The Public Perception of Science

Many factors contribute towards the public’s perception of science: values, beliefs, attitudes, knowledge, and the media, and is, undoubtedly, a complicated topic (large populations naturally harbour conflicting views). Despite so many factors, our perception of the scientific world seems to be most significantly affected by the media – portrayed though television, radio, publications (such as ‘New Scientist’), as well as more sensationalist material such as the daily tabloids. Generally speaking, medical issues, developments or breakthroughs are far more commonly publicised than any other scientific news – medical news comprising of 34% of tabloid-based science, with television (38%) and radio (27%) reflecting this trend also (all figures from the study Towards a Better Map: Science, the Public and the Media by the Economic & Social Research Council, 2002). This demonstrates one of the key trends seen by the public; interest arises most often from an obvious scientific application, and one of which is very likely to affect the daily lives of the masses.

Particularly in the tabloids, scientific information is often printed with generalisations that can lead to misinterpretation and lacking in accuracy. For instance, the popular media tend to print findings as ‘absolutes’, forgetting that the philosophy behind science is that it is fundamentally unable to prove anything: rather, it falsifies hypotheses and then puts forward the most likely explanations for the given evidence.

Many people want ‘black and white’ answers to scientific questions, which are rare in scientific research. Commonly, research papers (for instance, a paper focusing on whether a certain food type is beneficial to health) produce either positive or negative findings which are presented to the public via the media. Difficulties arise when research into the same topics produces conflicting results: disagreements can hinder the public’s idea of science, and disinterest can begin to show from ambiguity (Time, Science and Consensus: the Different Times Involving Scientific Research, Political Decision and Public Opinion, De Oliveira & Epstein, Methodist University Izabela Hendrix, 2009). The scientific world can be complicated, and studies focusing on the same research can have conflicting conclusions. Arguably, people either find such conflicts interesting or completely lose faith and distrust competing sources.

One of the key issues involving the perception of science by the general public is the ability to communicate ideas simply and effectively. More often than not, scientific language discourages the average person’s interest in science (How Scientific Language Erodes Public Trust in Science, Clive Thompson, 2007). Science terminology tends not to be used in common diction, which could pose a problem to the general public; in order to be well informed on relevant scientific areas, scientific terms need to be comprehensible to those who might not necessarily have a background in science.  Scientific language can act as a barrier, and can make individuals feel that science is inaccessible.

In general, ‘Public Perceptions of the Connection Between Scientific Research and Social Progress’, a study conducted by Bruce Lewenstein (Cornell University, USA, 1999), suggests that the public are interested in science, but that there is a fine line between simplicity and complexity; demonstrating the practicalities of science, or suggesting the possibilities of science, in relation to a human disease say, and in a format that can be deciphered by the average individual with only an education on the basics of science, is much more understandable than trying to understand the discoveries of the Universe. Science is, without a doubt, a force to be reckoned with. What makes science interesting to the average reader is not only when the research being produced is presented in a way that can be easily understood, but when eventual conclusions can be related to everyday life. It’s obvious that, if a radical development such as a new treatment for cancer is put to the public, it has much more impact since its conclusions are more likely to affect the general population than say, a new chip architecture which increases the processing power of CPUs. The abstract from ‘Public Perceptions of the Connection Between Scientific Research and Social Progress’ puts this point forward nicely; the findings show that, whilst science is extremely important for human development, general knowledge of the details of science is surprisingly small.

The relationship between knowledge for a subject and support of it is far from simple: sometimes the more that an individual knows about science, the less they tend to support it (e.g. how cosmetics are tested and produced), although, in general and based on the ‘deficit model’ of science communication (which focused on failure to know and understand good science), the more individuals understand science the more they will be able to make informed judgements (Towards a Better Map: Science, the Public and the Media by the Economic & Social Research Council, 2002). It is, as discussed, common thinking amongst the public that when it comes to conducting research, there must always be a practical application in mind – again, for science to garner interest it has to have an obvious application.

Overall, there has been increased attention over time to both science (increasingly present in the media) and the public perception of science. Based on the vast studies conducted, however, it does raise the question as to whether even more coverage is required, but when considering how the public’s understanding has improved from the ‘deficit model’, we do now understand more ways to engage with the public in relation to science (Towards a Better Map: Science, the Public and the Media by the Economic & Social Research Council, 2002).

By Laura Riggall 


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