The public misunderstanding of science

There’s a survey out from the University of Michiagan, showing that the American public actually understands less about genes and gene therapy than it did in 1990. Actually, what the headline says, nicely illustrating its own point, is that the “Public knows no more about genetics than in 1990”. None of the questions are actually about genetics per se.

The other thing to notice is that the percentage of answers got right has actually diminished since 1990. It’s not that the public understands no more: by any measure, it gets a far smaller proportion of the answers right: in the 1990 survey, a little over a thousand people scored an average mean of 2.7/5 right — more or less what the macaques would do with their keyboards. In 2000, a sample of 1834 people got 1.9/5 questions right.

So ten years of science journalism, and of unprecedented hype about the human genome, conducted by some of the smartest people on the planet, have left the American public worse informed than it was before. I doubt the British case is much better. Life? Don’t talk to me about life.

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2 Responses to The public misunderstanding of science

  1. Jonathan says:

    Can genetic testing be used to predict whether a person will have retinoschisis, say? Failure to know the answer doesn’t debar you from participating in the civic debate on the new genetics. But failing to understand the question would.

    What the survey actually shows is the the public have become a great deal more optimistic about what is achievable with current genetic technology. There’s no evidence at all in the survey that people’s understanding of what the questions mean, and how the technology works, has reduced.

  2. Andrew says:

    But in this context “more optimistic” means “more wrong”. I doubt very much that people’s understanding of the technology, or of what genes are and how they work, could get very much lower. Admittedly, this survey doesn’t shw that on it’s own. But there have been plenty of other ones that do, including my favourite find, that a large proportion of Europeans believe that only genetically modified tomatoes have genes.

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