Americans Are Engaged with Science

But Disparities and Confusion About Science Remain

The Pew Research Center published the findings of its 2021 survey on Americans’ engagement with science last month and the results are somewhat encouraging. “More than half of U.S. adults (56%) say they talk about science news with others at least a few times a month, including about a quarter (24%) who say they talk about science news at least a few times a week.” These rates of science engagement are higher than found in the 2017 survey, when only 44% said they talked about science news with others at least a few times a month. This may in part be due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which brought many aspects of biomedical science to the forefront.

         Other findings from the Pew survey of note include:

·  Three-quarters of Americans have some interest in following news about science.

·  Interest in science was greater than interest in a number of other topics, including business, finance, sports, and entertainment, but less than news about one’s local community.

·  A majority of Americans felt “amazed” by scientific advances.

Many Areas of Concern

These positive trends are welcome, but the report also highlighted some areas of great concern. There were racial disparities in science engagement and interest. When asked about their interest in following news about science, rates of responding “very” or “somewhat” were as follows:

·  Asians: 82%

·  Whites: 78%

·  Hispanics: 69%

·  Blacks: 66%

These racial differences are of course disturbing. Paul L. Morgan, professor of education and demography at Pennsylvania State University noted recently that racial disparities in advanced math and science skills begin as early as kindergarten. In a new study from Morgan’s group, 13% of white and 16% of Asian students showed advanced math and science skills by kindergarten, compared to 4% of Black and Hispanic children. These disparities endure and fewer than 10% of U.S. scientists and engineers are Black or Hispanic.

Of course, advanced skills in science and math and interest in science news are not the same things, but the persistence of decreased scientific engagement among Black and Latinx people in the U.S. should be an area of major concern. Morgan’s findings suggest that these disparities arise early in life and therefore call for interventions to stoke scientific interest among Black and Latinx children at the preschool level.

Other areas of concern included finding that interest in science was correlated with educational level and people with more formal education had greater interest. Interest in science was higher among men (80%) than among women (72%). Democrats expressed more interest in following science news than Republicans.

Science is Confusing

In the Pew survey, a considerable number of people (57%) expressed some level of confusion about science news, “reporting that they feel it is difficult to know what to think due to so much conflicting information.” Americans said they rely on information from scientific experts, but also quite a bit on information from friends and relatives and from online sources. Few reported reliance on information about science from journalists.

The confusion is understandable. We’ve noted on many occasions that things like changing narratives about the value of face masks for preventing transmission of airborne viruses and whether vaccines prevent infection or the serious consequences of infection with the virus that causes Covid-19 are recent examples of things that create confusion about science. But this is hardly a new phenomenon, as we have also pointed out. How often, for example, can people be told that everything they were once told about what foods are best to eat is now wrong without becoming confused about who is making up these rules and what to believe?

Don’t Freak Out About Mistrust

It is also important to distinguish how interested people are in science news with how much they trust science and scientists. We have certainly seen an unprecedented level of mistrust about scientific pronouncements during the pandemic, with guidance issued by health agencies like CDC and FDA often coming under attack both from scientists and politicians. This has had an effect on the public’s trust, but it is important to heed the advice of commenters like John C. Besley, the Eric N. Brandt Professor of Public Relations at Michigan State University, who wrote in October that most Americans have a least a “fair amount” of confidence that scientists act in the public’s best interests. Besley’s article was titled “Most Americans do trust scientists and science-based policy-making—freaking out about the minority who don’t isn’t helpful.”

         Without “freaking out,” however, we do note that in addition to the racial disparities noted above, science engagement is lower among people with less formal education, Republicans, and women. Rather than bemoaning those findings we need to create strategies for reaching out to groups that are less engaged scientifically. It is altogether too easy to cast aspersions at people for not paying attention to what science says and more important to figure what the barriers are to their developing greater interest. As Besley notes, the key to getting people more interested in science is to build trust. “People perceive others as trustworthy if they appear to be caring, honest, and competent,” he wrote. “Unlike politicians, science supporters can’t win by making others look bad…building real relationships with other members of the public will depend on communicating and behaving in ways that demonstrate caring, honesty, and expertise.”

         For instance, how should we approach someone who mistrusts the science of evolution, believing it contradicts a religious doctrine? Often, scientists merely turn away from such people, characterizing their position as “irrational.” That of course is not the way to build “real relationships.” A first step in such a situation is to acknowledge that indeed the notion that species developed over millions of years rather than in single days of a Biblical creation story are incompatible narratives. We have to recognize that religious beliefs are valuable to many people as a way of understanding the world and that characterizing them as irrational or anti-science only drives further wedges. Instead, by affirming that we understand the importance of a world-view that is different from the one science proposes, we have a chance to engage those who are unconvinced by evolutionary biology in conversation. The next step is to locate trusted messengers—in this case firmly religious people who also accept evolution as a true description of the natural world—to be the scientists’ spokespeople. Our goal here is not to dissuade people from their religious beliefs but rather to engender willingness to listen to the case for evolution science.

         Much of this work will have to occur at the level of very early childhood education. As discussed above, we already see racial disparities in some areas of science engagement as early as kindergarten and it is likely that many factors that influence who will be interested in science are in effect by then. The well-known disparity between men and women in science and technology careers probably has similar early origins and has to do in part with the way we do (or don’t) present science to very young children. We need to introduce science as a graspable and inviting discipline beginning at the earliest ages possible and encourage children from minority groups and women to consider science and technology as potential future careers when they are still very young.

         At the same time, we must work harder to develop better ways of communicating how science works to adults. According to the Pew Research Center report, people do not apparently place a lot of trust in journalists for providing accurate science news, but they do seem to trust experts, family, friends, and what they see on the internet and social media. We need to think about each of these in turn and devise strategies to overcome both lack of interest and mistrust. Journalists need better training in how to report science, training that will teach them, for example, to eschew sensationalizing early findings and mistaking animal studies for proof that things work in humans.

One of the key factors here is to help people become more comfortable with scientific uncertainty. It is true that many things about the biology of the coronavirus that causes Covid-19 were uncertain at the beginning of the pandemic; as more knowledge emerged initial recommendations necessarily changed. While there were clear missteps in communication, much of the confusion about Covid-19 stemmed from the fundamental way that science works. Scientists must become more adept at alerting people to what they don’t yet know and the public more tolerant of uncertainty.

         While it is encouraging that most Americans seem to want to know what is going on in the world of science, are amazed by scientific discoveries, and trust scientists to give them accurate information, there are many troubling aspects to this most recent Pew Research Center report. Discrepancies in scientific engagement stubbornly remain among Black and Latinx people, women, and Republicans. Too many people say they are confused by what science and scientists are telling them. While we agree with John Besley that “freaking out” is not the best approach to tackling these issues, we do think that concerted efforts to address them are essential.

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