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When It Comes to Scientific Research, Most Americans Don't Know What to Think

A prescription for disaster.

CARLY CASSELLA
16 MAY 2018

Every day, Americans reap the benefits of science and technology, but when it comes to actually discussing scientific research and innovation, most Americans are left speechless.

 

At least, that's what a new report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences suggests.

The report, called Perceptions of Science in America, is a sweeping overview, pulling together a whole bunch of studies and data to produce an informative overview of "how trust in science is shaped by individual experiences, beliefs, and engagement with science."

One of the sections in the report, a 2015 survey from ScienceCounts, was particularly eye-opening.

When a sampling of Americans were asked to name the first thing that comes to mind when they hear the phrase "scientific research," 52 percent were unable to give any response.

The same percentage were unable to think of anything when given the phrase "scientific discoveries and advances."

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The very nature of science is founded on scientific research and discoveries, yet far too many American are dumbstruck when it comes to giving an example of either one.

This is especially disheartening given that most of the things we rely on every day are the products of scientific research and discovery - think electricity, cell phones, airplanes, even Netflix.

 

Plus, of the few answers that were given, many were simplistic and stereotypical. While it's true that many scientists do wear white coats and work in labs, and while it's true that space travel and medicine are examples of scientific discoveries, this is a seriously limited view of science.

The survey just goes to show how little Americans understand the crucial role that science has in our everyday lives. In a perfect world, public understanding of science would encompass so much more and so many more.

The risk that scientific ignorance brings cannot be understated.

The famous astrophysicist and science communicator Carl Sagan believed that the lack of scientific understanding among the public was a "prescription for disaster," arguing that while we might get away with it for a while, "sooner or later this combustile mixture of ignorance and power" will blow up in our faces.

"We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology," he famously said.

Within the new report are several important lessons for science communicators going forward.

 

The report itself concludes that "mindfulness among science communicators, advocates, and researchers of the inherent multiplicity of attitudes toward science is necessary for effective, evidence-based communication and outreach efforts."

For too long scientists have locked themselves away with their research, not bothering to communicate it to the public. Meanwhile, the media rarely even touches the subject of scientific discoveries, and this is true even when it comes to science news.

Earlier this year, for example, a Pew Research Center survey found that out of 30 science-related social media pages, only 29 percent were focused on new scientific discoveries.

In the end, however, it's not just a number. It also matters how these scientific discoveries are being sold to the American public. Avoiding stereotypes, for instance, is an important step if we wish to improve public understanding of the true diversity in science.

Social media campaigns like the hashtag #actuallivingscientist are seeking to do just that, by showing that not all doctors wear white lab coats and fiddle around with test tubes.

The report also suggests that people who write about science cannot take anything for granted. Their audience needs to be explicitly told what scientific research is and how it is applied in every day life.

 

"If a scientist cannot explain to a ten-year-old what he does and why it is relevant to the child, it's like a tree falling in the forest with no one there to hear it: it may happen, but nobody will care," wrote Elizabeth Marincola, the Senior Advisor for Science Communications and Advocacy at The African Academy of Sciences.

The future of scientific research and discovery depends on enough people caring about it. Whether fair or not, scientists and science communicators are in charge of just that.

Read the full report here.

Science AF is ScienceAlert's new editorial section where we explore society's most complex problems using science, sanity and humor.

 
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