the same time, African-Americans and Latinos have lower
than average income than whites, and are less likely to carry private
health insurance," noted Singer. "Thus, their ability
to avail themselves of genetic testing is reduced relative to whites."
In addition, the researchers found that Blacks and Latinos are more
concerned than whites with possible misuses of genetic information.
Established in 1948, the Institute for Social Research
(ISR) is among the world's oldest survey research organizations,
and a world leader in the development and application of social
science methodology. ISR conducts some of the most widely-cited
studies in the nation, including the Survey of Consumer Attitudes,
the National Election Studies, the Monitoring the Future Study,
the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, the Health and Retirement Study,
the Columbia County Longitudinal Study and the National Survey of
Black Americans. ISR researchers also collaborate with social scientists
in more than 60 nations on the World Values Surveys and other projects,
and the Institute has established formal ties with universities
in Poland, China, and South Africa. Visit the ISR Web site at www.isr.umich.edu
for more information. ISR is also home to the Inter-University Consortium
for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), the world's largest
computerized social science data archive.
Contact: Diane Swanbrow
Phone: (734) 647-9069