A Survey of Perceptions of Science in Europe

By Oystein Elgaroy,

I listened to an interesting talk by professor Svein Sjøberg today.  His field of expertise is science education, and in his talk he presented results from surveys concerning public perceptions of science and scientists.  One survey carried out regularly by the EU among the adult population (Eurobarometer) and one world-wide survey carried out among 15-year old schoolchildren (ROSE).  One nice feature was that many questions were common to the two surveys, so that it was possible to look for differences in the attitudes to science and technology between adults and children.

On the positive side, the adult population seems to have great confidence in science and technology as the way to improve life and society.  And they consider scientists to be the most trustworthy sources of information.  I am almost tempted to say “Well, duh!” to these results, but the corresponding results among the 15-year olds shows that this is not something to be taken for granted.

In developing countries children have great faith in science and technology as a force for good, but in the developed countries the ROSE survey uncovered a widespread skepticism to science and scientists.  And girls were in general more skeptical than boys.  Children in developed countries also found science as a subject in school less interesting and few thought of science as an interesting career path.

Surveys should always be taken with a grain of salt.  Sjøberg himself mentioned an interesting point from the Eurobarometer survey which has been carried out regularly over a number of years.  In one question the participants were asked to rank several subjects according to how “scientific” they considered them to be.  The subjects included both astronomy and astrology, and depressingly they were both ranked at around 40 on a scale from 1 to 100, where 100 represented the most scientific.  But when Sjøberg changed “astrology” to “horoscopes” in the questionnaire, the approval rating for astronomy went up to about 80, whereas “horoscopes” went down to about 10.  A lot of people don’t know the difference between astronomy and astrology, but at least they don’t have much faith in the results of astrology.

If the results uncovered by the ROSE survey represent a true trend among young people in the developed world, we may have a problem at our hands in a few years. There is no quick and easy fix for this, but we have to come up with countermeasures.  I suspect the quality of science education in elementary schools is part of the problem.  It is important to attract more people with science degrees to become teachers.

If you are interested in more results from the ROSE survey you can go to http://www.ils.uio.no/english/rose/

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2 Responses to “A Survey of Perceptions of Science in Europe”

  1. Styrer Says:

    Took a quick look at the ROSE questionaire and it seems very comprehensive. Are adjustments made to it frequently in light of answers received?

    The trend shown is certainly worrying, though there is some counterintuitive hope in the fact you mention that developing countries’ children have more confidence in science’s benefits than do children in developed countries. I think you nail the problem in saying that it is lack of quality in science education in elementary schools. Developing countries’ governments should pay attention to this so as not to follow our so-called ‘civilized’ countries’ terrible example.

    A thought-provoking piece.

    Styrer

  2. Oystein Says:

    Styrer –

    they are still awaiting results from a few countries, but apart from that the ROSE survey is complete. I am sure there will be a follow-up in a few years.

    One thing I should mention is that the ROSE survey was restricted to 15-year old schoolchildren. For industrialized countries this is more or less the same as all 15-year olds, but in developing countries I guess the situation is very different, unfortunately.
    Making sure that children everywhere get a decent education is an important and urgent task for the international community.

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