Public Understanding of Science

In the contemporary world of advancements in science and technology, the role of the citizens that can make educated and scientific decisions remains very crucial for the development of states. The effectiveness of these educated and scientific decisions can be ensured if the population of a region has an understanding of the scientific knowledge and the respective social barriers and cultural constraints do not resist the scientific decisions.  In another way, scientific decisions can be ensured only if the understanding of science exist among both the decision-makers and decision followers. However, certain opinions challenge scientific arguments and their credibility. Although the scientist and engineers claim that science is the interpretation and reflection of nature and facts. However, the critiques of science argue that the scientific knowledge might subject to certain factors related to the limitation of human beings to observe the natural phenomenon and psychological factor that create an impact over the interpretive and reflective abilities of the scientists and engineers. Due to these contradictory opinions, the public understanding of science emerges as an eternal challenge for scientists. However, extensive research over this topic can help the development of the public understanding of science through suggestions for the educators, media specialists and the experts of scientific knowledge who communicate their scientific achievements via seminaries and publications.

Significance and Limitations of Scientific Understanding

The primary limitation in the context of scientific understanding is the lack of scientific literacy. The lack of scientific literacy among the public most often emerges as a factor of resistance for scientific knowledge. Although the educated class of the global population understands the need and worth of the science and scientific knowledge both at individual and social levels. However, a wide range of global population still resists scientific knowledge and its application due to cultural and religious beliefs. The impact of the religion over the propagation of scientific knowledge and the relationship between religiosity and scientific understanding can be observed based on five orientations that included confidence of the masses over scientific knowledge, trust over the scientific opinions if it contradicts the religious point of view, faith in scientific knowledge, judgements concerning morale effects of science overs society, and interest of masses in the scientific knowledge. The research reveals that the relationship between the religiosity and the orientation of the people toward scientific knowledge varies among different geographies. In most of the geographies of the world, religiosity is negatively related to the understanding of scientific knowledge. Geographies that are strongly affiliated to the religious beliefs and norms portray a negative orientation towards the scientific knowledge and contrary to this the unaffiliated regions depict a positive orientation. As an example, the western countries, due to their less affiliation towards religion are more flexible towards scientific opinions. Meanwhile, the lack of the understanding of the scientific mechanism is not always the reason behind the problems related to acceptance of scientific knowledge. For instance, in the case of vaccination, it has been reported that many parents despite having significant knowledge of the vaccination and its benefits oppose the vaccination and decide not to vaccinate their children. The reason is that they are either convinced by the opposing opinions originating from non-medical sources or they misunderstand the individual and social benefits of vaccination. The values of the cultural community most often emerge as the key reason behind these misunderstanding of the scientific concepts.

Apart from cultural and religious perspectives, the knowledge deficit is one of the key reasons that restrict individuals to understand and accept scientific claims. In a broader sense, the knowledge deficit can be understood in terms of the lack of psychomotor ability and cognitive information to accept innovative ideas and justified opinions. Knowledge deficits can be dealt with the help of experts. The individuals suffering from knowledge deficits should either themselves rely on an expert to understand the scientific knowledge or the experts should initiate an endeavour that aims to reduce knowledge deficit among the public.

Brief Interventions and Public Understanding of Science  

Brief interventions are identified as key sources of developing public understanding of science. The concept of the brief intervention refers to the teaching and counselling approaches towards the enhancement of the public understanding of the science. In this approach, individuals are convinced to believe scientific opinions by educating them and explaining the scientific concepts to them. For instance, brief videos are created to teach the mechanism of the greenhouse effect on the audience and enhance public awareness concerning climate changes. Brief videos gave birth to significant changes in human behaviour concerning the acceptance of scientific opinions on climate change. However, brief interventions are being criticized mentioning it as an incomplete and ineffective approach to problem-solving.  The efficiency of these remedies are based over just addition of knowledge to enhance public understanding and can be questioned due to several drawbacks.  For instance, if the addition of knowledge was sufficient in the context of developing public understanding of science the class of population that belongs to higher knowledge levels should have a strong correlation concerning the acceptance of the concepts of the evolution and climate change however the ground realities are different since several sources report that the people associated to higher knowledge and education levels depict a negative correlation concerning the acceptance of scientific opinions like evolution, vaccination, and climate change. Therefore, real-life experiences can be observed as a better approach in this regard. For instance, in the case of climate change, the acceptance of climate change showed a drastic increase after the tragedy of Hurricane Sandy.  This means that the practical and real-life applications of the scientific opinions matter a lot compared to the theoretical concepts that are most often rejected even by the educated class of the population. However, the problem persists since laypersons or the people at the base of the economic pyramid cannot access the scientific knowledge nor they have the cognitive and psychological abilities to understand the scientific opinions. Even the educated class of the population lack the abilities to understand the insights of scientific knowledge compared to the experts of the science so they cannot understand the scientific opinions at a level where the experts of sciences expect them to understand the scientific concepts. As a result of this, the individuals most often make decisions about scientific issues, health issues or similar matters based on the standards of their knowledge level concerning scientific concepts and these decisions most often contradict the scientific opinions.

Uncertainty in Scientific Knowledge and Public Understanding of Science  

The nature of scientific studies is based on the opinion that knowledge is uncertain and can be revised and refurbished. The systematic study approach adopted in science reflects that scientific ideas are subject to variations and most often science is not able to provide satisfactory answers to all the questions. The scientific studies are most often based over approximations while describing the phenomenon in the environment and the concepts and opinions are revised if the new information is available therefore the scientific concept keep modifying with respect to time. Such uncertainties and variations in scientific opinions most often emerge as a valid reason for the resistance of the scientific opinions from a public point of view. For instance, the literature on scientific uncertainty about global climate change and its impact over public opinion remained a noticeable theme over the years. Scientific uncertainty in this regard expanded the gap between public opinion and scientific opinion on global warming and climate changes. This ultimately resulted into a negative response from the public related to the climate change instead of encouraging and provoking them to be conscious about the harsh consequences of the global warming and climate change that can affect the future of the earth and its residents.

Epistemic Cognition and public understanding of science

Epistemic cognition refers to the beliefs of individuals about their enlightenment and knowledge and their utilization for the development of reasoning and judgements towards an opinion. This cognitive ability of human beings influences their learning behaviours more particularly while making judgements regarding competing opinions. Research shows that a focus on this psychological aspect of learning and grasping opinions can be effectively utilized in the context of the development of the understanding of science among the students. There exist certain educational practices that refine the abilities of learners to question not only the facts they are aware of but also the way they got aware of these facts. An individual’s perception of credibility is a key building block of scientific opinions about vaccines, climate change and age of the earth. Therefore the identification of the approaches to build epistemic cognition of individuals in a way that they may not resist scientific opinions remains crucial to address the challenges related to public understanding of science. 

Author Info

MAZHAR ALI
AUTHOR IS A POSTGRADUATE FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF INDUSTRIAL ENGINEERING, UNIVERSITY OF ENGINEERING AND TECHNOLOGY, TAXILA, PAKISTAN WHERE HE RECEIVED HIS BACHELORS’S IN 2017. HE IS THE AUTHOR OF A COUPLE OF JOURNAL ARTICLES ALONG WITH SOME CONFERENCE PAPERS. HIS RESEARCH INTERESTS INCLUDE ENGINEERING MANAGEMENT, PROJECT MANAGEMENT, OPTIMIZATION TECHNIQUES, AND PROJECT SCHEDULING AND ALGORITHMS
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Public Understanding of Science
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Public Understanding of Science
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