WASHINGTON, DC - In a new analysis comparing the public's perception of science across 40 nations, researchers have found extensive areas of similarity in how people think of science, particularly regarding the broader issues such as whether science and technology improve the quality of life.
"There's very little cross-cultural variation. This was a surprise," said Nick Allum of the University of Surrey, who will present the results of his study at a symposium entitled "What People Around the World Think and Know About Science," to be held at the annual meeting of AAAS, the nonprofit science society.
The primary focus of Allum's study - a meta-analysis which took into account the results of some 200 surveys of the public perception of science - was to measure the correlation between the public's knowledge of science and their embrace of it, a relationship that has been fiercely contested.
The kind of cross-cultural similarities Allum and his colleagues discovered are at least half the reason why social scientists from Europe, Latin America, Asia and North America will gather at the AAAS meeting to share their latest work.
"A discussion like this allows us to start developing more coherent theories to explain public attitudes about science, rather than ending up with piecemeal results that don't really link," said Allum. "Together, we can see if there are some areas on which we at least partially agree, so we can move on."
Another objective of the symposium is quite the opposite - to tease out the differences in how diverse cultures regard science.
For instance, in a presentation entitled "Americans May Love Science, But They Don't Know Much About It," Melissa Pollak of the National Science Foundation explores the science illiteracy of the U.S. public as compared to other developed nations. More than a century after Darwin, Pollak said, there is "a stark difference in the responses to the evolution question in the United States," as compared to Europe, where most people surveyed say they accept evolution as fact.
Pollak said she is personally concerned with rampant misunderstanding of science in this country, in people's not knowing how science works and with belief in such phenomena as psychic powers. "Not to spoil anyone's enjoyment of an entertaining television show 'The Medium', but if you really believe that this person has psychic ability, then I see that as something society should be concerned about." Pollak said. "I personally feel there's a role for the scientific community in combating some of these beliefs."
Another aspect of Americans' attitudes toward science and technology is their basic lack of objection to new technologies, such as the genetic modification of food which Europeans are more likely to reject.
Edna Einsiedel of the University of Calgary will unveil the results of a first-ever survey examining North Americans' level of acceptance of cutting-edge technologies such as pharmacogenetics, otherwise known as "personalized medicine," and nanotechnology, which involves the construction of tiny structures and devices by manipulating individual molecules and atoms for diverse uses in medicine, computing and other fields. Nanotechnology has provoked some concern among scientific experts about the release of the manufactured molecules into the environment.
Einsiedel's survey asks 1,000 U.S. residents and 2,000 Canadians if they are aware of nanotechnology, whether they perceive it as beneficial and whether they are confident it can be safely regulated. She strongly advocates such assessment of public views early on in a technology's development.
"[Early input] allows identification and understanding of public concerns, helps to identify the factors that might explain these concerns and provides opportunities for these views to be accounted for in the design, control and monitoring of the technology," Einsiedel said.
Allum agrees that the public's awareness and level of acceptance of a new technology are crucial and supports media training for scientists "to make them seem more human."
"It's important for scientists to make clear what the aims and objectives of their work are, rather than just the science of it," Allum said.
For Carmelo Polino of RICYT (the Ibero-American Network of Science and Technology Indicators), bringing the public into the loop on science and technology presents an opportunity to improve the lives of millions. His organization has explored public attitudes about science in Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay and Spain in order to produce comparable indicators at the regional level. His presence at the symposium represents the first time that Latin American countries have been brought into a worldwide forum focused specifically on the topic of surveys on the public perception of science.
Polino contends that in Latin America knowing how the public views science and knowing how to communicate to the public about scientific advances could determine whether science and technology will ever receive the political support and resources needed to aid a country's development and raise its citizens' standard of living.
"In this context, the scientific community in Latin America cannot ignore the cruel fact that millions of people are marginalized and live and die in the most abject poverty. Amid such desperate circumstances, science and technology can be transformed into future options," Polino said. "Knowing the public's perception of science could help develop more efficient strategies for mass communication, with the goal of having more and better science."
For background information on public perceptions of science:
- The National Science Foundation 2001 Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology http://www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/spa/spameth.htm#quest
- Reports on public attitudes from Science and Engineering Indicators, published by the National Science Foundation
- The 2001 Eurobarometer: Europeans, Science and Technology
Source: Eurekalert & othersLast reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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