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Better questions may lead to better answers. Antwaanmusic

What do you think people think about science and technology?

With this year’s National Science Week (Aug 10-18) just past, many people are now thinking busily about science. So here’s a quick poll:

  • What percentage of Australians are interested in science and technology or think it important to their lives?
  • What makes a good poll on Australian attitudes to science and technology?

There are multiple different answers to the first question, which tell us something about how to answer the second question. So let’s look at some of the many different findings before looking at the second question.

In 2010 the Australian National University (ANU) published a study on people’s attitudes to science that headlined with the finding that Australians are more interested in science than sport.

The study found a whopping 90% or more of those interviewed (1,200 people by random phone poll) stated they were very or moderately interested in new scientific discoveries. (Which is not quite the same as being interested in science itself, of course.)

But a study conducted by the Victorian Department of Business and Innovation, in 2007 and again in 2011, found the percentage of the population interested in science was much less, at 73% (of 800 Victorians polled).

And on the vital issue of comparisons to sports, it found people read about science more often than they attended sports events, but attended sports more often than they visited a museum or science museum.

A third study by the Federal Department of Innovation in 2012 came up with a figure between the ANU and Victorian figures. It found about 80% of respondents (2,000 split across online and random phone polling) believed that science was so important to our lives we should all take an interest in it (with the figures lower for women than men, and slightly lower for people under 30).

In a fourth study, conducted by CSIRO in 2013 (of more than 1,200 people and due to be released later this year) only 53% stated they were either very interested or quite interested in science (it gave an option of neither interested nor uninterested, which 26% of respondents agreed with).

It also found people were more interested in technology than science (almost 60%). And, particularly telling, when it asked about people’s support for science in a more positive frame - as the 2010 ANU poll had done - the numbers rose significantly, with 83% agreeing that science was very important to solving many of the problems facing us as a society today.

But despite the fluctuating figures depending on the actual questions, is finding out about interest in science and technology enough? As with polls that look at levels of science literacy, should we be digging deeper than looking for the headline impact?

A much more significant finding from the ANU and CSIRO polls were that 52% and 38% of respondents respectively felt that science and technology make our way of life change too fast to keep up with. And analysing the data more deeply, CSIRO found this attitude was a key indicator of a person being less engaged with science and technology and more likely to view it with suspicion and concern.

Indeed, values-based studies show there are strong and existing values that largely impact the way we think about science and technology, and any attempts to educate or inform people about the benefits or risks of any new technology will be accepted or rejected based on people’s existing values.

We see this played out by people with strong values on the sanctity of nature demanding we respect the science on climate change, but reject the science on genetically-modified crops. And people with strongly pro-development values take exactly counter positions on each.

By looking beyond simple attitudes towards, or interest in, science and technology we can examine the values that drive attitudes towards issues such as infant vaccination rejection, alternative medicines, embryonic stem cells and climate change.

People don’t reject the science behind these because they are scientifically illiterate, nor uneducated. They are often highly both. But they have fundamental values that some science and technology clashes strongly with.

And once you have a deeper understanding of those values you can actually frame communication, engagement or education activities to work with them rather than clash with them.

CSIRO and many other organisations have reams of data on what people think about science and technology, their media consumption habits, broken down by ages and gender and physical locations. And we can track this over time, seeing that young people are becoming more disengaged in science, that trust fluctuates and we can even track the impact of negative media on people’s attitudes.

All this is interesting of course, but it is like making the scientific observation that the polar ice caps are melting. We really need good data on why.

So in answering our second poll question, what makes a good survey is not just asking what people think about science and technology, but really seeking a deeper understanding of why. Our questions really need to get better and to look beyond the headline impact of their findings.

Only then can we hope to develop effective strategies to do anything about what we find.

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