The science of opinion or the opinion of science? For Canadians, it’s a matter of perspective.
Recent survey suggests the line between fact or fake blurrier than ever “…these are worrisome results,” said Maurice Bitran, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Science Centre, which commissioned the survey for Science Literacy Week, Sept. 18-24.
His concern stems from the fact that four-in-ten Canadians think science is a matter of opinion. That finding, according to Bitran, “shows a lack of understanding of the scientific method.”
Poll respondents have their own genuine concerns about the rise of fake news. In fact, 66 percent agreed with the statement that “false information reported as fact (fake news) is affecting your knowledge of science.”
Bitran’s position is reinforced by some of the findings included in the survey conducted by research firm Leger, who polled 1,514 Canadians between August 15 and 16. Indicated in the sampling, was a lack of trust in science and media coverage of scientific issues:
31 percent of respondents agree that “because scientific ideas are fluid and subject to change, they can’t be trusted.”
68 percent agree that media coverage of scientific issues is “reported selectively to support news media objectives.”
59 percent agree that media coverage of scientific issues is “presented to support a political decision.”
However, for the optimists among us there is plenty of room for positive expectations based on facts.
For Dawn Sutherland, Canada Research Chair in Science Education in Cultural Contexts at the University of Winnipeg, some of the scientific findings are flawed and therefore less than helpful as respondents were forced to agree or disagree with statements containing more than one interpretation.
Her response to the survey was decidedly more upbeat, based on facts uncovered:
82 percent of respondents said they “would like to know more about science and how it affects our world.”
79 percent agreed they’re comfortable “knowing that scientific answers are not definitive.”
Respondents said they trusted museums and science centers (89 percent), scientists and professors (88 percent) and educational institutions (87 percent) as sources of information, but far fewer said they trusted word of mouth (25 percent) or social media (20 percent).
In Sutherland’s expert opinion, the fact Canadians understand that scientific knowledge contains inferences along with facts, is nothing less than positive. She expressed as much in an email to CBC News: “…and that as technology advances and new findings arise our understandings can change, is great insight into how Canadians view science,” she wrote. “Also, that Canadians have perhaps a healthy skepticism when it comes to information outside of traditional sources.”
Sutherland does share Bitran’s concern regarding Canadians’ widespread belief in ideas contrary to scientific consensus. GMOs, global warming and vaccinations represent three topical issues, which, despite significant scientific validation, are still surrounded by political influences, commercial considerations and unfounded fears.
Opinions are important, but not as important as the facts on which they are based.