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The Black Hole

Is science losing public support?

A new U.S. survey sees a rise in negative attitudes towards science. Is Canada any different?


Late last year, I wrote on the public perceptions of science and scientists in Canada. Much discussion ensued (including a piece from my former Let’s Talk Science colleague Theresa Liao), many of which highlighted reports citing Canadians’ supportive views of science. On this site, Léo Charbonneau has previously lamented the absence of exciting science-based news in the Canadian media and has also observed a disconnect between statements of interest and genuine interest in his own dealings with the public. I speculated that survey design might be the culprit and, just today (via Theresa) I came across an article that I found extremely insightful: it seems that support for science in the United States is not as robust as broad-question surveying techniques suggest. Perhaps Canada should invest in similar data acquisition of its own.

Two alarming items emerge from the article: 1) positive views of science are on the decline and 2) broad support does not translate into specific knowledge/support. When you read the opening portion of Cary Funk and Lee Rainie’s summary article, you might think that science is well-supported – “Science holds an esteemed place among citizens” and under key data you will find that “79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment.”

What doesn’t become apparent until much later in the article is that the same questions five years ago garnered a much more positive outlook and the change is quite ominous (n.b., this makes me sad about the loss of longitudinal data in the long-form census debacle in Canada). The number of people who say that science “has made life more difficult” has increased 50%, from 10% to 15%. Even more shocking is when you look at the breakdown by category – more than 30% of people think that science has had a “mostly negative impact” on food and the environment and 18% feel science has had a mostly negative impact on health (all negative opinions increased by ~50% since 2009).

Yes, you read that correctly, 50% more people believe that science (not governments, not businesses, not individuals) has made life more difficult and had negative impacts on health, food and the environment – really? That is the state of affairs when you look deeper into a survey summarized by “Science holds an esteemed place among citizens.”

I weep for two reasons. First is that science (i.e., the process by which we discover how things work) is being implicated rather than policies that allow bad application of science (i.e., food standard regulation, environmental policies), and second, that headline readers go on thinking that we have a supportive, inquisitive public that wants to know how the world around them works.

Sadly, this is data from the U.S., and somehow Canadians will read it and dismiss it as such rather than asking the difficult question of whether or not the rebellion against learning more about the world around us might be afoot in Canada. Pardon me for not taking comfort in the finding that “93% of Canadians report being moderately or very interested in new scientific discoveries and technological developments.”

David Kent
Dr. David Kent is a principal investigator at the York Biomedical Research Institute at the University of York, York, UK. He trained at Western University and the University of British Columbia before spending 10 years at the University of Cambridge, UK where he ran his research group until 2019. His laboratory's research focuses on the fundamental biology of blood stem cells and how changes in their regulation lead to cancers. David has a long history of public engagement and outreach including the creation of The Black Hole in 2009.
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  1. Sonja B / February 11, 2015 at 23:17

    So, I have to question the implied notion that scientists are not to be held accountable for the ‘bad application’ of science. Too many of us have this idea that we deserve accolades when our discoveries are used to benefit humanity, but when that isn’t the case, we hesitate to take responsibility. The problem is always corrupt politicians, lazy journalists, an uneducated public; never science itself. An approval rating of 79% is remarkable; most politicians could only dream of consistently achieving this. Considering who is afforded the opportunity to set research priorities in science, and whose interests it primarily serves, I’m surprised public mistrust of science isn’t much higher.

    I also think it’s important to distinguish between a public interested in ‘knowing how the world around them works’ and one interested in using (or relying on others to use) the scientific method to do this. Critical scholars of anthropology, sociology, and other social sciences have so many unique and much needed insights to offer on the world, yet these fields are at best, ignored, or at worst, actively dismissed as less rigorous and valuable than the natural sciences. (it doesn’t help that biomedical science sucks up the vast majority of spending by health research funding agencies like CIHR, either.)

    All this isn’t to say science doesn’t have enormous potential to be a force for good (and its rejection a source of great peril; I’m thinking about climate science denialism in particular), but I can think of a few good reasons why there wouldn’t be universal approval for it either. I think an honest reckoning with the detrimental impacts on the world science has either directly caused, or indirectly enabled, is long overdue. I’m much more interested in seeing this take shape than in propagating the central dogma of science communication: that science benefits everyone.