A new survey from the Ontario Science Centre shows that when it comes to their understanding of key social issues and the science behind them, many Canadians are less informed than they think.
The survey, conducted by Léger Marketing, found that while a majority of Canadians claimed that they understood the basic science behind issues such as climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified foods, their responses told a different story.
Concerning vaccinations, 89 per cent of those surveyed stated that they understood the science behind vaccinations yet almost one in five (19 per cent) believed there to be a potential link between vaccinations and autism, despite the fact that such an association has not been proven scientifically and previous attempts to assert a link have been discredited.
On global warming and climate change, 85 per cent of Canadians said they understood the science behind the phenomenon yet a full 40 per cent said they believed that the science on the issue is still unclear, despite overwhelming and established evidence to the contrary.
“Although there is a near consensus in the scientific community that human activity contributes to climate change, public understanding of the issue and our collective actions to reduce our carbon footprint still fall short,” says Dr. Maurice Bitran, CEO and Chief Science Officer with the Ontario Science Centre.
And on the topic of genetically modified foods or GMOs, the survey found that 19 per cent of Canadians said that they rely on intuition rather than science to inform their opinion.
The results are concerning, says Bitran.
“We live in a science-based society. Just about every aspect of our lives is connected to science – our health, economy, the way we work, live and learn –all rely on science. This survey indicates that we should not be complacent about the state of science literacy in Canada,” says Bitran.
The findings stand in marked contrast to those from a 2014 study which compared Canadians’ scores from a basic scientific literacy test to those from other countries and found that, in fact, Canadians came out first among 35 countries where similar data sets were available. The quiz asked basic questions such as, “Does the sun go around the earth or does the earth go around the sun?” and Electrons are smaller than atoms – true or false?” and revealed a substantial improvement in Canadians’ scientific literacy since the issue was last charted in 1989.
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It’s possible that the discrepancy between the two reports may have less to do with scientific literacy -a measure of the ability to understand scientific information -and more to do with assimilation bias, that well-studied tendency where people interpret new information in ways that align with previously-held beliefs and values. Climate change, vaccinations and GMO foods are among the touchstone issues of today’s society. Thus, often deeply held beliefs on overarching themes such as individual rights, the proper role of state and the reach of big business, for example, may play a part in determining whether individuals are likely to accept a given piece of information as true, partially true or false.
The new survey comes out at the start of Scientific Literacy Week at the Ontario Science Centre, a nationwide promotion of science and the contributions of Canadian scientists and science communicators.