blog post

What do People Think of Science?

As an emerging scientist, I often can’t help but conclude that the public must think science is a bad thing.  After all, that’s the view I get every time I do my weekly groceries.  Take a stroll through your grocery store and you will find products that have labels such as “chemical-free,” “non-GMO,” “all-natural,” “rBST-free,” and of course, the infamous “organic.”  But as any scientist would do, I did some research and found out that what I thought of the public’s perception of science was almost completely wrong! Allow me to explain.

When I spoke to a friend of mine, she said that she would only buy foods with “organic” and “all-natural” labels because otherwise, they were made in laboratory where all sorts of “crazy things happen…kind of like a witch’s brew.”  In a previous blog post by Rebecca Klaper, she mentions how “all-natural” products may contain chemicals found in nature but that were instead made in a lab….so it’s not exactly what comes to mind when one thinks of “all-natural.”  And of course, there is no such thing as a “chemical-free” product on a store shelf because all physical objects are made of chemicals. It always is a pet peeve of mine to see these “chemical-free” products and how strongly they are endorsed.  Since I am a chemist, of course I would take these labels to mean that people dislike my chosen field of scientific study, chemistry.

The real question here is “what does the public actually think about science?”  Recent studies, such as one appropriately titled “PUBLIC PRAISES SCIENCE; SCIENTISTS FAULT PUBLIC, MEDIA”, have looked at many aspects of public opinions about science. The most interesting piece of information was that 84% of people said science has made mostly positive impacts on society.  Across all demographics, this still held quite true with relatively small deviations.   When questions specifically came down to the effect of science on the quality of health care, environment, and food, the majority still said that the effects were mostly positive (85, 66, 66%, respectively).   Clearly, I’m only citing just a little bit of the huge amount of data from this study.  However, if you look at the study as a whole, the majority of the public really does praise science. My conclusions made hastily in the grocery aisle are clearly faulty. Does this result surprise you like it surprised me?

So why do we scientists think that there is public dislike and distrust in science?  Well, the same study showed that about 85% of scientists think that the public’s lack of scientific knowledge is a large problem.  Moreover, 83% of scientists see television news as “only fair” or “poor” when it comes to reporting science.  My personal thoughts are that scientists observe the society as a whole through the lens of labels they encounter in the grocery store and media portrayals of science.  This makes it seem like science is disliked by the public, but certainly the grocery store and television are not representative samples of the public as a whole.

Perhaps the public is skeptical only about very specific areas of science and technology (chemistry, perhaps?).  This is what I thought about my own field of study, nanotechnology.  I work with a research center whose goal is to promote sustainable use of nanomaterials for the benefit of our society.  I, and many of my colleagues, tend to believe that the public is afraid of nanotechnology.  But with some more research, I found out that this perception is also mostly wrong!

In a 2004 study on public perception of nanotechnology, survey respondents reported anticipating more benefits than risks and feeling hopeful rather than worried about the emerging field of nanotechnology.  In 2009, a study published in Nature Nanotechnology showed that half the public were aware of nanotechnology and a majority perceived that the potential benefits of this technology would outweigh risks.  I was wrong about this too!

This conclusion was vividly demonstrated for me during a recent “Adult Swim” event at the Madison Children’s Museum. Members of our center and I discussed nanotechnology with the public using our fluorescent nanodiamond display.  Out of all the individuals I had the pleasure of interacting with, none told me that we should stop conducting nanoscience research.  Rather, I talked to many enthusiastic and curious individuals who simply wanted to understand what emerging science was coming out of the field of nanotechnology.  This personally highlighted the conclusions of all the research I had done. The general public is enthusiastic about science in general and nanotechnology in particular (just like me!).

Mimi-at-Madison-Childrens-Museum-Adult-Swim

However, the 2009 nanotechnology study I discussed above also revealed that 44% of survey participants were “unsure” about the risks and benefits of nanotechnology.  The authors propose that this fairly large minority group with uncertain opinions suggests that while judgments about nanotechnology are positive now, the tides can easily turn towards the negative.  With a set of technologies like this that are poised to revolutionize everything from electronics to airplanes to our energy economy, this perception is extremely important. Statistics like this underline the importance of accurately and clearly communicating the state of the science surrounding nanomaterials’ potential risks and benefits—that’s what we’re trying to do on this blog!

What do you think about nanotechnology? Do you think the potential benefits outweigh the risks?  Write your thoughts in the comment section down below and let me know!!!  🙂

Final sentences to totally skew the survey results: I think the power of science can help us push the boundaries of nanotechnology while minimizing any potential negative environmental consequences. But, I’m clearly biased, because that’s what my research is focused on!

8 thoughts on “What do People Think of Science?

  1. Excellent Post! Though I’m not a scientist, I’m enough of a friend of science that I too am bothered by many popular portrayals of science, especially utterances like “chemicals are bad,” which immediately betray a complete lack of understanding. Come on…water is a chemical!

    Nevertheless, I do avoid rBGH milk, but not because I think “chemicals are bad.” I also haven’t seen any terribly compelling evidence that milk from rBGH cows has a deleterious effect on humans who drink it. But, nevertheless, I have seen some compelling arguments about the effect it has on the cows, and how it can lead to excessive use of antibiotics, and both of those are serious issues to me. So I usually spend the extra cash to buy “organic” milk.

    I also try to buy organic produce over conventional as much as possible. Again, this isn’t because I’m afraid of the science boogeyman. And again, it’s not because I’ve seen any convincing evidence that GMOs are worse for our health than conventional produce. But I have seen some compelling arguments about the harmful effects of mono-culture and other practices associated with modern, industrial agriculture. So I think there are some solid ecological reasons for avoiding GMOs.

    But your point is still quite valid. Most people who avoid GMOs and rBGH milk do so because of a knee-jerk reaction against products they see as “unnatural.” And I think it’s quite important that scientists and “friends of science” try to dispel this public misconception.

    Also, I’m a big fan of nanotechnology and this blog does a great job of showing the public the many exciting ways that nanotechnology can improve our lives and our world. So keep fighting the good fight.

    But what do I do about the mind-controlling nano-bots that the government implants in my body while I sleep?!!

    • haha, there is no way to stop the nanobots!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (j/k)

      Thanks the comment. I couldn’t agree more and certainly couldn’t have put it better. I have similar purchasing habits for similar reasons.

      I think it is just super aggravating to see “knee-jerk” decisions made by so many people because they view something as “unnatural”… especially when your job is to invent materials that have never existed before (and therefore certainly aren’t “natural”, whatever that means). I think this is where Mimi and a lot of other scientists I’ve encountered are coming from. The unfortunate fact of the matter is that there is only so much time in the day to ponder decisions… certainly not enough to make well-informed shopping decisions for every item you encounter. So, we can just do what we can to share what we know and hope it infuses a bit into other peoples’ brains.

      Thanks for your kind words about our blog and for your awesome contribution here!

  2. The question of the “public” view of “science” is complicated in no small part because both of those words are pretty vague. There are many fractions of the public and many fractions of science, and each has a different view of each of the others. For some people, “science” is bad because it calls into question their religious beliefs–but typically, it’s “evolution” and a secular cosmology that they’re against–they may be all on board for most other science and technology. You reference nutrition science by way of the grocer, and that’s complicated by 1) the contradictory nature of the state of nutrition “science” today, 2) what we might call “the Frankenstein effect, and 3) marketing. So there’s the undeniable fact that nutrition science is only vaguely like other sciences (mostly, in that it has the word “science” in its name)–it’s a place where ideology is stronger than science and a single study–which may have a ton of flaws in its design and in its applicability–is routinely cited as though it was definitive. By “the Frankenstein effect,” I just mean that people have long been skeptical/worried about the frontiers of science and what can go wrong–this is where we see the fear of GMOs, of the pervasive use (over-use?) of antibiotics in conventional meat production, and questions about any number of agricultural practices. Do we really know enough to know whether we should be worried or not (and, epistemologically speaking, CAN we know enough)? And, of course, all of this takes place in a hyper-capitalist world of largely unmonitored marketing claims that in part reacts to and in part shapes public opinion.

    So, yeah, it’s complicated. But I would say that overall, even though the level of scientific literacy of the population is problematically low, I think that science overall is viewed favorably. On the one hand, this is due to the inarguable advances in the quality of our life and the state of our knowledge of the world, owed largely to our advances through science. In fact, science has been so successful, that the charlatans and purveyors of snake oil almost universally attempt to APPEAR “scientific.” If that’s not a mark of the respect that science has, I don’t know what is. 🙂

    • John!!!!

      Very well put! Many of the words we use are problematic and have more layers of complexity, just as you lay out. Could not have put it better myself for sure. Your point about scientific imitation being the sincerest form of flatter is an excellent one that I will be sure to co-opt down the road 🙂

      I think my main take-away from Mimi’s post was how surprising it is for me that the public views nanotechnology so favorably. There is a lot of interest in the scientific community in having the safety science catch up with all the other aspects of nanoscience research… and I think we too easily assume that the public feels the same. Very surprising to hear they don’t quite feel the same. Also heartening, as public fear of nanotechnology could easily stifle future research advances.

      Thanks for adding such a well-thought-out comment to our conversation here! Hope all is well!

      Lee

  3. One possible reason for the discrepancy between the view of science in the grocery store and in the public eye overall is that the word “chemical” carries a different connotation than “chemistry”. To me, the term “chemical” brings to mind toxic substances like chemical waste, or really just things I wouldn’t want to ingest. Even though I know that it’s actually a very general term that applies to a variety of substances (many of which are perfectly safe to eat and drink), the word as used by non-scientists in the media generally applies to substances that have some element of danger or potential for harm. “Chemistry”, on the other hand, makes me think of people doing generally positive and cool things with those chemicals. They aren’t just substances anymore–they’re tools, and when in the hands of people who know how to use them responsibly, they can do great things.

    • Laurel, what an excellent point and great addition to our conversation! I think chemists are very easily bothered by “chemophobia”, but I think you’re definitely right about the word “chemical” meaning different things to chemists and non-chemists. After all, we wear gloves and goggles in lab to protect ourselves from any potentially nasty chemicals, and that is probably much closer to what comes to the minds of most people when they heard the word “chemicals”. So perhaps we’re afraid of the same things for the same reasons, just using different words to talk about them.

      Very glad to hear “chemistry” evokes such positive imagery. Lots of power to do good when used responsibly for sure. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

  4. Because of the relatively recent trend of increasing research into nanotechnology, I think there needs to be greater regulation in the handling and generation of nanomaterials. A committee should be formed to set up guidelines for all nanomaterials research, with input from leading experts in the field. However, this committee should not be made up of these researchers..After all whats stopping them from making stuff up.

    • I assume you’re talking about us? If so, I’m sorry you have such a poor view of us. Your question is an excellent one though. I’ll tell you what stops us from “making stuff up”. We are watched at every level by our peers, whose responsibility it is to point out where our statements are not backed up by facts. Our jobs depend on the importance of our scientific contributions and on our scientific integrity. In short, our jobs depend on us not making stuff up. Are there specific things you think we have “made up”? Or reasons you think we should not be trusted?

      I appreciate your enthusiasm for nanomaterials guidelines. The national science foundation assembled a committee and they selected us to try and come up with some “rules of the road” for the design of nanomaterials that are benign by design. There are other researchers looking at these issues from different perspectives also.

      Thanks for reading! Looking forward to your reply.

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