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Poll suggests Canadian trust in science falling, scientists thought ‘elitist’

by Ace Damon
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Research suggests that Canadians' confidence in science may be eroding.

The search, by research firm Ipsos of multinational 3M, also found that nearly half of the researchers surveyed think they are elitist and that a significant number of participants disregard findings that do not agree with their personal beliefs.

"While science skeptics represent the minority of Canadians, their numbers are increasing," said Richard Chartrand of 3M Canada. "This trend is worrying because it shows that distrust is growing."

The Canadian numbers are from a global survey of more than 14,000 people between July and September 2018. This is the second year 3M does the research.

At a time when accelerating climate change and the loss of wildlife are putting science high on the public agenda, the survey found that 32% of respondents were skeptical about it. This was over 25% from the previous year.

"It went from one person in four to one person in three," said Chartrand. "It's hard for us to understand why."

The results of the study were conflicting. As doubt grew, nine out of ten respondents said they still trusted the survey results.

Answers to other questions showed that trust should be cautious.

Almost half – 44% – said they considered scientists "elitist". About a third thought that scientists were influenced by government agendas. Another third thought that science was influenced by corporate agendas.

And 30% said they believed only in science aligned with their personal beliefs.

Other findings echoed 3M-Ipsos's research.

A 2017 Leger survey for the Ontario Science Center found that 29% of respondents thought that because scientific theories are subject to challenges, they are unreliable. Another question suggested that 43% considered science a matter of opinion.

"It's depressing, but not too surprising," said John Smol, an ecologist at Queen's University who wrote about it. "There is a real disconnect between what scientists do and what the public perceives."

Smol fears that Canadians do not understand how science works – that data, not beliefs, is what counts and that science advances when old beliefs are modified, not supported by tacit consensus.

"There are certainly misconceptions," he said. "You can't blame them. It's a jungle of misinformation out there."

It's not all the fault of the public, said Stephen Johnstone, president of earth and atmospheric sciences at the University of Alberta.

"We have to make an effort to communicate in understandable terms," ​​he said.

"There used to be an ethic in science that the fewer people who really understood what you did, the better you are doing. This is changing."

Smol agreed.

"We have a real responsibility to make (science) accessible. We are still doing a relatively poor job of translating data – usually paid by taxpayers – and transmitting it to the public."

Research has shown curiosity about science. Almost all respondents thought the findings should be shared in easy-to-understand language and 88% wanted to know more about science.

"I look at these results and think they are very positive," said Johnstone. "People appreciate that science is a necessary thing. There is an insatiable appetite for science."

The bridge between the public and the lab must be bridged, Chartrand said.

"There is a clear message in this research."

This report from The Canadian Press was first published on September 23, 2019.

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