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image European Research News Centre > Research and Society > Knowledge under scrutiny
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image image image Date published: 03/04/2002
  image Knowledge under scrutiny
RTD info Special
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  "I am interested in science and technology" declare nearly half of all Europeans (45.3%). Yet one in two of them also believe that they are not well informed. While they think they understand certain subjects - those regularly in the headlines, such as BSE or the greenhouse effect - when tested they find it difficult to explain the underlying scientific concepts.
   
     
   

Want to find out more?

A fair proportion (15%) of Europeans would certainly like to. This desire for knowledge increases with the level of education and is strongest among men. It is also often most pronounced in countries with a strong tradition of higher education, albeit with a number of exceptions to the rule: 60.9% of Greeks are interested in science and technology compared with 29.8% of Germans.

The top two: medicine and the environment

As fields which affect their day-to-day lives and receive extensive media coverage, medicine and the environment are the scientific subjects of greatest interest to Europeans. Notably, 60.3% of Europeans are interested in developments in the field of health, especially women (68.4%) and older people (69.5% of the over-55s). Young people are more interested in environmental issues (53.8% of 15- to 25-year-olds), a tendency shared by the most highly qualified (37.8% of those who studied beyond the age of 20).

The media: TV first

Where do we obtain our knowledge of science and technology? First of all - and by a wide margin - comes television. A majority of the respondents (66.4%) prefer to "watch television programmes on science and technology rather than read articles on this subject", a pattern found throughout Europe, although less markedly in Italy. The written press nevertheless scores well in certain countries (Finland, the Netherlands, Sweden) and among the best educated, who get their information from scientific journals (29.2%) as well as the general press (41.5%). Radio is the most popular as an information source among older people (29.1%), while the Internet is most favoured by young people and students.

It is the latter that are also most interested in visiting science and technology museums (31%). Their parents are either not interested in this (32.6%) or say they do not have the time (29.2%) or live too far away (11.9%). Visits to science museums are nevertheless a common cultural activity in certain countries and are particularly popular in the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden.

A test of knowledge

Is the public's knowledge of science increasing? Not much, to judge from the Eurobarometer 1992 and 2001 surveys in which interviewers used comparable tests.

The 2001 Eurobarometer included a short quiz in which members of the public were asked to answer "true, false, or don't know" to 13 scientific assertions. They were asked, for example, to classify as true or false that "the genes of the father determine whether a baby is a boy or a girl" and that "all radioactivity is man-made". As these assertions remain largely unchanged from one Eurobarometer survey to the next, they should make it possible to assess the development of knowledge. The conclusion is that there is little change from one survey to the next unless a subject has attracted extensive media coverage during the intervening period. In 2001, for example, there was an increased number of correct replies on the action of antibiotics on viruses (39.7% answered correctly compared with 27.1% in 1992) and on the possible co-existence of human beings and dinosaurs (59.4% compared with 49.9%). The combined effect of media coverage and blockbuster films perhaps?

The way scientists work

Do Europeans have a clear perception of the way scientists work and the scientific methods they apply? To find out, two examples were given - the way of testing a medicine and the risks of being affected by a hereditary illness - accompanied by three or four possible answers. The results: 36.7% of persons interviewed identified the correct answer in the first case ("the way to test it is by administering a medicine to one group and a placebo to another") and 68.7% in the second case ("each of a couple's children has the same risk of having a hereditary illness"). Once again, the best scores were recorded in northern Europe.

Another test involved asking the persons interviewed whether or not they felt they understood topical scientific subjects. The subjects best understood - or at least that was the belief - are air pollution (85.3%), mad cow disease (76.6%), the greenhouse effect (72.9%), holes in the ozone layer (72.6%) and global warming (72.3%). Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and the Internet achieved scores of nearly 60%. But, when it comes to medicines developed through genetic engineering and fuel cell engines, the level of understanding is lower (43.5% and 32.7% respectively said they thought they understood them). As to nanotechnologies, they remain a mystery to 67.1% of Europeans. This question of "avowed" comprehension was followed by a second and more subtle series of "true or false" questions. This exercise revealed that those who said they thought they understood a subject in fact do not appear to understand it any better than those who declared they did not understand it. For example: 55.7% of interviewees wrongly believe that "holes in the ozone layer will cause more storms and tornadoes" where more than 70% of them claim to understand this phenomenon.


Information and motivation

What motivates Europeans? Five fields were proposed: sport, culture, politics, science and technology, economics and finance. Of those surveyed, 45.3% say they are "rather interested" in science - which ranks third after culture (56.9%) and sport (54.3%). But is it possible to be interested and yet poorly informed? Almost two-thirds of those interviewed consider that there is insufficient access to information on science and technology, in marked contrast to the situation when it comes to sport, culture and politics.

Graphic element


Graphic element


Great minds think alike...

Graphic elementEuropeans who have pursued lengthy studies or who live in countries with a lively scientific culture (Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark) often have shared views on the following points:

  • the importance awarded to environmental issues (37.6% of those who studied beyond the age of 20);

  • distrust of scientific information provided by the media;

  • less hostile to GMOs in regard to health (65.4% would refuse them in their food compared to 70.9% for the general population) but greater acceptance of the view that they could have a negative affect on the environment;

  • a desire not to make scientists responsible for the applications of their research (60.5%);

  • the attribution of responsibility for BSE (mad cow disease) to non-scientific spheres such as the agri-food industry, politicians or farmers;

  • the desirability of allowing foreign scientists to come to Europe to make up for the shortage of scientists.

 

 

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29.1% of Europeans say they are interested in science and technology and believe they are well informed. But 48.5% say science leaves them cold. A significant proportion (14.7%) say they are "interested" but "not informed" - revealing a potential knowledge gap. This attitude is particularly common in Greece (25.5%).

29.1% of Europeans say they are interested in science and technology and believe they are well informed. But 48.5% say science leaves them cold. A significant proportion (14.7%) say they are "interested" but "not informed" - revealing a potential knowledge gap. This attitude is particularly common in Greece (25.5%).


Fewer than one in five Europeans (17.8%) have recently visited a science and technology museum. They are visited less frequently than libraries (30.7%), zoos and aquariums (25.7%), and art galleries (20.9%).

Fewer than one in five Europeans (17.8%) have recently visited a science and technology museum. They are visited less frequently than libraries (30.7%), zoos and aquariums (25.7%), and art galleries (20.9%).

 

The knowledge index

The 13-question "true or false" test makes it possible to devise a 'knowledge index' of correct answers ranging from 0 to 13. The average of this index is 7.8. If it is calculated according to the ages at which people finished studying, a clear link between education and scientific knowledge is revealed. It also shows a difference between countries; people in the countries of northern Europe (Sweden, the Netherlands, Finland, Denmark) being on average better informed and those in southern Europe (Portugal, Greece, Spain) and Ireland less well informed.

 

Did you say scientific?

52.7% of Europeans believe that astrology is "rather scientific" compared with just 33.1% for economics and 33.1% for history. The most legitimate and respected of sciences is medicine (92.6%), followed by physics (89.5%) and closely followed by biology (88.2%).

 

A certain distrust

A minority of Europeans (26.3%) believe that scientific information is presented too negatively and that journalists lack the necessary knowledge. This feeling of distrust is slightly more pronounced among those who claim they are 'informed' about and 'interested' in science.

 

 


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