The Catch-22 of Science in the Media

Last month, Associated Press GfK published the findings of their latest survey of American attitudes to science. They gave 1012 adults a variety of scientific […]

Last month, Associated Press GfK published the findings of their latest survey of American attitudes to science. They gave 1012 adults a variety of scientific statements, and asked them how confident they felt about their truth – with surprising (and, apparently, depressing) results.

Sadly, the big headline is that 51% of Americans ‘question’ the Big Bang Theory, according to the poll. As if that weren’t enough, 40% fall short of feeling ‘somewhat confident’ either that life evolved by natural selection, that the Earth is 4.5bn years old or that man-made global warming exists. Even sadder still, the situation isn’t too much better on this side of the pond – this year’s ‘Public Attitudes to Science’ Survey conducted by the Governmental Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) found that in the UK, only half the population think that the information they hear about in science is generally true.

Within the scientific community, these scientific facts are almost universally accepted. Why should the same not be true for the rest of the population?

The GfK study brings some interesting points to light. According to the poll, only 4% doubt that smoking causes cancer – though in terms of the causal relationships, this has a far more complex justification than the Big Bang. Furthermore, if anyone has the money to fund a smear campaign it’s the tobacco companies – the global market is worth £450bn, according to the 2011 British American Tobacco Annual Report. If the tobacco industry wanted to destroy public confidence in the science that speaks against them, they almost certainly could.

Faith, of course, is a salient issue – the arguments between science and religion have been louder than ever in recent years. Perhaps it is surprising, then, that a 2009 Pew Research Centre study in the US found that the majority of those who attend religious services at least once a week don’t see any conflict between science and their faith. The lack of public confidence in science is still unexplained.

What is both interesting and more positive to note, is that while the confidence in particular scientific facts is low, confidence in scientists themselves is high. The BIS Survey found that 90% of people in the UK think that scientists make a positive contribution to society, and that the two most common justifications for believing scientific facts are that they come directly from scientists (13%) and that information is checked by scientists (15%).

The problem it seems is neither in the science nor the scientists themselves, but how the science gets to the public. The BIS Survey suggests that 71% of the UK population think that the media sensationalises science – a figure that has remained roughly constant since the millennium. Moreover, many people don’t think that the journalists are up to the job. Over half think that science journalists only occasionally have a relevant science degree, and again half think that journalists only occasionally check their findings are reliable before going to print. Suddenly, the reason for the public’s distrust is clear.

It’s true, the media is a messy place to hunt for scientific facts. In a world where balance is key, the overrepresentation of minor viewpoints is inevitable, and public uncertainty will surely follow.

As Fiona Fox, Chief Executive of the Science Media Centre, has cautioned, it might however be unwise to push for this false-balance-free world.  For a start, conflict adds interest to scientific stories, getting science on the front page. The studies show that the public does care about science, and maintaining a media presence is certainly essential for maintaining public interest. Besides, the boundary between science and politics is blurred – allowing scientists an unchallenged platform could be the start of a slippery slope.

So it seems that we must pick a balance between over-representing minor viewpoints, and extinguishing the limelight that science has become accustomed to. Correspondingly, this means having split public opinion on particular scientific facts, or we risk losing public interest altogether – a catch-22 of sorts.

Perhaps then we should not be so worried about the findings of this year’s studies – perhaps we should just be grateful that the public is at least aware of today’s science, even if half of them doubt it. A ‘questioning’ mind is a healthy mind, after all.


The original studies referred to can be found here: Associated Press GfK; Public Attitudes to Science (BIS); Pew Research Centre
Fiona Fox’s blog entry can be found here.

About Sam Perkins

Sam is a 3rd year Physics & Philosophy student at Exeter College.