Over the past 20 or so years, millions of dollars (pounds, Yen and Euros) have been invested by governments, charities and professional bodies in an attempt to break down misunderstandings about science within the wider public. Much of it has been done in vain and the successes have been small. When you look at actual data, it makes for some quite shocking reading; the general ‘educated’ public remain frighteningly misinformed about the fundamentals of science…
So is anyone to blame and what the Higgs can we do about it?
Science (mis) understanding in the public
Public surveys show that nearly half of all Europeans and Americans don’t know how long it takes for the Earth to go around the sun! (It’s one year, in case you weren’t sure). Most people don’t realise that electrons are smaller than atoms, and the majority of Americans think that humans and dinosaurs lived at the same time.
Despite the earnest efforts of common-sense advocates like Ben Goldacre, the popularity of pseudoscientific thinking continues to rise thanks to celebrity endorsements for detox diets, holographic bracelets and homoeopathic ‘alternatives’ to malaria treatments.All of them are bunk, but the masses chose to lap them up rather than check out the facts; and with the re-emergence of measles after the MMR vaccine myth means it’s more than people’s wallets that are at stake.
In a world where facts and information are more accessible than ever before, Observer reporter Tim Adams is on the money when he says we are entering a “new age of ignorance”.
Our Survey Says: Science Sucks
So just why don’t people find science interesting?
Witnessing the ‘penny dropping’ moments of revelation when students or friends start to understand the significance and meaning of something ‘scientific’ is one of life’s most satisfying experiences. Why can’t other’s appreciate science for what it is? It’s an elegant and often beautiful means of understanding the complexities of life – it opens a door of understanding onto this amazing world around us.
Is anyone to blame?
Some point the finger of blame for widespread scientific ‘illiteracy’ at the media, others at teachers, textbook writers and policy-makers. Each undoubtedly has a part to play, as does the scientific community. The disconnect between the scientific community and the lay person is undeniable. Ask yourself: Just how many people would pick up and read a popular science magazine who have no previous science background or University education? How many people without a science background actually read science blogs?
I wouldn’t pick a fight with a science periodical or a science blog – on the most part I enjoy reading both and they perform an invaluable service. Yet the science writers have been heavily criticised for being an ‘echo chamber‘ for those of a certain demographic and education. Perhaps because of this fear, something inside has been nagging away at me: Could science writers do more to engage and excite the lay reader with this thing we love so much?
Frankly, I’m sick of science being synonymous with ‘geeks’ in lab coats with bad hair (although I confess my hair isn’t looking too good today).
“More of what currently goes on backstage in the scientific community has to become more visible if people are going to get a clearer idea of the potential and limitations of the new wonders science is proclaiming.”
Steve Miller, writing in his article ‘Public Understanding of Science at the Crossroads’
An attempt to do something positive…
In a desperate bid to do something to bridge this cavernous gap between ‘scientists’ and the rest of the world, me (and a couple of willing friends) have decided try to do a little something to redress the balance.Today, we have launched what we are calling a ‘science lifestyle’ magazine – ‘Guru‘. Eschewing ‘science’ in the title (lot’s of people I know get put off by that word alone), and designed it to appeal to a general reader we have made it free to download. Designed for iPads, Smartphones and other such new and emerging technologies – the vision is to make science interesting and accessible to the 21st Century Jo(e) Bloggs.
There’s so many brilliant communicators on the internet, and so we’ve made It a crowd-sourced project, meaning science writers/bloggers and anyone else with talents to share to get involved. Please take a gander. We are quite proud of it and hope you enjoy it and share the vision. We would like it to give both budding and established writers an opportunity to reach out to a wider audience – and become a ‘Guru’ (no professional qualifications required)!
Thanks for reading – your comments and feedback are warmly welcomed!
The interested reader would be recommended to review some of the findings of within Chapter 7 of Science and Technology: Public Attitudes and Understanding by the NSB
Miller, S. (2001). Public Understanding of Science at the Crossroads Public Understanding of Science, 10 (1), 115-120 DOI: 10.1088/0963-6625/10/1/308
A presentation by R Hake of Indiana University entitled The General Population’s Ignorance of Science-Related Societal Issues: A Challenge for the University makes some worthwhile points.
Takeshita, Itaru., INOUE, Ken. and Todayama, Kazuhisa. “A preliminary survey toward a better science communication of neurosciences” Paper presented at the annual meeting of the 4S Annual Meeting – Abstract and Session Submissions, Komaba I Campus, University of Tokyo, Tokyo, Japan, Aug 25, 2010 . 2011-05-27 <http://www.allacademic.com/meta/p421657_index.html>