A persistent idea in the minds of the lay public is that science is for kids, and a recent survey does nothing to reassure me that this saddening and restrictive notion is being overturned.
The survey is called the “State of Science Index” and was recently published by technology conglomerate 3M. The 15-minute survey was answered by roughly 1,000 people per country, with seven developed countries participating (Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Singapore, the United Kingdom, and the United States) and seven emerging ones (Brazil, China, India, Mexico, Poland, Saudi Arabia, and South Africa).
Some of the findings are encouraging: 32% of respondents would rather have dinner and a conversation with celebrity scientists rather than with pop culture stars or with a combination of the two. That’s not too shabby. (Then again, as this was a science survey, one can wonder about the role played by the desire to please.) Science is largely seen as delivering the goods, with two thirds of respondents thinking science will cure cancer in their lifetime (while a quarter believe the same can be said of teleportation).
However, my heart sank when I read that 86% reported knowing little to nothing about science. That’s a large majority. This survey also revealed that 44% of respondents in emerging economies agreed that “only geniuses can have a career in science”, while 29% of people in developed nations said the same. A lot of work remains, especially in developing countries, in order to challenge the stereotype of the scientist as an indecipherable intellect, a baffling boffin.
What was particularly interesting to me in this survey—and all too recognizable—was the different way that science is perceived by adults and children according to the adult respondents.
On the adult end, a quarter of the respondents don’t see the point in understanding science as adults, while over half report having been more excited about science as a child. Almost two out of five people said that, if science didn’t exist, their everyday lives wouldn’t be that different, which displays a lack of understanding of how scientific knowledge becomes technology.
With regards to children, however, almost every parent surveyed wanted their kids to learn more about science.
This ties into a trend I’ve written about before. Science centres seem to mainly (and perhaps purposefully) attract children and young families, to the exclusion of everyone else. A TripAdvisor comment for a science museum, which was highlighted in an annual report of the Ontario Science Centre, encapsulates the problem in a pithy quote: "My boyfriend [...] loved it and he is 27!” What a surprise that an adult actually enjoyed a fun science activity!
Science is not just for kids. Even if the mind-bending prospects of quantum entanglement don’t make your brain abuzz with delight, even if you don’t care that axial tilt is the reason for the changes in seasons, science feeds and informs the technology that we use. Will your MRI scan expose you to dangerous levels of radiation? No, because, unlike X-rays and CT scans, it doesn’t use ionizing radiation. It harnesses the power of a giant magnet to excite hydrogen atoms in your body. Sure, you could simply ask your doctor, but scientific knowledge is empowering.
Science can inform what you eat. Science can suggest what works for insect bites and what won’t cure you cold. Science tells you what is toxic to ingest and in which quantity (because, remember, it’s the dose that makes the poison). Science is there to tell us what is happening to our climate and what we could do to mitigate these changes. Science helps us develop better energy sources and teaches us to be skeptical of extraordinary claims.
While many adults remember the sense of wonder science evoked in them as a child, they seem to forget that science is much more than a simple trigger for our awe of the universe: it is the best tool we have to gain knowledge about the world and make enlightened decisions about our lives. It teaches us to carefully observe, to speculate aloud, to put our instincts and our hypotheses to the test and, perhaps most importantly, to change our beliefs in the face of good evidence. In an era of polarization and alternative facts, we should remind ourselves that science is not just for the little ones. We may have toyed with it as children, but this toy has grown up with us to become the sharpest and most reliable tool we have.
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