Science good, but 30% don’t know who to trust

A survey undertaken by ANU’s Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) has found that 20% of respondents did not know who to trust on science and technology, and 9% did not trust anyone.

The reverse was true of religious leaders, with only 11% trusting them for scientific information.

The How do Australians engage with science? survey was commissioned by Inspiring Australia, a program set up in 2010 to “deliver a more scientifically engaged Australia”.

The current report presents the preliminary findings from a national survey of 1020 Australians over the age of 18. It found 80% of participants agreed that science was very important to solving many of the problems facing us as a society today, yet only 49% could name an Australian achievement in science and technology.

The most often cited topics involving science that interested respondents were medicine (research and technology), environment, health, astronomy and innovations.

Half indicated that there are things they would like to know more about with regards to science and technology, with the internet being the most popular initial source of information for those searching for information about science or technology (more than four-in-five mentioned the internet or an internet search engine). Two-in-five said that they get enough information about technology from the media, while a third thought the same source gave them enough information about science.

When asked unprompted who their most trusted sources of information were, friends and family (12%) and CSIRO (also 12%) were the most commonly mentioned. A cause for concern was the finding that 30% of the respondents either did not know who to trust (21%) or did not trust anyone (9%).

Those with higher levels of education were less likely to say ‘don’t know’ (13% did so compared with 23% of those without a bachelor’s degree) and were less likely to indicate that they did not trust anyone (5% compared with 11% of those without a bachelor’s degree).

“It’s heartening that people do talk about and participate in science and technology,” says Dr Suzette Searle from CPAS, who designed the study. “But we need to find out more about why people didn’t know who to trust.”

From a presented list of nine different types of people, scientists were the most trusted groups of people to explain the impacts of scientific or technological advances. The most trusted of the different groups tested was well known scientists such as Nobel Prize winners or Australians of the Year (82%), followed by CSIRO scientists (78%) and Australia’s Chief Scientists (75%).

There were three types of professionals where a greater proportion selected a ‘don’t trust’ rating than ‘trust’. For Government politicians responsible for science at the State or federal government level, 15% gave a ‘trust’ rating while 42% gave a ‘don’t trust’ rating (the remaining 41% gave a neutral rating). Similarly for radio talkback presenters or commentators, where 14% gave a trust rating and 45% gave a ‘don’t trust’ rating (again, 41% gave a more neutral score).

The least trusted group to explain the impacts of scientific or technological advances was religious leaders, where around one-in-ten (11%) gave a ‘trust’ rating and more than half (57%) gave a ‘don’t trust’ rating.

The report can be downloaded here.