Science and Society: Reasons and Solutions for Negative Public Opinion

Science and Society: Reasons and Solutions for Negative Public Opinion

Written by Hayley McKay
Illustrated by Winsy Leung
The relationship between science and the general public can be a challenging one. There are lots of concerns when it comes to necessity, use and implementation of new scientific technologies.

A recent study from the Pew Research Center was conducted to better understand the relationship between science and society. Taking a representative sample of the general American population and a sample of scientists who are members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), the study looked at public opinion of science, and its implications for society. Overall, the study found multiple factors which contribute to differing opinions on science, most importantly, education, partisanship, and gender.

When asked about views on controversial science topics like the benefits of genetic engineering on human health, the potential for brain enhancement, and the implementation of more sophisticated automation technologies, the general public had mixed reactions. Overall, it appears people are more likely to support scientific interventions which would provide solutions for serious conditions without sacrificing human control.

In a different study, the Pew Research Center also found gender played a big role in differing views and opinions surrounding gene editing technologies. They found men were more likely to be accepting of gene editing technologies than women. This result is due to differences in self-reported understanding of science. The study found men, especially in Northern Europe were more likely to say they were confident about a science topic than women, even if they had the same level of knowledge.

While factual knowledge is not the only determinant for acceptance and support of science, it does play a significant role. People with low levels of science knowledge were less likely to believe science benefits society than people with high levels of science knowledge. When asked about their confidence in both medical practitioners and medical researchers who work on the same topic, the general public was more skeptical. A lot of public mistrust and lack of confidence in science stems from the inability to understand complicated research, which is problematic for research scientists. It’s important for researchers to have public support, because this translates to more funding and resources to continue solving problems that affect society. Good science communication is important for researchers in order to communicate with a wider audience and gain the public’s trust. Engaging everyone in discussions about research topics, especially controversial ones, is critical for increasing general support. Scientists need to listen and understand the mindsets of various groups in order to tailor outreach methods to their audience. This will beneficially impact public trust of science.

Right now, the majority of the sampled public are skeptical of scientists’ transparency and potential for conflict of interest. The general public are especially wary of scientists skewing data for self-serving reasons, which is likely due to a few exceptional cases that have garnered a lot of media attention. However, the majority of scientists are working for the greater good of society which means they have to work harder to distance themselves from those who have taken advantage of their resources and positions. So, how can scientists boost their public reputation? The answer lies in open-access data. The majority of the surveyed public say they would trust scientific research findings more if data were publicly available, especially if it is independently reviewed.

There is still one more factor playing a big role in how the general public perceives some aspects of science: partisanship. The Pew Research study suggests political leaning is responsible for the divide over climate and energy issues, but divides over the benefits and risks of vaccines is due to differences in science knowledge rather than political opinions. When surveyed about whether or not scientists should take part in policy matters, Democrats were more likely to be in favour of scientists taking an active role in policy than Republicans, no matter what their science knowledge level was. The same was true when the public was asked about their confidence in the scientific method for producing sound conclusions, pointing again to the fact that perception of science in society is multifaceted and does not rely solely on level of science knowledge. Because of this, political leaders need to be thinking carefully about what they promote and denounce because their opinions carry huge clout and can have a large impact on how the public perceives scientific work.

While it is important for the public to listen to scientists, scientists also have an obligation to listen to the public. Research should be conducted to better understand the world we live in and should not cause harm. Sometimes, scientists can get wrapped up in the endless possibilities of new technology and forget about the reason for their research. As science and society continue to progress, it’s important to remember, “science can tell us what’s possible, society has to tell us what’s right” – Anthony Morgan at SciCommTO.