Why do some people not care about science?

February 3, 2014 by Joan Leach And Fabien Medvecky, The Conversation
Bored with science. Credit: Flickr/manwithbeard

Surveys on public attitudes to science regularly tell us that there are swathes of the public that simply seem to not care about science, despite our best effort to engage them.

But perhaps the issue is not with the public—the issue is with the question.

Recent research argues that there is no such thing as a public at large to engage (or leave disengaged), rather, individuals who cluster around issues to form multiple publics, and even counterpublics who diverge from consensus opinion.

With the Australian Science Communicators national conference kicking off in Brisbane yesterday, it's a good time to reflect on what we know and don't know from surveys and polls about engagement.

A survey says

So what do we know? Every few years, a new survey on public attitudes towards science comes out showing remarkably consistent results. One fairly reliable statistic that usually receives attention is the proportion of the public that is interested in or engages with the sciences, and more importantly, the proportion of disengaged.

Arguably, one of the better known is the Eurobarometer which covers numerous aspects of to in Europe (these have come out in 1977, 1990, 1992, 2001, 2005 and 2010).

Over the decades, the Eurobarometer has shown that about 15% of those surveyed have little interest in science. In a US study people do show a little more interest in environmental news and medical discoveries but a little less in generic scientific and technological discoveries.

Australia has not had a comparable long running survey, but a 2010 ANU poll on public opinion about science showed Australia fared better, with disinterest rates varying from 5%-10%.

Better result, but it still leaves a feeling that a proportion of the population is disengaged with what is one of the cornerstones of our society.

Similar results were revealed in New Zealand in a commissioned Nielsen poll on Public attitudes to science (2010), where 9% of the population were assessed as disengaged.

Why disengaged?

The vexing question here is: why does the proportion of people disengaged with science, those seemingly uninterested in science, not change despite our continuing effort to bring them into the engaged fold?

This might be cause for a bit of soul-searching among those promoting science engagement.

Both Mathew Kearns and Rod Lambert recently suggested we should reconsider how we talk about science if we really want an engaged public. They also separately argue it is time to embrace debate and disagreement, and accept the inherently social and cultural aspects of science.

Clusters of concern

The answer, as we suggested earlier, is largely borne out of recent research in Science Communication and Science and Technology Studies (STS). It's the idea that there is no such thing as a single public to engage (or leave disengaged), but rather, individuals who cluster around issues to form a number of smaller publics.

What topics engaged people. Credit: ANU Poll, Public opinion about science

These created publics might well be engaged, but they are engaged with a particular issue or controversy such as coal seam gas, vaccines, climate change or cancer.

Members of this particular publics don't consider themselves engaged with the topic of science, technology or medicine. They might well care about the science related to the issue, but only because they care about the issue. To that extent they are engaged with science but they may not think of this as an interest in science generally.

Sophisticated pollsters are aware of this problem, but being aware of this intellectual fact doesn't stop headlines like "Chief scientist Ian Chubb says young people 'disengaged' from subjects". Actually, the chief scientist recognised the problem well in his address to the National Press Club.

"Our younger generations appear to be disinterested - even disengaged from science – even though they use its applications every day: from their food, to their pens, to shoes, to clothes, to smart phones, iPods, televisions and laptops." Professor Chubb said.

So what do we make of all this? Should we stop polling and surveying and acting as if ready-made publics exist and have attitudes? Not necessarily. But taking some suggestions from conversations happening in politics on the role of polling could be useful. We've come up with a few suggestions:

1 - Stop poll-gazing

While long-term trends in general attitudes to science are usefully compared (if Australia can support a continuing survey it will yield some interesting trends over time), polling on attitudes to particular areas of science probably shouldn't be driving policy. We need to dig deeper into the social contexts where there is disagreement about how science and technology functions.

2 - Consider the "donkey vote" in polling for what it could mean

What does it really mean when someone claims they are "disinterested" in science? An interesting comparison is to the "blank", "donkey" or "informal" vote in national elections.

In 2012 the French government decided to officially count blank votes as protest votes. Given voting is not compulsory in France, blank votes represent serious dissatisfaction with the election in general as opposed to not turning up.

By contrast, in Australia, the informal vote bundles both discontent and disinterest (as well as possible ignorance of the ballot process or bona fide mistakes) and is not counted. The donkey vote is counted, but as a vote, not as a protest. The challenge for the pollster is to distinguish just what sort of disengagement is at play here: is it disinterest or discontent?

We think this is an analog of discussions about disinterest in science.

A public engaged in science but do they know it? Credit: Flickr/Beyond Coal and Gas

3 - What is the goal of the poll?

One trend is to think in maximising terms; to get as many people as possible to tick the "very interested" or "moderately interested" boxes next to the "What is your level of interest in new scientific discoveries" question.

If more people tick those boxes, what does that really mean? Does it suggest better general education or a laissez faire attitude to controversial science, or even general approval?

Let's talk further about what "attitudes to science" are considered good and what approaches to maximising those attitudes would be.

The conference

It is a heartening indication of the state of the field of research in science communication that we can tolerate a bit more soul-searching about why it is we want everyone to be interested in science.

As the science communicators meet for their 2014 conference this week, the very diversity amongst the participants shows that there is significant commitment to re-examining engagement.

We need to find better tools to do it with, but we also need better ideas with which to guide thinking about science in public.

Explore further: Small differences in how a technology is defined can make a big difference in how the public feels about it

Related Stories

Recommended for you

'We don't know nearly enough about migration'

May 20, 2016

In the current issue of the scientific journal Science, which was published today, Frans Willeken, migration expert at the Max Planck Institute for Demographic Research, together with three further experts on migration, summarizes ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2014
Coincidentally(?) expatriate Australian Ken Ham takes on American children's entertainer Bill Nye in The Creation Museum's 'Ham on Nye' Cr-Evo debate 4 Feb.

4 / 5 (1) Feb 03, 2014
I would tend to think that younger generations focus more on specific subjects (This is my opinion as a father of two young adults aged 17 and 22). Because off the extensive amount of information (and disinformation) that could be found today, it is overwhelming to be a polymath. Information overload is a problem and disengagement is a symptom of it. I will take the time to read the study before commenting any further.
not rated yet Feb 03, 2014
. I will take the time to read the study before commenting any further.
163 pages!
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2014
public that simply seem to not care about science, despite our best effort to engage them
IMO mainstream science, physics in particular is still waiting for its actual punishment, which will be followed with introduction of various overunity and cold fusion technologies. These technologies are ignored for years and the layman public still didn't realize it, because no commercialization of such technology happen yet, so that the scientists can still pretend rather safely, that such technology doesn't exist yet. So that the scientists have another additional reason to delay its acceptation - their ignorant stance is selfinforcing.

I can be sufficiently sure with my stance, because some of these ignored findings (like the gravitational beams and drives) were already verified successfully in mainstream science institutions, so that their ignorance with the rest of scientific community becomes pronounced the more. And these findings are connected to many others neglected ones.
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2014
This ignorance has many psychosocial reason, but the main one is, these phenomena cannot be described with existing theories - or better to say, they do violate them. In this way the mainstream science is trapped in cognitive singularity, because the scientists today cannot publish anything without math and the math of these phenomena isn't developed yet. The falsification of mainstream theories would threat the job places, grants and salaries in existing research. In particular, the acceptation of cold fusion would wipe out myriads of job places in existing research of alternative methods of energy production/conversion/transport and storage (from tokamak research over solar cells to batteries). So that the net stance of scientific community remains dismissive - it has more to lose than to gain from the present situation and it even cannot change its intersubjective decision. In this way, the scientists are trapped in own rules and principles of their society, which evolved it.
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2014
I often describe the reality like the water surface, which is observed with its own ripples. At the proximity such a surface appears chaotic and turbulent, but at the larger distance the spreading of surface ripples becomes gradually low-dimensional and the wave will spread in regular circles, which are easy to describe. And the human perspective expands accordingly, so that the physicists got the false impression, that the existing universe fits the simple low-dimensional models quite well. But with expanding scope of knowledge the regular circles are getting scattered with extradimensions of underwater again and the world will become as chaotic and complex, as the reality at the human observer scale.
Which leads into situation, that these well minded deterministic theories will become poorly conditioned, they will lead into landscapes of solutions and their fuziness will become comparable with fuziness of natural philosophy. For laymen it brings no advantage to believe in it anymore.
1 / 5 (4) Feb 03, 2014
Even without this geometric model we should consider the fact, that the amount of facts increases exponentially, while these facts are more and more complex and they do appear less and less connected mutually. The modern people are buzzy, so that their relative scope of understandable reality shrinks accordingly. The average people, who just don't want to spend whole their free time with careful analysis of information from various sources (like me) are forced into their passive acceptation and belief - possibly more than the religious people of medieval times.

Under situation, when everything changes into subject of passive belief the proclamative adherence on scientific methods brings no advantage for average layman anymore. He is simply forced to believe in everything in the same way, like the last religious villager of medieval era. He just listens and believes the white-coat people instead the black-coat people - that's the whole difference.
1 / 5 (3) Feb 03, 2014
For to have article published today, the results must be "conclusive". The exact description of reality is not already enough, especially when big money of Monsanto are involved. Efforts to suppress scientific findings erode the scientific integrity upon which the public trust relies. The retraction by the FCT marks a significant and destructive shift in management of the publication of controversial scientific research. Equally troublesome is that this retraction does not really impact how the science will be viewed by scientists, but only how it is viewed by others outside of the scientific community. The decision to retract a published scientific work by an editor, i.e. against the desires of the authors represents a dangerous erosion of the dangerous erosion of the underpinnings of the peer-review process.
5 / 5 (8) Feb 04, 2014
I don't read anything that starts with "mainstream" in the first sentence.
Brevity is the soul of wit.
Are your ideas are so convoluted, that you require a post longer than the article?
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2014
Are your ideas are so convoluted, that you require a post longer than the article?

@ ekim
Nestle AKA Osteta AKA Zephyr is an aether acolyte who forgot that it was debunked and proven wrong more than a century ago...
in fact, even today there are links proving aether wrong, such as the recent


that single link above (and others like it) completely undermine aether hypothesis and prove the whole thing is based upon a fallacy.

he adds it to any article that may have ANY science/physics mentioned.

personally, i think there is some truth to the information overload
when pseudoscience can get more media time than REAL SCIENCE, and when cranks can repeatedly get banned and come back to a site pushing the same debunked pseudoscience
and when there is more info that is easier to access about crackpot stuff... well...
too many distractions

4.8 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2014
While there are some that are disinterested in science I wouldn't be surprised if that group is more or less disinterested in anything that doesn't directly relate to them. I doubt that any sort of information campaign will change that.

We should also realize that if we just take the bottom 10-15% of the IQ spectrum we're talking about people with an IQ below 80-85. Those are probably not in a (mental) position to engage with science on any level.
5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2014
personally, i think there is some truth to the information overload
when pseudoscience can get more media time than REAL SCIENCE, and when cranks can repeatedly get banned and come back to a site pushing the same debunked pseudoscience
and when there is more info that is easier to access about crackpot stuff... well...
too many distractions

Too much real science is protected behind pay walls while the crackpot stuff is given away for free.
Feb 04, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2014
The first link surely makes a very interesting read. There is much to debate in this paper. It is easy to read and the graphics tell a lot by themselves. http://ec.europa....0_en.pdf

For those who are interested and do not have too much time to invest, you can go straight to chapter 3. It is delightful and crammed to the hilt with counterintuitive information. I suggest printing page 6; it is a must for graphic interpretation. Switzerland, Iceland, Norway, Croatia and Turkey are viewed separately; it is because they are not members of EU... Croatia is, but only since June 2013.
not rated yet Feb 04, 2014
Mr Huffman, there is even interesting stuff for you. Here is paragraph extracted from page 28:
Further, we look to see whether there is any relationship between faith and views on science. We then look if Europeans feel that there are implications of science and technology on human rights, on the economy, and we ask if there is a belief that
science will make people's work more interesting and provide more opportunities for future generations.

5 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2014
@ ekim and Captain Stumpy
Nestle AKA Osteta AKA Zephyr is an aether acolyte who forgot that it was debunked and proven wrong more than a century ago...

This (these) guy(s) is (are) beyond help. It is not funny to be stuck in an infinite loop of recursive gibberish. But there is nothing you can do about it.

Me, I just scroll down.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2014
Too much real science is protected behind pay walls while the crackpot stuff is given away for free.

More and more serious papers are freely available; see http://vixra.org/ . But since those publications are not all peer reviewed, you can probably find questionable science there too.
5 / 5 (5) Feb 04, 2014
Jeezus Zephyr how do you manage to turn an article about attitudes towards science into a 5 paragraph rant about cold fusion and aether!?! THIS IS WHY YOU GET BANNED! It is off topic mumbo-jumbo.

Too much real science is protected behind pay walls while the crackpot stuff is given away for free.
Very true! There are reasons for this of course, such as finding ways for research to get funded that the cranks don't need, mostly because they don't DO any actual research, but the ease with which crank science can be found is ridiculous.

1 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2014
I'm not talking about aether, Captain Stumpy did. The ignorance of cold fusion research it the largest problem of mainstream physics, I guess. It's huge waste of resources, life environment and just everything. Given the fact, this phenomena is completely real and repeatedly demonstrated at MIT, the mainstream science attitude is very disappointing not just for me. The contemporary science doesn't help the better world, on the contrary - it does parasite on it. The trivial misunderstanding of aether model is just a tiny piece of this incompetence.
4 / 5 (4) Feb 04, 2014
no fate
5 / 5 (2) Feb 04, 2014
IMO the beauty of science is that at the end of the day, the physical laws that govern the universe cannot be broken. All scientific claims must also adhere to these laws and thus crank science is easy to weed out. Cognitive dissonance on the other hand....well, if somebody believes something is true, the only way for them to change their mind is to see with their own eyes that it isn't, even then some still refuse to accept reality.

There are many reasons a signifigant portion of the general public might not be interested in science (I was surprised by how low the % is to be honest)...hell there are aspects of science that make scientists/engineers walk away muttering that they are through with it.

Cool thing is if it interests you, you can't stay away.

5 / 5 (3) Feb 04, 2014
The ignorance of cold fusion research it the largest problem of mainstream physics, I guess.
Do you not see the irony in posting this comment to this article's comment stream? And do you not see the irony in posting links to blogs and opinion pieces of other people who also do not show anything except their firmly held belief that it works and everyone except them refuses to believe it because they are "mainstream", whatever the hell that is supposed to mean?

No, I suppose you can't see the irony, given your recent comments that you think about things like Hawking does. I laugh in despair Zephyr, because Hawking did more math in grade 6 than you have done in your whole life, and his ideas flow directly from the maths he does. You just use your imagination and some eloquent word salad.

I've said this to you before (whack-a-mole!); your theory equals exactly nothing because you do not (and will not even try to) understand the maths behind the theories you propose to replace.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2014
@ Maggnus

You gave me a 4 in my introducing stance here. My guess is that you appreciate my position but you beg to differ. Would you mind to elaborate? I would really enjoy your input on this.

By the way, for anybody else who would like to debate with me, the subject should be S.T.E.M.; how it influences our world today, and why does it seem so hard to get more people interested. Please, no narrow minded advocations.
4 / 5 (4) Feb 05, 2014
I'm going to try to paraphrase nietszche because I can't find the quote. He asked a woman once why she didn't like scientists. "Because they're always finding things out." she said.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2014
Technocreed - Yes I agree with the basic premise, as I think that information overload is a real issue that our kids are having to deal with and sort through. (I am also a father of young adults, 22, 19 & 14) however, I am finding that they have a tendency towards more polymathic (is that even a real word lol) like thinking simply because there is so much more information available to them then there was when I was in school. The result of that, I think, is that they become more engaged in that which interests them, which necessarily leads to them being less engaged in those subjects in which they have less (not necessarily no) interest in, leading to a perception that they are less engaged overall.

It therefore seems to me that it is the perceived disengagement that you speak to. In other words, I think they are engaged, but their engagement is reflected in a higher understanding of those particular subjects they enjoy.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 05, 2014
The irony is that there are more women in science today than ever. They are challenging men in their own turf. Might it be that it is only men who are distracted from science?

That was a surprising introduction. It surely putted a smile on my face. As for Nietzche; it has been so long since I have read one if books that that I do not really remember what is philosophy was all about. But I kind of remember that the guy had some odd melancholic way to look at things.
5 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2014
My recent experience on that, was my 17 years old son who just, last fall, acceded to collegial health sciences. He flunked in Newtonian physics and derivative mathematics. He asked me; what those notions had to do with health sciences? (What a sad situation).
So now, in his second session he reoriented for humanities.
is that even a real word

I know what you mean, as I create words on purpose to compensate my English shortcomings. I put words and ideas as I see fit. In French my sentences are so stuck in conventional rigidities that, even I find myself boring.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2014
I laugh in despair Zephyr, because Hawking did more math in grade 6 than you have done in your whole life, and his ideas flow directly from the maths he does
What does it have to do with ignorance of cold fusion finding (and another ones) with mainstream physics? Hawking just his quantitative job, and I'm doing my qualitative one. But what doesn't work well is the science as a whole (mainstream physics in particular), the purpose of which is doing the both. As I explained above, the mainstream physics cannot consider new stuffs qualitatively, until it has no quantitative theory developed for it.

Try to imagine the progress in physics, if for example Faraday would wait for Maxwell theory with his research of electricity. Maxwell would never derive his theory without experimental findings of Faraday and his qualitative insights - and no we are facing this situation in relation to cold fusion, gravitational beam and drives and devices based on negentropic phenomena.
1 / 5 (2) Feb 05, 2014
Today mainstream physics has no problem with acceptation of new insights and findings at the moment, when these phenomena were already predicted with theory. The acceptation of graphene or topological insulators was pretty smooth, just because these artifacts were predicted with theory already before many years. In some cases the acceptation of predicted phenomena even becomes noncritical, for example the search for gravitational waves and WIMPs suffers with exaggerated expectations of theorists.

But what doesn't work at all in contemporary physics is the opposite approach: the acceptation of experimental findings, which aren't supported with theory and/or deduction of theory for already existing yet unexplained phenomena. In such case the mainstream physics gets stucked at place for whole century. It means, the progress in contemporary physics is dominated and blocked with theorists due to their overemployment and the symmetry of inductive and deductive approach is missing there.
3.7 / 5 (3) Feb 05, 2014
Scroll, scroll!
1 / 5 (1) Feb 08, 2014
If you paraphrased anyone, they will be everything you expect them to be.
Nitzsche is no exception.

In translations of non mathematical literature there is no equivalency.
You must learn all 5000+ parts of just one language: the human language
and it's variations. Otherwise you will be missing something all parts have to offer.

There are already gaps in our knowledge of the human language from parts of it going extinct. There are no insurmountables to learning all of the human language parts.

Neologism is also a language. Here you must follow TechnoCreed's advice: Scroll,scroll!

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.