Canadians are confused about science vs. opinion, poll suggests

Are scientific findings a matter of opinion? Forty-three per cent of Canadians say they agree that they are, accoprding to a new poll whose results are being described as “worrisome.”

Almost half of survey respondents think the science of global warming is still unclear

A protester holds a sign reading "Ban GMO" (genetically modified organism) in the "March Against Monsanto" in Toronto in 2014. In a new poll, 52 per cent of Canadian respondents agreed that 'genetically modified organisms are bad for your health,' contrary to scientific consensus. (Mark Blinch/Reuters)

Are scientific findings a matter of opinion? Forty-three per cent of Canadians agree that they are, suggests a new poll.

The survey found widespread concerns about fake news — 66 per cent of respondents agreed with the statement that "false information reported as fact (so called 'fake news') is affecting your knowledge of science."

It also uncovered possible evidence of that happening, including a widespread belief in ideas contrary to scientific consensus:

"I think these are worrisome results," said Maurice Bitran, chief executive officer of the Ontario Science Centre, which commissioned the survey for Science Literacy Week, Sept. 18-24.

The Ontario Science Centre commissioned the survey on Canadians' attitudes toward science for Science Literacy Week, Sept. 18-24. (Ontario Science Centre)

Bitran said understanding science is important when it comes to making public policy decisions in a democracy like ours.

"If you think that climate change is one of the main issues that we face as a society, and almost half of us think that the science is still unclear when there's a pretty broad scientific consensus about it, this affects the chances that we have to act in a unified way about it."

He is concerned about some of the findings that suggest a lack of trust in science and media coverage of scientific issues such as:

  • 31 per cent of respondents agree that "because scientific ideas are fluid and subject to change, they can't be trusted."

  • 68 per cent agree that media coverage of scientific issues is "reported selectively to support news media objectives."

  • 59 per cent agree that media coverage of scientific issues is "presented to support a political position."

The survey was conducted by the research firm Leger. It polled 1,514 Canadians between Aug. 15 and 16. A sample of that size would normally yield a margin of error of +/-2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20.

Bitran said the fact that four in 10 Canadians think that science is a matter of opinion, "shows a lack of understanding of the scientific method."

But Dawn Sutherland, Canada Research Chair in Science Education in Cultural Contexts at the University of Winnipeg, thinks some of the survey's questions about scientific findings are flawed and not very helpful, as the statements that respondents had to agree or disagree with represent extremes and could contain more than one interpretation.

Good news

She noted that the survey did uncover some good news:

  • 82 per cent of respondents said they "would like to know more about science and how it affects our world."

  • 79 per cent agreed they're comfortable "knowing that scientific answers may not be definitive."

  • Respondents said they trusted museums and science centres (89 per cent), scientists and professors (88 per cent) and educational institutions (87 per cent) as sources of information, but far fewer said they trusted word of mouth (25 per cent) or social media (20 per cent.)

The poll suggests that Canadians may not have a good understanding of how science works. (Natee K Jindakum/Shutterstock)

Sutherland, who sat on an expert panel that produced a report on the State of Canada's Science Culture in 2014, said it's positive that Canadians understand that scientific knowledge contains inferences along with facts.

"And that as technology advances and new findings arise our understandings can change is great insight into how Canadian view science," she wrote in an email to CBC News. " Also, that Canadians have perhaps a healthy skepticism when it comes to information outside of traditional sources."

But she's concerned about the findings that many people have beliefs about GMOs, global warming and vaccinations that aren't supported by science.

She suggested that there's not enough reporting about such scientific issues in the mainstream news.

"Whereas, it seems that alternative, less scientific findings are more accessible."

Confusing media

Kelly Bronson, a University of Ottawa professor who has studied and written about science communication, said people are confused about where to go for reliable information and how to tell facts from beliefs.

She thinks the media are partly to blame for focusing too much on telling both sides of the story: "It doesn't help the public learn how to distinguish true knowledge from mere opinion, if both are given equal weight in a news story."

In many cases, while scientific consensus develops around matters like climate change, scientists coming from different backgrounds may generate findings that appear to conflict with one another.

"Those often find their way into the mass media and can be confusing for members of the general public who actually don't have a clue as to how science works."

The public may not realize that in science, conclusions are always probable rather than definitive, based on the best available evidence.

She added that certain players "actively try to use a certain degree of legitimate scientific uncertainty against these unsuspecting members of the general public" to spread misinformation and mistrust of science.

She thinks trusted sources like museums, educational institutions and even journalists need to do more to educate the public about "how scientific knowledge gets made."

Bitran says that's something the Ontario Science Centre is trying to do.


Emily Chung

Science and Technology Writer

Emily Chung covers science and technology for CBC News. She has previously worked as a digital journalist for CBC Ottawa and as an occasional producer at CBC's Quirks & Quarks. She has a PhD in chemistry.


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