A survey of over 2000 British adults finds that trust in genetics is high, and went up significantly during the pandemic. It also finds that there is a hunger for more coverage of genetics.
The pandemic has gone hand-in-hand with a much-increased public profile of science – genetics in particular. Be it the prominence of PCR testing or the development of vaccines, genetics has been in the spotlight in an unprecedented way. Given this, researchers from the Universities of Bath, Cambridge, Oxford, UCL, and Aberdeen wanted to know what the public felt about genetics and whether this new exposure of the science has made a difference.
In a study funded by the Genetics Society, they commissioned a survey of over 2000 randomly selected British adults through public polling company Kantar Public. The researchers found that as a baseline most people were trusting of genetic technologies before the pandemic. Nearly half (45%) reported they trusted it to work for the societal good. 37% were neutral on this question, while 18% said they did not, and only very few (1-2%) were strongly distrusting. A descriptive report with all the answers from the questionnaire is now available on the Genetics Society website, along the technical report with panel sample and questionnaire: https://genetics.org.uk/public-perception-of-genetics/
When asked if their trust in genetics had gone up through the pandemic, four times more people said their trust had increased than those who reported that it had gone down. (as a control, the same increase in trust was not seen for sciences that were not involved in the pandemic but might be confused with genetics e.g. geologists not geneticists). Trust in science more generally had strongly gone up with a third saying it had increased. Not only has trust in science gone up, but people also want to hear more about it. Less than 10% thought that there is too much coverage of the science in the media, while 44% reported that they want to hear more about it.
Co-lead Professor Laurence Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University of Bath commented “this is potentially important to know – scientists have a tendency to stick in their labs, but it looks like, for the most part, public not only trust us but that this trust has gone up somewhat and many want to hear more from us about our work.” As Professor Jonathan Pettitt, co-lead from the University of Aberdeen noted, “It is hard to see any upsides to the pandemic but perhaps this is one? We never knew that so many people wanted to hear more from scientists.” Prof Anne Ferguson-Smith, President of the Genetics Society and Professor in the Department of Genetics at Cambridge University reinforced this: “These results really challenge us to double our efforts. We need to rise to the new opportunity and the challenge created by the outcomes of this survey”.
However, co-lead Prof Alison Woollard of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Oxford, cautioned: “We think we have established the limits of science communication. Despite all the talk of PCR over the last many months, we found that 30% hadn’t heard the term or knew it was a tool for testing for the virus. It is hard to see how any science can have more exposure than PCR has had. We need to be realistic and understand that, no matter what, we will never reach everyone. For informing people about things like vaccines this is important to know. Dr Adam Rutherford from the UCL department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment, (and prominent public science communicator) notes that ‘We often hear that trust in science is at a low point, but what we found is that most people do trust the science of genetics as the basis of how we address global issues such as pandemics. However, scientists should not be complacent: we also found that the exposure of genetics during the pandemic made those suspicious of science more distrusting, despite the evidence. In a world where these voices can easily be amplified, we must be vigilant that our processes, methodologies and results are clearly and transparently communicated.
Dr Cristina Fonseca, project coordinator for the Genetics Society (the funders of the project), noted that “having a representative random survey is really vital and allows us insight into the true diversity of opinions.”
The survey also led to a research paper in PLOS Biology titled, ‘People with more extreme attitudes towards science have self-confidence in their understanding of science, even if this is not justified‘.
Why do people hold highly variable attitudes towards well-evidenced science? For many years researchers focused on what people know about science, thinking that “to know science is to love it”. But do people who think they know science actually know science? A new study publishing January 24th in the open access journal PLOS Biology by Cristina Fonseca of the Genetics Society, UK; Laurence Hurst of the Milner Centre for Evolution, University of Bath, UK; and colleagues, finds that people with strong attitudes tend to believe they understand science, while neutrals are less confident. Overall, the study revealed that that people with strong negative attitudes to science tend to be overconfident about their level of understanding.
Whether it be vaccines, climate change or GM foods, societally important science can evoke strong and opposing attitudes. Understanding how to communicate science requires an understanding of why people may hold such extremely different attitudes to the same underlying science. The new study performed a survey of over 2,000 UK adults, asking them both about their attitudes to science and their belief in their own understanding. A few prior analyses found that individuals that are negative towards science tend to have relatively low textbook knowledge but strong self-belief in their understanding. With this insight as foundational, the team sought to ask whether strong self-belief underpinned all strong attitudes.
The team focused on genetic science and asked attitudinal questions, such as: “Many claims about the benefits of modern genetic science are greatly exaggerated.” People could say how much they agreed or disagreed with such a statement. They also asked questions about how much they believe they understand about such science, including: “When you hear the term DNA, how would you rate your understanding of what the term means.” All individuals were scored from zero (they know they have no understanding) to one (they are confident they understand). The team discovered that those at the attitudinal extremes – both strongly supportive and strongly anti-science – have very high self-belief in their own understanding, while those answering neutrally do not.
Psychologically, the team suggest, this makes sense: to hold a strong opinion you need to strongly believe in the correctness of your understanding of the basic facts. The current team could replicate the prior results finding that those most negative tend also not to have high textbook knowledge. By contrast, those more accepting of science both believe they understand it and scored well on the textbook fact (true/false) questions.
When it was thought that what mattered most for scientific literacy was scientific knowledge, science communication focused on passing information from scientists to the public. However, this approach may not be successful, and in some cases can backfire. The present work suggests that working to address the discrepancies between what people know and what they believe they know may be a better strategy.
Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, President of the Genetics Society and co-author of the study comments, “Confronting negative attitudes towards science held by some people will likely involve deconstructing what they think they know about science and replacing it with more accurate understanding. This is quite challenging.”
Hurst concludes, “Why do some people hold strong attitudes to science whilst others are more neutral? We find that strong attitudes, both for and against, are underpinned by strong self confidence in knowledge about science.”
The Genetics Society, established 1919, is one of the world’s oldest societies devoted to the study of genetics and to the public understanding of genetics. It is an independent and unaffiliated charity.