How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0

Photo: Astronomers by vastateparksstaff via Flickr, CC 2.0

Remember that news article that was going around saying that a high proportion of Americans can’t tell astrology from astronomy? Matthew Timothy Bradley tackled this on the Science on Google+ Community, by going to an analysis of the original source. I’m republishing my comments and expanding my argument to make two points that are a common theme in my writing: 1) Media hyperbole on science needs careful critique by scientists. 2) Scientific literacy requires our sustained engagement. I include some of interesting figures that speak to the public’s lack of understanding about what scientists do, how funding works, and how trust in scientists influences the public’s assessment of the output of our research. I’d like to have a conversation about how to move forward in dispelling the hype and myths surrounding science.

Astronomical Misrepresentation of Science

Various major news publications reported on The National Science Foundation (NSF) study in February. The media focused on the idea that a large group of young people think that astrology is “scientific.” Matthew points to an excellent blog post by Richard Landers that re-examines the NSF data with respect to the questions they asked.On the original thread, the always brilliant Johnathan Chung notes differences in the responses across different age groups. He also notes that the public’s confusion may be related to changes in language. Most people are now used to thinking of astrology as “horoscopes” but if they are unfamiliar with astronomy (the science) they may misinterpret the word astrology to mean the scientific study. So: while they may understand that horoscopes are just a bit of fun, and they know that there is a formal science field that studies the universe, they may be confusing the words.

Johnathan notes that the media ran with shock headlines and did not adhere to the caveats in the original study.I noted the data in Lander’s post are illuminating but still contain gaps.At the heart of the problem is that most people are semantically confused about the difference betweenastronomy (a science) and astrology (not a science). Yes the words sound similar in English, which may explain why some people are confused.It may follow then that if the researchers had asked people a question about astrophysics that there may not have been the same level of confusion, since this word has the concept of physics embedded within, which is probably more clearly identified as a specialised area of science. Yet given the level of science fiction speculation I read about certain areas of astrophysics (e.g. black holes), I’d be curious what the findings might be for this discipline.

What I would like to see in a further study, is to dig deeper into the qualitative distinctions and what they mean for scientific literacy. If you take the qualitative answers from the poll in Landers’ blog post, to some people, astrology means:

Astrology is the study of how the positions of the planets affect people born at certain times of the year… The study the heavens for finding answers to life questions. (My emphasis)

These qualitative responses suggest that to some people, the “correct” meaning of astrology is still mistaken as a form of science.

Photo: Astronomer by Tobias Lindman, via Flickr, CC 2.0

Photo: Astronomer by Tobias Lindman, via Flickr, CC 2.0

Landers’ blog post provides a useful point of comparison to a study completed by the European Commission. A higher proportion of people think that astrology is scientific (41%) when they are specifically asked how scientific is astrology?, versus a lower proportion of people (13%) who think that horoscopes are scientific when asked specifically about this.

I see that these findings still suggest a troubling trend: that people don’t understand what astronomy is. Why is this? It shouldn’t be the case, as this is a major field of scientific study. There is already plenty of evidence that the public doesn’t really understand the basics of science (I wrote about this here). So despite the qualitative distinctions, there is a public education problem here that needs to be addressed.

Rajini Rao brought out other findings from the NSF study, noting that younger people were more likely to see astrology as science. Only 42% of people aged 18-24 thought that astrology was unscientific. A lower proportion of older people aged 35-44% today say the same (51%), where as in 2010, 64% of older people thought that astrology was not scientific. This trend is even more worrisome – older people are relatively less confused about astrology, but the misinterpretation is growing.

Rajini invited us to look at the broader report, which shows other trends that influence the public’s understanding of science.  The images below and the rest of my discussion draw on this report.

Science Literacy

Poor knowledge of astrology is growing amongst older people relative to previous years. Is this because, as people get older, they forget their science education?

The study also identified well educated people with “factual knowledge” of science were less likely to confuse astrology for a science.

There is indeed more to this study than what was reported by the media. The most interesting patterns are somewhat contradictory to the pursuit of enhanced science outreach. For example, 80% of Americans surveyed are interested in new scientific discoveries, but then again, amongst those following science “closely” most are paying close attention to the weather, and only 16% of people follow other science news this closely.

The NSF study shows that a larger proportion of people get their science news from the internet today (42%) relative to previous years. This makes it all the more important for us to correct media hype such as the original reporting on this astrology finding, and all the more reason for us to contribute to criticising junk science news. (Science on Google+ is committed to these aims using the hashtags #ScienceMediaHype and #DebunkingJunkScience).

Public knowledge of what scientists do. By NSF (Click to enlarge)

Public knowledge of what scientists do. By NSF (Click to enlarge)

The broader study also finds that while most people have a high opinion of scientists, only half of the people surveyed say that they have a good or strong understanding of what we do.

The public is more likely to have a clearer idea of what applied fields do, specifically engineering and computer programming. Space exploration ranks low as a topic of scientific interest, which would explain the poor knowledge of astronomy.

All of this shows that public education on science needs more practical support and active engagement by scientists.

Making Progress

The NSF data show that public trust in science is relatively better than in other institutions, but still, this is outweighed by the proportion of people who distrust science. Around 2/5 of Americans trust scientists and the medical community, but half trust the military. Conversely, a higher proportion of people distrusted other institutions more than they distrusted science, but organised labour was distrusted the least.

It’s possible to lift public understanding and trust in science when we look at the NSF’s international data. Overall, more Americans think that the harmful results of research outweigh its benefits, and this discontent has grown slightly since the last two surveys were conducted in 2008 and 2010. Scandinavian nations and Canada have a higher proportion of people who think science has done more harm than good. Then again Canada also has the highest proportion of people who have confidence in the good produced by science, along with nations like Taiwan, South Korea, Czech Republic, Austria and Mexico, while the Philippines has the highest confidence in science.

Belief in Science vs Faith. By NSF. (Click to enlarge)

Belief in Science vs Faith. By NSF. (Click to enlarge)

Historical experience, public framing of debates and understanding of the practical and tangible benefits of institutions all influence how people understand their benefits. I’ve previously shown that a lack of understanding of science, such as its advantages and risks, affect the level of trust the public has in science. As I’ve shown previously, lack of trust in science is also associated with personal beliefs, values and attitudes.

There is some conflation of belief in faith versus belief in science. Around half of Americans think that there’s too much belief in science, which makes them similar to most European nations. Religion alone does not account for lack of trust, however, as education level and other socio-economic variables are also influential.

Public opinion on federal funding of basic research 1985-2012. By NSF. (Click to enlarge)

Public opinion on federal funding of basic research 1985-2012. By NSF. (Click to enlarge)

Perception of science funding has fluctuated over the years. This trend is influenced by economic and political pressures at particular points in time. Around a decade a go, more Americans believed that the government was not spending enough money on research. Close to 80% of Americans think that there’s not enough funding of education (presumably at the primary and secondary levels), but less than 40% think that there’s not enough funding of scientific research.

Soon, I will return to the issue research funding and trust in science. In a nutshell though, in some cases, people mistrust science because they don’t understand how science research is funded. People think all the money comes from lucrative private companies such as “big pharma.” The reality is that most research is funded by Government, and this funding is being decreased.

While most people think that scientists are devoted to solving important problems and that our work is not boring, there is misconception about how we carry out our work. More people think that scientists work alone, that our work is dangerous (this could mean different things to different people) and that we’re peculiar people. Misconceptions about what it means to be a scientist are likely to affect how people understand – and more importantly misunderstand - what we do, how and why we do it.

Moving Forward

I started this post reflecting on the misinterpretation about astrology and astronomy. Clearly there are problems with how people understand quantitative survey questions, so we need mixed methods to get to a deeper understanding of what all of this means. As I mentioned, people think science is dangerous and that the benefits do not always justify the costs. Why do people think this? Where do they get their ideas? If we take the astronomy example, clearly the media are not helping. They serve only to confuse the public on many science matters, offering only superficial slivers of information on rich, complex studies.

And now for the perennial question: How do we do better science outreach?

Clearly we have many dedicated scientists doing quality public engagement, but we need more. Given that applied science fields are more familiar to people, boosting the profile of applied research may help to increase public understanding of science. This is an especially important challenge for the social sciences, and sociology specifically, as our applied work is rarely highlighted as a strength.

But how do we dispel some of these myths about science funding, the pros and cons of research, and what it means to be a scientist? Is it enough for more of us to engage, or does the nature of our outreach need to change?

Write your ideas in the comments below!

Scientific literacy requires sustained engagement.  Support Applied Science & Public Outreach.

Scientific literacy requires sustained engagement. Support
Applied Science & Public Outreach.

This article as first posted on my Google+.

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One thought on “How Media Hype Hurts Public Knowledge of Science

  1. Pingback: Sociology for Women | Dr Zuleyka Zevallos - Sociology Prose

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