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FORUM II
PROGRAMME THEMATIC MEETINGS

II.1  Public Perception of Science:

Between Acceptance and Rejection 

 

Negative public perceptions of science and anti-science movements. Concepts such as ‘techno-science’, held responsible for some of the environmental, technological and industrial hazards of modernity. What are the factors which motivate the rejection of science? The real problems versus unfounded accusations? How to address the former and dispel the latter, to foster the acceptance of science?

Chair: Yuri Osipov President, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia
Rapporteur: John Durant Director of Science Communication, Science Museum, UK

Session co-ordinator: John Durant Director of Science Communication, Science Museum, UK
Local secretary: A.Váry Research Institute for Sociology, HAS, Hungary


ABSTRACTS:

Public perceptions of the connection between
scientific research and social progress

Bruce Lewenstein
Cornell University, USA

Studies conducted in the developed world, especially in the United States, show that the general public generally perceives science as a beneficial force in human affairs. At the same time, those surveys show that public knowledge of the details of scientific knowledge is extremely low. Moreover, there is no simple relationship between knowledge and support; in some contexts, the more people know about science, the less they support it. Some analyses of large quantitative surveys suggest that, although scientists perceive of science as open investigation of nature, public perceptions of science have more practical images in mind; public perceptions make science look like medicine, an applied field that uses knowledge of the natural world to yield specific practical benefits. Further complicating the issue is a separate line of research suggesting that public perceptions of science are highly contextual, with people making judgments about the relative trust to be placed in traditional scientific expertise (which often is generated by government institutions) and in local knowledge based in the local context. In the United States, the importance of local context can be seen in the rejection of traditional scientific knowledge by some under-represented minority communities. For example, folk belief embedded in the African-American community attributes the AIDS epidemic to a deliberate attempt by the U.S. government to eradicate African-Americans; based on both general and specific instances of racism in the United States, this folk belief persists despite traditional scientific evidence pointing to a more natural origin of the disease. In another example, many low-income communities in the United States deeply distrust government scientists' statements regarding the risks of specific pollutants and chemical hazards; they are acutely aware that waste sites and other locations for hazardous materials are statistically much more likely to appear in low-income communities. Given these experiences in the developed world, scientists, scientific institutions, and government agencies in the developing world need to consider how they can build scientific communication programs that provide both solid technical information and opportunities for input and dialogue with local communities.

Public perception of science and anti-science:
science and counter culture

Sergei Kapitza
Institute for Physical Problems, Russian Academy of Sciences, Russia

In the modern world science, fundamental science should e seen as part of culture. If applied science is the basis of many industrial development and the input of science into the economy of our civilization is obvious and undisputed, the interaction with society, education and culture is much more complex and even controversial. On one hand science, natural sciences for that matter, have now developed into an international enterprise, transcending national borders and acquiring a global scale. On the other hand culture is coupled ever more strongly to the identity of nations and languages, to local traditions. Science is developing mainly in terms of specific field of knowledge, mainly connected by a common subject and assessed by the inner circle of colleagues. At the same time society, education to a great extent receive the message of science through interdisciplinary studies. Unfortunately, the way modern science is managed and funded these studies are not properly supported and recognized. These studies in most cases have a socially relevant message, that is poorly broadcast and understood by the layman and even those in power. This has become one of the reasons of the separation and loss of contact of science from society and human needs in a world of those who know and those who do not have access to knowledge. The lack of a human and cultural message of science has definitely contributed to the estrangement and even the divorce of science from society can be seen in many instances. First is the resurgence of consistent beliefs in ancient superstitions, whose origins go far back in human history, well before established religions came to be. At the same time the rejection of many modern developments, e.g. nuclear energy, genetic engineering is growing, on many occasions based on irrational fears and lack of understanding. In other words they very rate of modern development is such that the hardware of society changes much faster that its software. It is no accident that people fall back of outlived ideas, as nothing better is developed and has time to become part of our culture and understanding of the world and ourselves. This growing gap of ideas and things may be the reason for rejecting science and the spread of antiscientific attitudes. These trends are also seen in science itself, in a loss of identity and in the decreasing morale of scientists, caught in the rat race of a competitive world. Of even greater significance is the aftermath of the loss of trust and promise, if not the collapse of ideas, that up to the present gave guidance and hope. The rejection of reason and of a positive, if not positivistic attitude can be seen in postmodernist constructs. The often misguided and devoid of human content pronouncements of science and the lack of any proper understanding between the sciences, arrogantly calling themselves natural and exact, and the humanities has only complicated matters still further. It is in this setting that the present critical state of science is to be examined, drawing on recent experience of science in Russia and in the West.

Public Perception of Science:
Essentials and its Practice in China

Zhang Kaixun
Vice-President, CAST, Institute of Automation for Machine-Building, China

Public perception of science has direct bearing on social progress and national prosperity, as has been proved since ancient times, even long, long before the appearance of modern science.The influence of science on the society is determined by the level of development of science on the one hand, and by the extent of public understanding of science on the other. It is through the popularization of science that all scientific achievements without exception produces an enormous impact on the society.

Exploration is the life of science, while popularization provides science with a base for its existence and development. People love science precisely because it can be quickly turned into social wealth, into a precious kind of material and spiritual wealth. The power of science lies in popularization, which in a certain sense is the end result and ultimate aim of all scientific pursuits.

Today our world is confronted with the serious problem of public perception of science, which is exerting an influence upon the mankind on an enormous scale as never before ?upon economic prosperity, social progress and all individuals welfare. However, science is getting farther and farther beyond peoples common sense. It is difficult ?even for those with the richest imaginative power ?to get, merely by means of their experiences and instincts, an exact understanding of modern science and the changes brought about by it,for people to judge their values and meanings against the background of their experience and knowledge. The contradiction between functions of science and the lack of knowledge has aroused attention and concern among more and more people, who consider it to be a new challenge to the world today.

Since the modern science took its place in the world, tremendous progress made in science and technology, while bringing the mankind happiness, very often produces new problems with us and has negative influence on the society. The science and technology should be conditioned and judged by the humanism, the man’s rational and conscience, and derive from this basis the moral principles and the judgement of value with regard to the science and technology. For lack of control by these moral principles, science and its products could impair the human society and its future.

The science and humanism should ever have been deep and everlasting partners, and the science in the 21st century ought to be the one of their reunion and always lead the people to open the door of the paradise with their boundless wisdom.

At present in china, there are approximately two thousand kinds of popular science journals and around five thousand sorts of popular science books being published every year. A certain number of renowned research institutions and university laboratatories are regularly opened to the public, for the purpose of helping them to keep abreast of current scientific forward works and the activities of scientists.China has 340 million households owning more than 300 million domestic TVsets. The CCTV broadcasts its daily scientific programme at PM8:00, the peak viewing time, transmitting scientific knowledge with special channels, in their efforts to build up an " Information Expressway on the Air" between the science and the public.

Science centres: a motivational asset

Pelle Persson
Director, HEUREKA, Finland

Science centres are exhibition and activity centres devoted to explaining science to the general public. Depending on the definition, by 1999, there are about 1200 science centres in the world. The vast majority of these centres have existed for less than 20 years. Science centres are annually visited by > 180 million persons, an increase of 20 % over the past three years. In many countries, science centres and science museums are among the top tourist attractions. The sheer numbers implicate that something is going on in this field.

Science centres typically use interactive exhibits, involving their visitors in active experimentation. When working properly, this provides the visitor with a unique and thoughtfully devised opportunity to enter into a dialogue with nature itself. Although the majority of science centres deal mainly with natural sciences, there are centres presenting humanities and social sciences, as well. While the exhibits of science centres are often described as ‘hands on’, they certainly aim to be ‘brains on’: starting intellectual processes, solving problems and providing answers.

Research shows e.g. that science centre exhibitions enhance the motivation of school children. Museum visits are often memorable events that may be recalled even after decades, as interview studies show. Science centre professionals bear witness to even intensive learning experiences among visitors during exhibition visits, as evident from interaction with these visitors. Research shows that learning at different levels occurs in science centres, albeit the learning in an informal environment is highly personalized and individual. Science centres are mainly visited by families and groups, and a lot of social interaction occurs. Some researchers even talk about ‘family learning’ experiences.

The growth in size of the science centre industry, the increasing trends of visitors, and research on informal learning and visitor behaviour in science centres all suggest that science centres perform an important role in science communication, raising public awareness of science and enhancing the motivation of visitors to learn science.

Third World science:
a paradox of prestige and neglect

Martín Yriart Escuela de letras, Master CTS: Cultura y Comunicacion en Ciencia y Tecnologia, Spain

Science carries a lot of prestige in the Third World, to judge by my experience in Argentina and other Latin American countries. Whenever a native scientist obtains the Nobel Prize, he becomes a National celebrity. Even if he has been totally unknown for the most of the population –including most of the intellectual elite-- until the day before. Even if he has been working abroad for many years.

This prestige of science, though, has no correlate social support for scientific research and scientists. Though Jawahaial Nehru said half a century ago that India being a poor country, it could not afford the luxury of not doing scientific research, the message seems to have been lost in time. Developing countries invest less in science and education, both in absolute and relative terms.

There is even an internationally sanctioned ideology that Third World countries should not "waste" their money funding research, as exemplified by the World Bank document Argentina: From Stagnation to Growth of the early 90’s. Argentina at the time had three sciences Nobel Prize winners and a successful indigenous nuclear technology programme for peaceful users and was about to close the nuclear fuel cycle.

The globalisation of markets seems to reinforce this idea. Why waste time and resources in doing research, when you can freely import advanced technologies at international prices. There is a double answer.

One is an old Jewish proverb: If you so not care to do what you have to, to satisfy your own needs, why should others do it? There is science, the third world needs, and that today nobody else is ready to do. Vacancies, desertification, tropical agriculture.

The other is the highest and most advanced technology you import, the more you have to know about its basics, to make rational and responsible decisions about it, and to make the most advantage of it.

So in both cases you need science. But here is where the paradox arises: the effort is just not done.

Science in the third world is the Cinderella of public spending, to the extent that the Third World suffers an permanent haemorrhage of trained scientists who, having achieved an international level of professional competence, end up emigrating, not because of salaries, even though they are about the lowest in their local scale, but because of lack of funding for their laboratories, libraries and field work.

This paradox is also reflected in popular views about Science. Science is so prestigious that anything can be sold under its umbrella from horoscopes to nostrums to financial plans.

Popular ignorance about science can be found even in the higher government officials, such as the Crotoxina Affair showed, in which a few quack doctors persuaded the Argentine Government that they had found a care all for cancer. When some responsible academics warned that this was a scientific hoax, they were simply ignores. More then ten years later, the affair drags on.

To sum up, science in a third world country such as Argentina carries a great nominal prestige, but has little influence in public affairs and is but a vague mirage in the public mind, not connected to their daily life.

L'Afrique refuse-t-elle la science?

Gervais Mbarga
Université de Yaounde II, Cameroon

 

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