The State of Science – depends what you believe

The results of a major survey of people’s views of science have been released.

Taken globally the results aren’t wildly interesting – they are too averaged out. So we learn that almost half the world says that curiosity is the most important quality for scientists; and that the reason most people give for not pursuing a science career is that they didn’t study hard enough.

There are some surprises though. The survey of 14,000 people in 14 countries shows 35% of respondents saying they’re sceptical of science (up 3% since on last year). Just over a quarter of the world say they’re suspicious of the role of science over the next 20 years; and in the USA that number grows to one third.

More interesting than the global results are the differences between individual countries. Sadly, Australia was not surveyed – but we can still learn some things from looking at other countries.

For example, when people in China were asked which field they would start a career in today if they could choose, the top two answers were Computer Science and Engineering, Germans said the same. In the USA the top two were business and music. This stark difference does come with a word of warning – the survey asked which fields people thought they would find most satisfying – and that context might explain the difference.

The USA stands out especially in one area – fully 70% of respondents said that they only believe science that aligns with their personal beliefs. Only Canada had similar results and no other country came close to saying that. It’s possible to interpret that response in a number of different ways – but the result must lead into the high levels of scepticism about science in the USA and is disturbing.

There’s no way of knowing, but I have a horrible feeling that the same question asked in Australia would see result more closely aligned with the USA and Canada than with Germany and China.

You can filter the survey results on numerous criteria including income and sex. For example, when asked whether they would give up a smartphone or give up sex there were significant differences from country to country (although in all cases the smartphone went before sex for most people) and in all cases women were far more likely to sacrifice sex and keep their smartphone.

In the USA 70% said they’d give up their smartphone and 30% said they’d choose to give up sex. But when you break that down by the respondents’ sex, 82% of men were giving up the smartphone, while only 59% of women were making that choice. In contrast in Spain, only 9% of men would choose to sacrifice sex before their phone and only 17% of women made that choice. I’m not sure that says a lot about science but it does say something about sex in Spain.

The executive summary of the survey is here; or you can explore the results by country and theme here.

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