Science Literacy Study: Facts Don't Always Shape Attitudes

A new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on how science literacy affects support for science caught my attention.

First, because petroleum geologists are interested in understanding how our science can better explain the risks and benefits of oil and gas exploration and production, as well as counter unsubstantiated claims of environmental harm. Second, the education of the next generation of petroleum and environmental geoscientists depends on government funding of university research.

The need for federal R&D funding is even greater with the recent decline in industry support; however, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports there has been a more than 30 percent decline in federal financial support for R&D since the late 1970s.

The study is “Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences” by the Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academies Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science. Readers may be interested in reviewing many elements of the report not mentioned here, including recommendations for future research.

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A new report from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) on how science literacy affects support for science caught my attention.

First, because petroleum geologists are interested in understanding how our science can better explain the risks and benefits of oil and gas exploration and production, as well as counter unsubstantiated claims of environmental harm. Second, the education of the next generation of petroleum and environmental geoscientists depends on government funding of university research.

The need for federal R&D funding is even greater with the recent decline in industry support; however, the American Association for the Advancement of Science reports there has been a more than 30 percent decline in federal financial support for R&D since the late 1970s.

The study is “Science Literacy: Concepts, Contexts, and Consequences” by the Board on Science Education, Division of Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education of the National Academies Committee on Science Literacy and Public Perception of Science. Readers may be interested in reviewing many elements of the report not mentioned here, including recommendations for future research.

The NAS study found a small, positive correlation between science literacy and support for science in general. However, increasing science literacy does not in itself lead to greater support for science. In addition, for controversial topics such as climate change, nanotechnology and GMO, the report found that factors such as values and beliefs strongly affect attitudes about scientific concerns.

Key Findings

So what is “science literacy”?

The NAS report suggests there may be more definitions than there are scientists. Many definitions include the idea that content knowledge is only part of science literacy. One definition the NAS offers is from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, Programme for International Student Assessment: “science literacy includes an interest in science and technology, environmental awareness, and valuing scientific approaches to inquiry.”

Separate studies by the National Science Board (NSB) find that:

  • About 80 percent of surveyed Americans agree that the federal government should fund scientific research, a figure unchanged over several decades.
  • About 90 percent of surveyed Americans have confidence in leaders of the scientific community.

Multinational comparisons show that U.S. adults’ knowledge of science and support for science are comparable to adults in other economically developed countries.

Science Literacy, Among Other Factors

To help explain why increasing science literacy does not lead to greater support for science, the NAS cited studies showing that knowledge does not directly correlate with support, but is moderated by ideology, such as liberal-conservative political orientation, religiosity, media use or trust in the information providers.

An example applicable to petroleum geologists’ interests, although not cited by the NAS, is a March 2016 Gallup poll that shows 51 percent of Americans oppose hydraulic fracturing, up from 40 percent in 2015. This survey ties opinions about hydraulic fracturing to political affiliation, finding that Republicans’ support is higher than that of Democrats and independents, although Republican support declined significantly since 2015 – from 66 to 55 percent.

Other studies suggest there are two separate discussions going on in the United States with regard to hydraulic fracturing. A 2014 paper by Charles Davis and Jonathan M. Fisk titled “Energy Abundance or Environmental Worries? Analyzing Public Support for Fracking in the United States” found that Democrats view it as an environmental rather than an energy issue. I notice that the American Petroleum Institute “Vote4Energy” campaign presents hydraulic fracturing as an energy and economic issue, which are values favored by the right.

In addition, research by Gordon Gauchat in 2015, who is one scientist cited by the NAS, found that for politically conservative individuals – who tend to oppose government control over private business – the growing ties between science and regulation since the 1970s has weakened support for government-funded science.

Religious beliefs may also affect scientific attitudes. Many studies show a correlation between conservative religious beliefs and negative perceptions of science.

Confirmation Bias

Another important element many of us notice is that access to information and misinformation has increased with the growth of new electronic media. Social media also help celebrities and other non-experts flood the public with information, misinformation and opinions.

The NAS report looked at health literacy, which is a way to understand science literacy and appreciate why providing additional information seems to not affect attitudes – other factors may affect attitudes and additional knowledge may simply reinforce existing attitudes. The NAS assessment of the relationship between health literacy and behaviors suggests that social norms, personal habits or access to services affect health behavior. We all know people who don’t follow their doctor’s recommendations, but we expect that just explaining the facts about hydraulic fracturing will change attitudes.

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