It should come as no surprise to you all that your profession—science—is highly respected by the general public. I’m sure many of you expected this, but now there is validation in the form of a survey conducted by The Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.
The survey, titled “Public Praise Science: Scientists Fault Public, Media,” asked 2,533 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and 2,001 adults in the general public their perceptions of science and scientists. The full study and analysis is available at http://people-press.org/report/528/
The first thing made crystal clear from the study is that scientists and researchers are well respected by the public—only those in the military and teachers ranked higher on a career perception question. But dig a little deeper and, as the title suggests, there is some disconnect between scientists and the general public. The public may respect science and scientists, but that respect is waning.
While 84% of study respondents believe that science has a mostly positive effect on society, only about one in four believe that the greatest achievements of the past 50 years are related to science, medicine, or technology. And only 17% think American scientists lead in innovation. Ten years ago, a similar study was conducted, and the results to these questions were much more favorable. What went wrong?
The first place to look, according to the scientists, is public knowledge. The biggest problem for science, according to 85% of them, is that the public does not know very much about science and expects results too often and too quickly. The survey included a general scientific quiz (which, I am proud to say, I have taken and scored a perfect 12 out of 12) given to the general public participant of the survey. If this were a quiz given in school, 45% of those taking it would have failed. I’ll be honest with you, the questions weren’t that hard, and I tend to agree that these results point to a lack of knowledge.
But where does most of the public get its knowledge of science? The media. Unfortunately, scientists don’t have a lot of faith in that either. News reports, 76% percent of them claim, fail to distinguish scientific findings that are well founded from those that aren't. Oversimplification is another problem. There's a fine line here though, and science-based stories that are too detailed and complicated wouldn't necessarily lead to greater knowledge.
Science can be an intimidating topic to non-scientists, and oversimplification is often necessary to get the point across. Swine Flu parties, for example, are making a lot of headlines as I write this, and many recent headlines read something along these lines: "Health Experts call Swine Flu Parties A Bad Idea." You think?
I've read a few of those stories, and they're all along the lines: of an expert says don't do this because it's dangerous, but doesn't clearly explain why. Hopefully that’s enough to deter anyone from attending a Swine Flu party.
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