Canadians see science as a solution, but worry fake news is more appealing: survey

Half of those surveyed by the Science Centre believe it’s up to the experts to make the data more digestible, while 42 per cent think the onus needs to be on the average person to learn. Nikki Jhutti/Global News

Most Canadians think science and technology improve their lives and will be key to solving the world’s most pressing challenges. That’s according to the Ontario Science Centre’s most recent nationwide survey, published Monday, which found 84 per cent of those surveyed see science as a tool for a better life.

But underpinning that resounding endorsement of science is another figure that hints at tension between the scientific community and society at large. Four out of five people surveyed believe most people don’t understand how science impacts their lives and slightly more than half — 54 per cent — of those surveyed believe that Canadian society is actually turning away from science in favour of facts not rooted in evidence or supported by data.

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“There’s a concern,” says Maurice Bitran, CEO of the Ontario Science Centre.

“How can we solve problems if a significant percentage of the population turns away from science?”

Leger surveyed 1,500 Canadians online earlier this summer for the Ontario Science Centre and tension aside, Bitran says, there’s “a lot of reason for optimism.”

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In addition to the 84 per cent who believe science is positively contributing to their quality of life, nearly three out of four people surveyed believe science’s most significant discoveries have yet to happen, and 83 per cent want to learn more about science and how it impacts their lives.

That’s not that different from the Science Centre’s 2017 survey, but Bitran says that’s to be expected.

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What we do need to take a closer look at, Bitran says, is the effect of fake news. Roughly 80 per cent of Canadians are worried fake news will negatively impact how people perceive scientific advancements and how that will hamper scientists’ ability to find solutions to real-world issues.

While those figures are relatively on par with last year’s numbers, the number of people who worry their own understanding of science will be hurt by incorrect information reported as fact jumped by five per cent to nearly three-quarters of Canadians.

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“That’s a significant shift,” Bitran says.

It’s particularly worrisome, says Parshati Patel, outreach program co-ordinator with Western University’s Centre for Planetary Science and Exploration.

“In the current situation, people don’t believe in data or what’s being presented to them in the form of data, people just believe whatever is being told to them and that’s concerning,” she says.

Holly Andersen, an associate professor at Simon Fraser University who specializes in the philosophy of science, says she’s actually encouraged by the survey results.

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Flip the statistics, she says. If 54 per cent of Canadians believe their peers are turning away from science that’s 54 per cent of Canadians who “want us to be moving closer to science” and are pointing out the trends as they happen.

“That, in itself, is a cause of hope for the future,” Andersen says.

“The fact that there are so many people who are concerned about it is exactly the sort of thing that will help us reverse that trend.”

But when it comes to whose job it is to help the public understand science, the reaction is mixed as to who needs to take charge.

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Half of those surveyed by the Science Centre believe it’s up to the experts to make the data more digestible, while 42 per cent think the onus needs to be on the average person to learn.

Parshati thinks the experts should step up.

“The scientific community should be doing a better job making this information more understandable to the average person.”

It doesn’t have to be that complex, she notes, even basic explanations of how science works and why it’s constantly evolving coupled with reminders to be more critical of what you read online could help.

It’s also not just a question of fake news, Bitran says. Some of the tension between science and facts without evidence is likely driven by concern over what advancing technology will do to someone’s employment opportunities. The survey found that concern about how advancements will be implemented is fairly high, ranging between 54 and 62 per cent depending on the specific technology.

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“That just underlines that every technology has a positive and potentially negative side to it and there needs to be conversation and dialogue and understanding,” he says.

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That’s an important conversation, says Andersen, because lots of the concerns raised in the survey seem to indicate trust issues with what’s being developed in private industries.

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If people start to have more comprehensive conversations about the type of society we want to build 10, 50, and even 100 years from now, she says, people might feel more reassured as technology advances.

“It could help resolve some of the tension between what people feel science is doing and what they would like science to do.”

– These are the findings of a Leger survey of 1,501 Canadians on behalf of the Ontario Science Centre, conducted online between June 18 – 26, 2018. It has a margin of error of +/- 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

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