The Battle For The Public’s Understanding Of Science

We take it for granted these days that your doctor is well trained in the latest medical techniques and procedures and that the things they have learnt are based on the best science and evidence of efficacy. But it wasn’t always so. It used to be the case that there were respected elder doctors who would tell the new medics the way things were and what treatments to carry out. The treatments wouldn’t necessarily be the wrong ones, but they wouldn’t necessarily be the ones that evidence would suggest either. It was a hangover from the pre-scientific era of medicine and has now largely been replaced by evidence based medicine; hopefully this will go on to be superseded by science based medicine.

I believe there are far more areas of life where the first and foremost consideration should be objective evidence. I’m very much in favour of Ben Goldacre’s call for evidence based teaching in schools, and I think there is huge scope for evidence based government. Obviously I can’t imagine that any political party is about to give up its ideology in favour of simply trialling policies to objectively see which works best, but it would be nice.

I think that before we get close to having more evidence based practice in the way our lives are run it will be necessary for people to become more scientifically literate and more comfortable with critical thinking and scepticism. The latest data, however, on how well the general public understands and perceives science is mixed at best.

In the US, there are several organisations that try to gauge the public understanding of science with data sets going back many years now. Whilst things have generally improved it is still not looking good. The Pew Research Center recently published their latest data based on a 12 question multiple choice quiz that a 13 year old American child would be expected to get full marks on. You can take the quiz here, it’ll take 2-3 minutes give it a shot. It’s okay, I’ll wait.


Right, how did you do? Hopefully you got most of them right. Full disclosure: I got one wrong, the one about magnifying glasses, and I’m still not sure why, I’m going to have to look that up. Having got 11 out of 12 that puts me somewhere around the top 94%. The mean score was 7.9; men performed better than women but this is thought to be because the quiz was heavy on the physical sciences and light on the biological sciences where women tend to be stronger. There were significant differences in attainment between ethnicities, sadly these are broadly in line with other similar research.

The results continued an upwards but all too slow trend in the scientific knowledge of the American public, it can’t be a good sign that most people only got 8 out of 12 on a test that a 13 year old should be passing without too much bother.

As far as the UK goes I couldn’t find a similar set of research but there is plenty on attitudes towards science which are, perhaps, just as important. A public that doesn’t necessarily understand cutting edge science but acknowledges that it’s an important part of our lives would be half the battle.

The work was carried out by Ipsos MORI and in the below infographic you can see the headlines of the research.

Ipsos MORI

This data set goes back to 1988 and therefore can show how perceptions of science have changed over a generation. Whilst all indicators are going in the right direction there are still some startling results. For example, only 55% (45% in 1988) of respondents think that the benefits of science outweigh the harmful effects, and nearly a third of people (30%, 44% in 1988) think that we depend too much on science and not enough on faith.

But there were certainly some encouraging answers, too. 72% (57% in 1988) think that it is important to know about science in our daily lives; 81% think that the UK needs to enhance its science and technology sector to develop its international competitiveness; and 91% agree that young people’s interest in science is essential for our future prosperity.

What I’m taking from this is that most people don’t have a huge understanding of science and that many mistrust it, but despite this they still acknowledge that we need it, that our nation’s prosperity depends upon it and that it is very much key to our future. This gives me succour. I am immersed in science both at work and in my private life and so I don’t think I’m at all capable of standing back and judging how the average non-science nerd perceives science.

I’m heartened, then; over the generations I think that this is a battle we can win. It will need coordinated efforts, though; I don’t think The Skeptilogicon alone will do it. The government needs to increase our science spend, the recent rise with inflation announced in the Chancellor’s Autumn Statement could have been a lot worse but it could have been a lot better too. Science needs to be at the core of the school curriculum and we need to make sure our universities remain well funded, independent and of the highest quality. We need to make sure that organisations like the BBC are allowed to continue to produce high quality, high brow programming that educates and popularises the world of science. We also need parents to foster an atmosphere of learning in the home where reading, about anything, is a daily part of life. If we can do all this we might, just might be able to hold our own as we progress through the next century. Let’s make it happen.

2 thoughts on “The Battle For The Public’s Understanding Of Science

  1. Got them all right. Magnifying glass took me a while till I thought about where the light was going – to an eye. I agree about university funding – but we need also to fund students. Two of my kids had to pay fees. The first at about £3,000, which she’s now paid off after 12 years.. The youngest, at Uni now, will owe a huge amount by the end of the course. How many are not going when they could because the prospect of huge debt is a deterrent? It’s all the more sinful given that those who passed this law got their education at my expense and my husband’s while we were working and struggling to make ends meet!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I entirely agree. I only just finished paying off my debt earlier this year, 11 years after graduating. I don’t see how the mountain of debt could be anything other than a deterrent.


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