Friday, July 10, 2009

The numbers are in: people like science



Yesterday the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released an extensive study exploring how the public feels about scientists and how scientists feels about the public. (It occurs to me that the way I phrased that makes it sound like they recently went through a bad breakup.) Here are the results, in a nutshell:
Public: "Oh look, scientists! Hey, I'm a big fan. I mean, thanks for the internet and medication and stuff."
Scientists: "Um, you're welcome?"
Public: "But you know what, to be honest, I don't really understand you very well."
Scientists: "Maybe you're short-selling yourself."
Public: "No, seriously. Ask me a question."
Scientists: "Okay. Let's see...hey, here's an easy one. Which are smaller, atoms or electrons?"
Public: "Um..."
Scientists: "Sigh...Well, I suppose it's not your fault, considering the abysmal state of science education and science media in this country."
The report covers a broad range of topics, including how the public rates science's usefulness and importance, the opinions of scientists versus the general public on important science-related issues like global warming and animal testing, and how informed the public is about science. You can participate in the last bit by taking Pew's Science Knowledge Quiz. The report itself is extremely interesting and multifaceted, and definitely worth reading. On the whole, things look good for scientists; most people admire scientists, think that science benefits society, and value research as a worthy item on which to spend their taxes. Scientists, on the other hand, have a pretty low opinion of the media's science coverage—63% rate newspaper coverage of science as only fair or poor--and think the public's lack of scientific knowledge is a major problem for science. Which makes a bit of sense if you look at the results from Pew's science quiz. More than half of people answered the aforementioned atoms versus electrons question incorrectly.

Personally, I was really excited to see that the public had such a high opinion of science. I might have guessed as much from my experience working at a Department of Energy physics lab; when the lab opened its doors for a public lecture, hundreds of people turned up, oftentimes standing for an hour just to hear about black holes. Pew reports that even the majority of people who see the Bible as their textbook on evolutionary biology think science is good for humanity. But depending on what news source you read, you'll see a different slant on the results.

The Christian Science Monitor, USA Today, and the New York Times claim a "widening gap" between the opinions of scientists and the public on science:

...while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, general public is far less sure.

Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.

MSNBC Science Editor Alan Boyle handles the report deftly, moving on from the numbers to ask what can be done to get Scientists and the Public talking again, given that the Public really does actually like Science after all.

Rather than merely complaining about the sorry state of scientific literacy, scientists should value the communicators in their ranks - such as the late astronomer Carl Sagan, who was as comfortable in front of a camera as he was in a lab.
Meanwhile, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker (which keeps up with the biggest stories of the day, and media coverage of them. A really great resource if you see a lot of conflicting reports of the same thing) rounds up the articles and blogs, adding:
One notes that bylines tend to belong to science writers. Science writers can hope to cover science itself with a semblance of objective dispassion. But they have an inbuilt conflict of interest when the topic is the standing and penetration of science as a way to reach conclusions.
As for me, I was interested by the complaint among scientist that a lack of scientific education was really hurting society. It is a shame when a lack of resources in schools mean kids miss out on getting excited about science and acquiring at least some sense for what science does. But does having a lot of formal science education really help you understand the latest scientific research? Even people with a bachelor's degree in a subject like physics, biology, or chemistry lack the background knowledge to really understand what's being published in peer-review journals in those subjects, not to mention if you go across subjects. Scientists famously complain about coverage of their own fields, but I bet Ph.D.s in physics are glad that the latest medical news isn't written only for doctors. And in science journalism, you can only be so precise before you begin to lose your reader. It's easy to tear apart most lay versions of science research as "not quite right," but every science article can't be a crash course in physics.
So what do you think? Are you a scientist? A high school student? How much formal science education do you have? Take Pew's quiz and tell us how you did (anonymous posting is fine). Why do you think you got some questions wrong? How do you feel about science coverage in the media?

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