Tuesday, September 04, 2012

Public Attitudes to Science

"Public Attitudes to Science" is a survey that has been conducted in the UK every couple of years since 2000, most recently 2011. It's quite interesting if you're interested in how scientific research is perceived by the public; you can download the full survey results here. Let me just show you some of the figures that I found interesting.

First, here's where people hear or read about new scientific research findings most often. TV and print newspapers are the dominant sources with 54% and 33%, followed by internet excluding blogs. Science blogs come in only at 2% (I don't know what the asterisk means, I took the number from the text to this figure).


Next, a somewhat odd question. People were asked how much they agree or disagree with the statement "The information I hear about science is generally true." It's beyond me how anybody can agree with a statement like that. Anyway, 9% disagree or strongly disagree and an amazing 47% agree or strongly agree.


What's more interesting is that those who agreed or disagreed were asked for their reasons in an unprompted reply. Here's the most frequently named reasons for agreeing that "information I hear about science is generally true." The top answer (no reason to doubt it) means to me essentially they're generally trusting or didn't think very much about their answer. More telling are the subsequent reasons: It's checked by other scientists, science is regulated, it comes directly from scientists, it's checked by someone, checked by journalists. Don't laugh, this is serious.


And here are the top reasons to disagree that scientific information s generally true. The first two replies are variants of why should I believe it. Followed by it's not checked by anyone, not checked by other scientists, not checked by journalists, does not come directly from scientists, and a general mistrust in mass media. This reply is interesting because science blogs can alleviate this trust issue very much, yet, as we have seen above, only very few people seems to use them as a source of information.


This becomes even clearer if you look at the replies to the next question, that is what could increase people's trust in the finding of scientific studies:


I am as shocked as amazed that 47% of people say they would trust information more if it was repeated. Though that shouldn't come as a surprise to me because it's a well-known effect that Kahneman in his book elaborates on for a while. The same goes for the reply that information fitted nicely with what they already new. If you really needed evidence that the human brain easily falls for confirmation bias, here it is. And that's only the people who admitted it! But on the more hopeful side are the replies that ask for review by other scientists and publication in a scientific journal. One might add that at least a proper reference our source would greatly help. I think science blogs do much better in terms of referencing and they're a source of review by other scientists in themselves. So, I come to conclude the world would be a better place if people would read more science blogs. Though that might be a case of confirmation bias ;o)

19 comments:

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

An interesting study, yet not one that raises my confidence level that the reporting of science is having much actual positive effect upon the general attitudes of people as it relates to forming reasoned decision. That is I think this study to indicate that for most science is not perceived much more than simply another authority, rather than a powerful method respective of their own decision making and therein serving being not much different of a utility than say religion is in such regard. That is what they take from what is perceived as the scientific evidence amounts to being mostly some cherry picked sound bites which agrees with what they have come to believe to be true already as arrived at by other means.

In short then, I find the challenge rests more with how to have more want to become educated in respect to being able to incorporate the scientific method themselves, that is rather than having them to simply come to believe that those who do and so able should be understood as having some value. With that said find below a just a few things I found in this study which I would say being reflective of what I contend; which for the most part I do think was arrived at scientifically before hand as it relates to direct observation:-)

“Over half (56%) agree that “people shouldn’t tamper with nature”, although this is markedly lower than in 2008 (70%).”


“Our workshops found low awareness of “peer review”. When the system was explained to participants, some expressed doubts about the motives of reviewers and how they were picked as reviewers.”

“There is so much conflicting information about science it is difficult to know what to believe- - - 71%”


“When looking at specific issues in science, the relationship between feeling informed and attitudes to science varies depending on the topic being discussed. For example, on the more contentious issues of GM crops and the use of animals in research (see Section 2.5), feeling informed does not necessarily correlate with a more positive attitude towards these issues. Instead, the people who feel more informed about these more contentious topics tend to be more polarised in their views of the risks and benefits – this group is more likely than average to think the benefits outweigh the risks and more likely than average to think the risks outweigh the benefits.”



Best,

Phil

Alyssa said...

"The same goes for the reply that information fitted nicely with what they already new."

Yes - in fact, one of the leading ways to get people engaged in science education/outreach is to somehow connect it to something they already know.

The hope, though, is to either expand their knowledge or to challenge their knowledge - not for them to just accept it because "a scientist told them".

Zephir said...

/* I am as shocked as amazed that 47% of people say they would trust information more if it was repeated.**/

Why amazed? Apparently some Germans forget their thinkers already.. Joseph Goebbels: "Repeat a lie a thousand time and it becomes truth" After all, my experience with You is exactly the same: the first comment of mine is usually ridiculed if not censored - just after some months is tolerated here. People simply need some time to swallow new ideas and concepts.

Bee said...

Zephir,

You are totally misinterpreting my tolerance of your commenting here. That you seem to believe my tolerance means approval of content gives me now a very strong incentive now to delete all nonsense that you dump here, which is almost everything. Best,

B.

Henning said...

Zephir, I am just a random passersby on this blog. So I have no idea what got your nickers in a bunch. I can assure you I have seen plenty of bad behavior from commenters on various blogs. But referring to Joseph Goebbels as one of German thinkers, to insult a German blog host is remarkably low.

Reflects very badly on you.

Juan said...

Bee,

Enlighten me if you please. What are the reasons for informing the public? Presumably we have to establish that an informed public is a desirably trait before we embark on a study to see if they are. Do we care about them, do we require their money for our own research, does it benefit them in any way, etc.?

Worse than that,we have to ask whether it is at all possible to get them properly informed. How much can they really fathom of quantum theory? I have to agree with Phil that the reporting of science is not having much positive effect on public attitudes.

Let's examine this and draw some parallels between physics and medicine. I have been a specialist surgeon for 10 years (follow your blog amongst others (it is actually at the top of my morning list) as I finally have the time to formalize an academic physics education). As opposed to physics, I have many opportunities every day to inform "the public" as I consult with a patient and explain their diseases and management. No matter what information given to a patient, you can so clearly see that they walk out the door without full comprehension. It is simply not possible for them to understand that which takes 13 years of study (at least here in SA) to master.

So much more in physics. To be sure, at least medicine does not suffer from the fact that we have to justify investment. The public accepts the benefit. Not so in physics as far as I can see.

So, what is the benefit to physicists of an informed public? Is it purely altruistic, does it really benefit the public, or does it benefit the physicist?

Juan.

Bee said...

Hi Juan,

When they conducted this survey, I strongly doubt they had in mind informing the public about quantum gravity. If you browse the other questions that they ask, they're more concerned with issues like public health, animal testing, genetically modified crops, climate change, and so on. Topics that I think it is indeed beneficial and relevant if people are well informed. Best,

B.

Juan said...

Thanks Bee,

Irrespective of the questions in this study, the bigger picture still remains. I am curious about ways to improve the public perception and interest in physics. Just my personal view, but I'm always disappointed when I see physicists have to defend their existence to the public and was wondering what your perception was.

Juan.

Bee said...

Hi Juan,

Sorry, I thought you were asking about the survey. I think the issue that you raise isn't one special to physics, it's one that almost all fundamental research faces, if applications and benefits are not obvious. It is difficult to communicate why this type of research is important and relevant to innovation and progress. Most people are simply not used to thinking in time scales of hundreds of years. To that end, I think it definitely helps to educate people about what is the scientific basis that our modern societies are built on. I also think that scientists should be very opposed to having to justify their curiosity by predictable economic impact. I know we live in a material world, but it's really unfortunate that many people have come to think about progress exclusively in terms of applications rather than in terms of insights in the first place.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

I should have added, it's also not an issue for all areas of physics. If you're presently working on the miniaturization of the transistor or quantum computing, you don't have much justification to do.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, you're right. Rather than getting across some specific piece of scientific information, it would be much more valuable to inspire more scientific thinking generally. I'm not sure how much can be done about this. The way people approach a question and try to find answers is so greatly dependent on education and upbringing that it is very likely a problem that cannot be solved by better scientific reporting alone. Best,

B.

Phil Warnell said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

I would agree with you that upbringing and education are the key factors to developing a scientific mindset. This also has me often wonder if such a mindset if not developed early in life, whether this has it harder to have formed later on. That is I find the non scientific mindset could be even argued to be embedded in our language, as to have simply our choice of words having this task to become more difficult. That is for instance this question in the survey asking people if science reporting has them better able to decide what they should “believe” to be true. Perhaps it’s a nick picky point, yet for me this a word which I attempt to avoid using when it comes describing my own decisions, as preferring instead to use words like “suspect” or phrases such as “reason to understand” in its place.

Thus I think the first step to developing a scientific mindset is to have it made clear as to what stands as the foundations of such a decision focused philosophy. That is to suggest it should begin by early on emphasizing first that forming opinions needs to have doubt to be satisfied by reason that incorporate logic based suspicion to be reinforced by observation. Further and perhaps just as important, is to have made clear that what one considers as true should be keep as always provisional, since remaining open to the very philosophical mindset by which they where arrived at and as such beginning with the words we choose to describe one’s truth.


Best,

Phil

Henning said...

Juan,

with regards to why scientists should care about informing the public: Most science is publicly funded. In a democracy public disinterest or animosity towards science can quickly translate into the drying up of funds. E.g. no money for stem cell research under the Bush administration in the US.

Also the concept of academic freedom is a fairly recent one. For most of history it was the organized religions that determined what was proper “truth”. And the religions have not given up the fight as the encroachment of creationism in the US amply demonstrates. Of course the US are the worst offenders in this regard, but I don't think science anywhere can afford any complacency.

Giotis said...

3% "I check the information myself".

How on earth they do that?

Bee said...

Probably the 3% are a subgroup of the 9% who trust information if they see it on the internet.

Giotis said...

I see, you mean they google it; that makes perfect sense then:-)

Jayesh Navin Shah said...

Hi there,

V. late comment, but I've just spotted this blog.

I worked on the PAS 2011 study as part of the Ipsos MORI research team, and thought you might like to know that BIS are commissioning a new PAS study to be undertaken in 2013 and published in 2014.

The * in the first chart was to show a % of less than 0.5% (it's a reporting convention we clarify in the intro to the report).

Also some comments on why physicists should bother to talk to the public:
- Our survey looked at science in a broad sense, and some of the qualitative work did include lots of discussions on physics. Many people are really interested in quantum theory! It's a way to grab and fascinate people.
- As someone pointed out, a lot of this research is funded publicly by STFC, so taxpayers are interested in knowing where their money goes.
- People group scientists together, so their impression of physicists impacts on their impression of other areas of science. There's a need to combat the stereotype of the mad scientist working alone in the lab, and physicists have an important part to play in combating that.
- It's not just about informing people, what about getting more to study and work in physics - there needs to be a next generation of physicists, who have to be inspired somehow!