Many Believe Science Is Only For Geniuses

Survey reveals that although people like science, they don’t understand it.

A survey on the public perception of science commissioned by 3M is in many ways both revealing and perplexing. On the one hand, people have a positive perspective on the idea of science, but perhaps unsurprisingly, there are many science skeptics. And, although the number of people who see science as important is significant, so are the numbers of people who feel they do not understand science, do not see its impact on their day to day lives, or think it is just a career choice for geniuses. They feel differently about technology.

In their report, 3M says they sought to answer some questions regarding how the public views science. Items such as, “What does the world think of science? Is it recognized and appreciated? Do people see, feel and appreciate its impact? Or are they largely unaware of it, unconscious and indifferent to its presence around them? Are they trusting or skeptical of science and scientists? Do they even care?”

They were unable to find existing surveys that answered these questions, so they commissioned their own, the 3M State of Science Index. Those surveyed were from developed countries, such as Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, UK, and the US. And emerging countries such as Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa.

3M summarized their findings in three areas:

  • Image of science: Around the world, people are fascinated with science, but a clear and powerful skepticism exists.
  • Impact of science: People appreciate science from a distance, but it is taken for granted in everyday life.
  • Expectations of science: People have high hopes for what science can achieve, but there are barriers to overcome.

The survey demonstrates people have favorable views of science and scientists, but negative opinions regarding their relationships and interactions with science. For instance, 90% felt hopeful when the heard the word “science.” They also viewed scientists positively. It turns out people would rather hang with scientists than celebrities.

According to the survey, “When asked if they would rather have dinner and a conversation with sets of celebrity scientists or pop culture stars, 32% of people chose scientists exclusively.” 40% said they would like a combination and only 27% chose pop culture stars exclusively.

However, many said their interest in science has diminished since childhood and just over half of the non-scientists surveyed said they do not regret not pursuing a career in science.

“I was also disheartened to see that 36% of people feel you need to be a genius to have a career in science,” explained Dr. Jayshree Seth, 3M Corporate Scientist and Chief Science Advocate. “This is absolutely not true. Any scientist will tell you that tenacity, curiosity, creativity, and collaboration are just some of the characteristics that make a good scientist, it’s not just about a natural gift for science. What worries me about this thinking is that we are writing off our ability to understand or pursue science and at risk for passing along this unconscious bias to children.”

3M State of Science Index panel. From left: Jen Schwartz (Moderator), Vanessa HIll, Dr. Jayshree Seth, Dr. James Kakalios, and former astronaut Scott Kelly. Panel can be viewed below. (Image credit: Alejandro Rojas)

Despite this potential bias, a vast majority of parents felt a career in science was something they would recommend for their children. 82% said they “would encourage kids to pursue a career in science,” and 92% of parents said they “want their kids to know more about science.”

Although the survey demonstrated a generally positive outlook on science, it also revealed a large number of people do not understand how science impacts their daily lives. 64% said science has little to no impact on the industry they work in, and a whopping 86% said they knew little to nothing about science.

“I think for me, the most surprising finding was that nearly 4 in 10 people around the world (38%) say if science didn’t exist, their lives wouldn’t be much different,” says Dr. Seth. “In our increasingly connected world, how is this even possible? It all boils down to the fact that there are people who just don’t recognize that science plays a part in almost everything we use in our daily lives. In fact, two-thirds of the world (66%) rarely stop to consider the impact science has on their lives.”

These large numbers could be, in part, due to a misunderstanding of the relationship between science and technology. The latter being something we interact with at an ever-increasing rate. 23% of those surveyed said technology and science are entirely different things and 46% viewed “technological advancements as more important than scientific ones.”

“It’s true that science and technology are not the same things, but it’s important to recognize that they do exist hand in hand,” says Dr. Seth. “Take your smartphone, for example. This is one of the greatest technological advancements we’ve seen in our lifetimes, and it would not have been made possible without some serious scientific breakthroughs. It is good, sound science that fueled this technology.”

“In fact, it is hard to say when science ends and technology starts,” Dr. Seth continued. “Today, science helps further technological breakthroughs and technology is helping science!”

It is hard to think of a single industry that is not affected by science. If it were understood that science begets technology, perhaps the answers would have been different. However, it also demonstrates that science is suffering from a bit of a public relations problem. While technology is for the everyday person, hip and cool, science seems to be perceived as elitists, beyond the reach of the average global citizen.

Dr. Seth says, “Science today goes much further than the stereotype of the scientist with goggles and a chemistry set in the lab. Scientists are applying the scientific method to find solutions that span industries.”

The challenge is how to get the public to understand that.

The 3M State of Science Survey results can be seen at their website. A 3M panel discussion which includes astronaut Scott Kelly can be viewed on the 3M Twitter feed, and more from the interview with Dr. Seth can be seen here.

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