News and features editor, SciDev.Net
People in the West generally love science – all the surveys show it. The trouble is, they don’t really know exactly what it is.
While worthy surveys demonstrate that scientific achievements in general attract an adoring public … another batch of surveys shows that history, astrology and extra-sensory perception (ESP) are included, by many, in what they regard as science.
The National Science Foundation’s annual survey, which has been going for more than a decade now, always finds that 70-90 per cent of the public believe that the benefits of science outweigh the harms. And in Europe, the Eurobarometer shows that more than 80 per cent of people think that science and technology have improved the quality of life for their generation.
“That should make us feel great,” Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in his in keynote address. “However, people have no idea what science is and isn’t.”
In the United States, some 60 per cent think ESP is scientific, and more than a third, history; in Europe 41 per cent categorise astrology as science, and a third, homeopathy.
Is this a problem, though, or just something about which those of us in the know about science can share a smug chuckle?
Leshner thinks it’s a problem because it leaves people ill-equipped to understand, and make judgements about, an increasingly threatening fleet of scientific discoveries that are sailing their way soon. More on that later …