What’s Your Attitude Towards Science?

Word cloud based on question

3M, the US-based conglomerate probably best known for their Post-It notes, recently released a report called the State of Science Index. They call it “one of the largest, most global studies” done in recent years to gain some understanding of the public attitude towards scientists and their work, surveying more than 14,000 people in 14 countries.

Overall, the general attitudes expressed were positive:

  • 87% said that their general attitude towards science was one of fascination, rather than boring.
  • The same percentage thought “the world is a better place today because of science” and were “hopeful” when they heard the word mentioned.
  • Two-thirds said they were “excited when thinking about the future impact of science on society” and that “science is very important to society in general”.

However, when you dig down into the responses, there is much to be worried about.

I don’t mind the 32% who said they were “skeptical” of science. Questioning claims made in scientific reports is a healthy approach to understanding complex ideas. Especially since most people get their science news from a TV news reader who likely doesn’t understand beyond the summary statement in their script.

Far more troubling than skeptics is the 27% of respondents who “do not see the point of needing to understand science as adults”. Plus the relatively large percentage of people who agree with statements like “If science didn’t exist, my everyday life would not be all that different.” and who fail to see a link between scientific research and “technology”.

In the US, these numbers parallel the around-30% in political poll after poll who refuse to accept basic scientific findings like the existence of climate change as major problem facing society. Or who believe that childhood vaccinations are some kind of conspiracy between doctors and drug companies.

These kinds of attitude surveys can be interesting, although they should also be read with some skepticism. But if you teach middle or high school students, you may want to give them the executive summary and ask them to reflect on the findings. How do their attitudes compare to those of the adults in this survey?

Of course, the 3M Index is looking at current opinions and only tangentially addresses the state of science education. However, how children are taught science during their years in K12 directly affects their understanding of science as adults.

There is a direct link between classroom science instruction that involves memorizing lots of facts and little direct interaction with scientific concepts and the 86% of respondents who say they know “little or nothing” about science. And the large percentage of those people who have no interest in learning more as adults.

Unfortunately, we tend to elect far too many of those people to leadership positions.

I learned of this survey through a discussion with former astronaut Scott Kelly on Marketplace Tech, a daily podcast about how technology affects our lives.

The image is from the executive summary of this report and shows the word cloud created when people were asked to complete this task: “Please fill in what you think science is in no more than two to three sentences. Science is…”.

The Weekend Collection

A small collection of good things to read and watch (didn’t have much time to listen last week) when time allows.

Read: I have a great deal of admiration for David Letterman. He’s an intelligent, very funny guy with a lot of class. All of that shows through in this conversation in which he offers his assessment of the current political landscape from his perch in retirement. The beard is still weird. (about 32 minutes)

Read: You go to a theater and probably don’t think about the device being used to project the movie. Unless something breaks of course. However, one writer at Vox says “the way a movie is projected can have a meaningful impact on your theatrical experience”. And presents the fascinating story of why and how. (about 10 minutes)

Read: Carl Sagan was a man ahead of his time. Although it was written more than 20 years ago, his Baloney Detection Kit, “a set of intellectual tools that scientists use to separate wishful thinking from genuine probability”, somehow seems very current. (about 9 minutes)

Read and Watch: Our short visit to Cuba last November is still swimming around in my head, sticking like few other trips I’ve made in my life. This short article and video is one of the best essays I’ve seen on the state of Cuban travel (positive and not so), and is worth a view even if you don’t plan to go. (4:24)

Watch: You’ve probably never heard of Marie Tharp but, as this wonderful animated film from The Royal Institution, a British charity dedicated to educating the public about science, explains, her work and determination proved the theory of continental drift and plate tectonics. Show this one to your middle and high school science students. (4:39)

What To Do When ET’s Phone Call Arrives

While life continues chaotically forward (sorta) here on Earth, there are still people looking upward and outward for signs of life, intelligent or otherwise. They’re also trying to figure out what we will do when, and they do believe it’s when, not if, a message arrives.

Within the International Academy of Astronautics, a group has drawn up the “SETI1 post-detection protocol”, a set of guidelines of how scientists should address the issue.

Including, how to tell the rest of us.


It’s that part that worries them most since any message received is likely not going to come from a spaceship we can see hanging over New York City. Or say something particularly intelligible.

“In this day and age of social media, it’s almost impossible to keep anything under wraps for more than a few hours,” said Davies. “[The veracity of a signal] will take a long time to check, I don’t think you’re ever going to have an absolutely clear cut signal, but instead something that’s just on the edge of detectability. It will be a long drawn out process, and possibly take decades to resolve.”

But even if SETI scientists keep mum on the discovery until it has been verified–whether this process takes a few months or a few years–there’s no guarantee about how people will react to the news. As pointed out in a report from a NASA workshop in 1993, “reactions to a detection can range from indifference…through millennial enthusiasm or catastrophist anxiety, to full scale paranoia…a few reactions would probably be irrationally extreme or even violent.”

I would bet on that “irrationally extreme” reaction from far too many people, especially those currently running the show who wallow in rumor, paranoia, and conspiracy theories.

Anyway, I find this aspect of scientific preparation very interesting, even though I only know enough about the science to understand that direct, meaningful contact with another species is extremely unlikely at this point.

It’s not that I believe we’re alone in the universe. Only that the universe is a really, really, REALLY big place and all of us are subject to the laws of physics.

Science Says! Or Maybe It Doesn’t!

There are many reasons why science reporting in the popular media, especially television, is crap. But one major problem, according to a writer in Vox, comes from the fact that “half of the studies you read about in the news are wrong”.

At least it’s a fact according to a new study. Which means there’s a 50-50 chance that this particular research is wrong?

Breaking news blog

Maybe. But let’s continue anyway.

Yet as researchers in PLOS One recently found, journalists typically only cover those initial papers — and skip over writing about the clarifying meta-reviews that come later on.

What’s more, the study finds, journalists “rarely inform the public when [initial studies] are disconfirmed” — despite the fact around half of the studies journalists write about are later rebutted by follow-up studies.

What’s more, journalists really, really like to report on studies that deliver positive results — even though studies that deliver negative results are equally valuable.

And although journalists gravitate toward covering single studies concerning lifestyle choices such as diet or exercise, these were actually the least likely to be confirmed by a meta-review (as opposed to non-lifestyle papers on topics like genetics).

What do the researchers suggest could be done to improve the quality of the science reporting most people are likely to consume? The article offers one suggestion:

Pick up the phone, and ask researchers whether it is an initial finding, and, if so, they should inform the public that this discovery is still tentative and must be validated by subsequent studies.

Which is likely too complicated for both the journalists, most of whom probably studied very little science in school, and their audience’s attention span.

So, I have another approach to the matter: How about if we teach the process of analyzing scientific reporting to our students in K12? Not just in “science” class but as part of critical reading, media studies, and social studies instruction.

We want students to graduate with a fundamental understanding of the concepts of science. But that understanding should include the necessary skills to intelligently evaluate and question the reporting done on science issues presented in the media they consume. At the very least, they need to learn this very basic fact: “in science, truth takes time”.

Maybe, if we educate a more scientifically literate population, they would demand better quality science reporting.

However, that will also take time.

The Theory of Science

Most of the essay 5 scientific myths you probably believe about the universe is stuff only a science geek could love. However, item number five is a wonderfully concise explanation of the scientific term “theory” that anyone can understand.

The Big Bang: just a theory. Gravity: only a theory. Even the entire field of putting these ideas together is called theoretical physics. It’s not like these are facts, truths or even laws. They’re only theories.

But that completely misses the point of what a scientific theory is. Facts are the most basic elements of science. You make an observation and that’s a fact. You make a measurement and that’s a fact. A single experimental data point is a fact, and so we collect as many of them as we can, and devise setups to collect even more. When you notice that things are correlated, that relationships between various measureables/observables obey a particular form or equation, that’s a law. It’s only when you can put together an overarching framework that not only explains the facts and encompasses the laws, but also makes new predictions about things you can go out and observe that you’ve got a scientific theory. If you then go out, validate and verify your theories and push them to the absolute limits, that you’ve got a theory as good as the Big Bang or General Relativity.

In other words, science requires a very high threshold of evidence before a hypothesis rises to the level of a commonly accepted theory. Even then, it’s still not the final answer.

And it’s true: even a theory as robust and accepted as these examples will never be the final answer. There’s always more to learn, more boundaries to cross and more questions to uncover and probe. But the best accepted theories of the day are as close to the truth as science can ever get, even as we always strive to get closer. Better to understand reality, with all the nuance involved with it, as best as we actually can, than to persist in a comforting myth.

Now maybe your uncle who says “theories” the earth is 6000 years old are just as valid as that of the Big Bang can better understand the use of the word theory.

Or maybe not.