To know science is to love it
Bolstering support for the field remains a thorny problem.
An analysis of studies in 40 countries around the globe proves a long-standing assumption: that the more a person knows about science, the more he or she tends to support scientific endeavours.
The issue is a fundamental one for scientists and science teachers. They often assume that improving people's scientific literacy will boost support for research, encourage young people to choose science careers and clear up damaging misconceptions about miracle cures or pseudoscience.
In fact, studies that have tested the link between a person's level of scientific knowledge and attitudes towards the field have generated mixed results. "It's been a very vexed question," says sociologist Nick Allum of the University of Surrey in Guildford, UK.
To try and resolve the issue, Allum and his colleagues pulled together the results of nearly 200 surveys carried out between 1998 and 2003 in countries from Australia to Bulgaria. These studies assessed, for example, whether participants knew certain scientific facts and whether they supported developments in genetically modified food or nanotechnology.
To some extent, the results confirm the belief widely held by science advocates: the more people know about science, the more favourably they tend to view it, regardless of other factors such as age, nationality and formal level of education. Allum presented his results at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington DC last week.
But now this question is cleared up, researchers must begin to tackle more pressing questions, Allum says. "The argument should move on."
His finding cannot, for example, show whether better science education will bump up general support for the field. This is because researchers have yet to figure out whether people who learn more about science then tend to like it or, conversely, whether people who already like and support science are simply inclined to learn further facts.
Taking a stance
And a person's level of scientific knowledge actually goes a very tiny way towards explaining their attitudes towards science, researchers at the meeting said. Allum believes that there are probably far more important factors, such as their moral values, religious beliefs and political leaning.
Many people's stance on embryonic stem-cell research, for example, is thought to be defined by their moral take on the destruction of human embryos, not by their precise understanding of the technique involved.
And people's trust in science may be influenced by how tightly regulated they believe the process to be in their country. This might explain, in part, why those living in different countries tend to hold different attitudes: Europeans tend to be more suspicious of genetically modified crops than those in the United States, for example.
Ultimately, science advocates hope to bolster support for the field, but it looks as if simple science education will not be enough. As Allum says: “It’s all horribly complicated."