Australians ‘trust science, but not science news’

Survey findings reflect escalating scepticism of media in all its forms

August 4, 2022
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Simultaneous coronavirus and misinformation pandemics have clouded Australians’ attitudes to science, with most people revering it but few prepared to believe what they read about it.

A survey of more than 1,000 Australians suggests their esteem for science is strong, with 50 per cent saying it is “very important” to their everyday lives and 88 per cent professing “very high levels of trust” in it.

Nevertheless, 32 per cent of Australians say they are sceptical about science – up from 25 per cent last year – reflecting a broader mistrust of media old and new. Three-quarters of respondents complained about “widespread misinformation” in the mainstream news they encountered in print, radio, television and online.

Views about social media were even more damning, with 92 per cent of respondents saying misrepresentations and falsehoods were commonplace.

The figures come from the State of Science Index, an annual survey now conducted in 17 countries by manufacturing giant 3M. Australia joined the study in 2021, and Australia-specific findings have now been released as a prelude to National Science Week, which runs from 13 to 21 August.

Misha Schubert, chief executive of representative body Science & Technology Australia, warned that a “general wariness and distrust of information” would stoke public scepticism about science unless advocates and practitioners took steps to “safeguard” it.

“It’s more important than ever that we all help Australians to find credible, accurate and verified sources of scientific facts from reputable science experts,” Ms Schubert said.

Australian scepticism of science news largely reflects global norms, the survey suggests. Forty-three per cent of both Australian and global respondents said that they distrusted media outlets’ “political agendas”, and 39 per cent said there was too much political influence in science coverage.

About one-third said news items about science seldom included enough information about the research methodology to allow consumers to form considered opinions about its veracity.

The survey results also suggest that Australians were comparatively unimpressed by the science world’s efforts to battle Covid-19. Forty-six per cent of Australian respondents said coronavirus had not affected their views on science, compared with an average of 32 per cent across all 17 countries.

Just 7 per cent of Australians said that the pandemic and the response to it had inspired them to consider careers in science or technology, compared with a global average of 11 per cent.

Climate change may have a sharper impact on the Antipodean mindset, with the survey revealing palpable concern about the impacts of global warming. Almost two-thirds of Australian respondents said they feared that weather extremes fuelled by climate change could force themselves or their loved ones to abandon their homes at some stage in the future.

This finding, resulting from a question not asked in previous surveys, follows a string of unprecedented bushfires and floods in eastern Australia over the past three years.

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