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Is Everyone Entitled to Their Own Science?

Nearly half of Canadians think scientific facts are just opinions, in part due to mass media upheaval. Where do we go from here?


Think you know your science?

“Think” might just be the key word in that sentence.

The Ontario Science Centre has revealed the results of their annual Canadian science literacy survey, and almost half of Canadians believe that science is a matter of opinion. In addition, despite the rise of the digital age, science blogs and social media scientists are the least trusted sources for science news.

The scientific method

Although 81% of Canadians believe that scientific findings are objective facts, 87% believe that scientific findings can always be challenged, and 43% believe that science is a matter of opinion.

What’s worrying is not those that want to question science – a key premise of the scientific method is the constant testing of hypotheses – but rather those that think scientific findings are based on opinion. Scientific theories may change, but each reworking of our understanding is based on experimental evidence, not opinion. Perhaps a key message to scientists is to try and emphasize this process.

Part of the problem might also be the often over-hyped and sensationalized study results presented by the media. When one moment coffee is good for you and the next it’s not, it’s no surprise many people may consider this opinion-based. It’s important that credible news sources temper their desire for clicks and make sure to describe how studies were done and what real conclusions can be drawn.

Trust issues

This survey also casts into doubt whether the use of social media is useful to improve science literacy or public trust in science. According to the results, traditional media platforms are still the most trusted source of science news, with newspapers leading the way at 89% of respondents considering them trustworthy, followed closely by radio (62%), television (57%), and online news sites (54%). Social media and blogs scored the lowest on the trust scale, with around 20% of Canadian rating them as trustworthy.

We recognize the irony of reporting this on a science blog.

And before you start blaming the older generation, the majority of survey respondents were 18-34 years old – although millennials are more likely to trust digital media sources like bloggers and social media influencers, the percentage is still only 23%.

Scientific institutions such as universities, museums, and even scientists themselves were among the most trusted sources. This disconnect may reflect the range of blogs that exist online and the fact that anyone can write whatever they want on social media.

National newspapers, despite declining subscriptions, still bring with them a significant reputation, and a more stringent vetting process. Science blogs, many of which are run by trustworthy sources, may want to stress the qualifications of their contributors.

While the numbers may seem a little distressing – the number of Canadians who think the science behind climate change is unclear has increased from 40% in 2016 to 47% in 2017 – we are living in an age of media upheaval. Newspapers have been around for a long time – it may take a little while for online media to gain the public trust.

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Malgosia Pakulska is a freelance science writer, speaker, and blogger. She completed her PhD in Professor Molly Shoichet’s lab studying drug delivery systems for spinal cord regeneration after injury. She is still passionate about research and wants to share that excitement with the public. When she is not in the lab, she is experimenting in the kitchen and blogging about it at Smart Cookie Bakes.