Public Release: 

Public strong on opinions - weaker on knowledge

Cardiff University

The public's knowledge of topical science issues appears to be only slightly improved by either their education or their consumption of news media, according to interim findings from a research project at Cardiff University, UK.

However, lack of knowledge, where it exists, does not prevent British people from holding opinions on subjects like climate change, biotechnology and the alleged risks of the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine. Strong views are also held on their Government's response to such questions.

Research, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, at the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University is examining the relationship between science, the public and the media by combining the results of the knowledge and opinion survey with a detailed media analysis of television, newspaper, radio and magazine content.

The survey asked more than 1,000 people what they thought and knew about three topical areas of science: climate change; the MMR vaccine; and human and animal biotechnology. They were also asked how much they trust scientists and the media.

- Out of 12 scientific questions, on average the public answered 4.42 correctly. Those with scientific educational qualifications did better (5.26), as did those with a degree in any subject (5.85). Likewise, although broadsheet newspaper readers scored higher (5.78) than tabloid readers (4.13), the difference was less marked than might be thought.

- Those who watch television news very regularly scored a little higher than less frequent viewers. While 15 per cent now cite the internet as one of their main sources of news about science, television (81 per cent) and newspapers (57 per cent) remain dominant.

MMR vaccine. The public has a higher knowledge of the political than the scientific aspects of the matter. Most correctly understood British Prime Minister Tony Blair's response to questions about the vaccination of his young son. A substantial majority (67 per cent) also knew that MMR has been linked by some scientists with autism, but most also thought that the evidence in favour of such a link was either evenly balanced, or favoured a link. In fact, most published scientific evidence, and official advice, denies the existence of any link.

A further indication that the public is inclined to think the worst on scientific matters where the evidence is contested emerges in the finding that half of those surveyed thought take-up of MMR vaccine had fallen by more than 25 per cent since 1998 when, at the time of the survey, it was down by only 6 per cent. Levels of knowledge about MMR were highest among women, presumably because of their closer contact with child health issues.

The issues surrounding human and animal biotechnology. Forty-four per cent of those surveyed described current developments as 'worrying', while only 34 per cent said they were 'encouraged'. Half of the respondents believed the Government was not doing enough to limit this technology but also displayed considerable ignorance about the actions government has actually taken.

For example, even though the UK Government's decision at end of February to allow further testing of human embryos was well publicised, 46 per cent did not know about it. Only 25 per cent knew that genetic information is owned by both governmental and private sector organisations. Whilst 47 per cent were able to identify mapping the genetic code as a recent scientific breakthrough, a third of respondents answered 'don't know' to the set of questions on this area of scientific research.

Climate change. Two-thirds of respondents erroneously thought that the hole in the ozone layer causes climate change and over a half said that the effect of greenhouse gases is to thin the ozone layer. Yet, a majority, answered correctly less technical and more political questions: 53 per cent knew that one of the predicted climate changes for the UK is more rainfall in winter; and 52 per cent knew that the United States is opposed to the Kyoto Protocol. A majority also correctly defined the phrase 'carbon sink'. Sixty per cent said they were dissatisfied with the UK Government's efforts to respond the challenge of climate change, although it's not clear how much people know about the Government's record.

Trust. In line with previous research, the team finds that academic researchers are regarded as the most independent and the most trustworthy (trusted by 60 per cent), while fewer than 14 per cent trust what they hear from scientists working for private business or from the news media. Government scientists come somewhere in the middle (32 per cent).

Much previous work in the field of public understanding of science has suggested that the most effective response to problems of public knowledge and attitude towards science is to improve scientific education. The Cardiff survey, however, suggests that levels of educational attainment do not produce a decisive difference in the level of knowledge about topical science issues.

Professor Ian Hargreaves, of Cardiff University, said: "This project suggests that the formation of public knowledge and public opinion on science issues is much more complex than often suggested by Ministers and scientists when they blame mass media hysteria or inadequate schooling, for public response to issues of scientific controversy.

"We should not be surprised that people lack technical knowledge on issues they have not been forced to confront personally, but I regard it as encouraging that where issues have been subject to high profile public debate, most people do seem to grasp the essential shape of the argument and feel confident about their ability to form opinions. It is also encouraging that people are increasingly using the internet to pursue information about science. What is most worrying is the lack of trust felt towards the primary conduits of information: the mass media, business and Government.

"Our research suggests that everyone involved in science communication needs to raise their game, and to adopt intelligent, multi-media strategies, rather than point the finger at others."

Professor Justin Lewis, who is an expert on public opinion formation, said: "This research will help us to better understand the links between the public's knowledge, their opinions and science in the news media. The media are important source of information about contemporary issues, and what people know influences what they think. What this research confirms is that people do tend to absorb oft-repeated associations they hear in the media - such as the association between the MMR vaccine and autism or between global warming and other environmental problems.

"The challenge for policymakers is to think about how to communicate in an appropriate context. So while most people are able to understand the link between global warming and fossil fuel emissions, they incorrectly assume that other environmental problems - such as the thinning ozone layer - are also primary causes of global warming. That's because these two environmental problems have often been spoken about in the same breath. Similarly with MMR - while the news media generally try to balance the claims about the risks involved, it's hard for people to assess the volume of evidence on either side."


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