Information Sources

The qualitative research highlighted that there is a perception in the community that science has its own elaborate set of customs, rules and concepts that are largely foreign to the public. The use of unfamiliar and seemingly abstruse language can make it seem like typical scientific discourse is designed to keep the general public at bay.

The qualitative research showed that people expect to hear about new advances in science and technology through the media – especially on television and in newspapers. It also revealed that even those who would regard themselves as generally uninterested in science tend to like hearing about new advances in technologies in the media; that they expect to be told about advances that will improve their lives. However, there is some awareness (although by no means universal) that the media can distort the findings of scientists in the pursuit of a story.

Only a few of the focus group participants spent a great deal of time reading about science or participating in scientific aspects of their hobbies – for example a participant interested in cars was not interested in the science that lies behind the vehicle. Those that did take an interest in the underlying scientific concepts tended to have a broad range of scientific interests – from engineering problems through climate change and medicine. Where ‘less informed’ focus group participants had pursued scientific information, it tended to be more subconscious. They had not realised at the time that they were reading something scientific, and would not have pursued it if it was labelled this way, yet their natural curiosity had been piqued, their imagination fired. This highlights the importance of the accessible packaging of scientific information, the need for science communicators to appear to be ‘real people’ as opposed to donning the more authoritative white coat, and to ‘translate’ scientific terminology in natural language. Merely the appearance of being scientific can be enough to turn some people off.

Further, the way in which scientific paradigms were taught to focus group participants in schools apparently lent credence to the idea that science is essentially a series of hard facts. This is in stark contrast to the way that important scientific debate often plays out in the media, making it appear conflicted and therefore confusing for the layperson. There is a tendency – even among the more educated and literate – to want the headlines or the executive summary, and to be able to trust that the information they are taking in is beyond question; that it is cold, hard, indisputable fact.

The fact that seemingly elementary scientific topics such as gravity are still not completely understood by physicists is beside the point to the majority of the public – this type of scientific debate does not get played out in mainstream media, but in relatively obscure journals.

For details of the survey methodology and focus groups, please refer to Chapter 4 of the report.