Survey reveals 'significant gaps' in Canadians' understanding of science

To mark Science Literacy Week comes a new survey looking at just how science literate Canadians are — and it suggests there are some pretty big gaps in our comprehension.

40% think climate change science is unclear, 1 in 5 trust intuition over science on GMOs

An audience watches a demonstration at the Ontario Science Centre. A new survey from the OSC suggests some significant gaps in Canadians' scientific literacy. (Ontario Science Centre)

You may not know it, but Sept. 19-25 is Science Literacy Week in Canada. 

And it seems that's not all we don't know about science.

To mark the week comes a new survey looking at just how "science literate" Canadians are — which seems to suggest there are some pretty big gaps in our understanding. 

The survey comes from the Ontario Science Centre, and is based on an online poll by Leger of 1,578 Canadians. A probabilistic sample of this size would yield a margin of error of plus or minus 2.5 per cent, 19 times out of 20. 

It reveals what the Ontario Science Centre calls "significant gaps" in our understanding of issues like climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms. 

Maurice Bitran, the CEO and chief science officer at the Ontario Science Centre, spoke with CBC Radio about the results.

What did the survey focus on?

Ontario Science Centre CEO Maurice Bitran says Canadians as a whole need to be more science literate. (Ontario Science Centre)
It aimed to measure the difference in our perceived understanding of specific areas of science versus our actual understanding.

To do so, people were asked about science related to climate change, vaccinations and genetically modified organisms.

Bitran said they wanted to to ask about things people are familiar with and which are recognizable, but which fall into areas where the science is established.

"Our intent was to try to get a snapshot of the state of science literacy," he said. "These are very much in the  public's mind."

How confident were people in their knowledge?

The survey asked people to rate their own level of scientific knowledge — and most of us seem to think we have  a pretty good handle on science.

"That's part of the issue, that people tend to be fairly confident that they get it," Bitran said.

"But when you start asking more detailed questions, it becomes apparent that a large fraction of them don't have a good grasp of some basic issues about it."

What kinds of gaps did the survey find?

One of the biggest gaps in what we think we know as opposed to what we actually know was found in issues around climate change.

The survey asked people if they consider the science around climate change "unclear or unsettled."

A 2015 climate change demonstration in Quebec City. According to a new survey, two in five Canadians think the science around climate change is 'unclear.' (Mathieu Belanger/Reuters)
Eighty-five per cent of respondents thought they understood the basic science behind climate change. But 40 per cent also believed the science is unclear.

"In fact, there is a pretty strong consensus in the scientific community that it is pretty clear," Bitran said.

"Two in five still have doubts about it. So the gap is between the 85 per cent who think they understand, and the 40 per cent that really don't."

19 per cent believe in vaccines-autism link

Survey respondents were also asked about the persistent belief by some in a link between vaccinations and autism.

"This link has been discredited by the scientific community. Actually, it was a case of fraudulent reporting of scientific results," Bitran said.

Eighty-nine per cent of respondents felt they understood the science behind vaccinations well, and 71 per cent said they formed their opinions on vaccinations based on science.

Although a study linking autism and vaccines has been discredited, 19 per cent of Canadians still believe there is a connection, according to the Ontario Science Centre's science literacy survey. (CBC)
But nearly one in five — 19 per cent — also said they believe there is a link between vaccinations and autism.

1 in 5 trust 'intuition' over science on GMOs

Respondents were also asked if they thought genetically modified organisms (GMOs) were "good for their health." Here, only 19 per cent agreed they were, while 57 per cent disagreed.

But 19 per cent also said they relied on intuition, rather than science, in forming their opinions about GMOs.

While most people didn't agree genetically modified foods are healthy, 1 in 5 respondents in a new survey said they trust 'intuition' over science on GMOs. (Damian Dovarganes/Associated Press)
"There is a place for faith and for intuition in our lives, but I don't think it's in asking about the state of nature, or natural linkages," Bitran said.

"So if 19 per cent — one in five people — rely on intuition rather than science to decide things like vaccinating their kids, I think we have a problem."

Even so, Canadians may actually be doing better than most. A 2014 report ranked us the most scientifically literate people in the world — but still indicated fewer than half of us would be able to read and understand a newspaper article about a new scientific discovery.

For Bitran, the results of the new survey underscore a simple message.

"In order to be able to participate meaningfully in a science-based society like ours, we as a population need to be more science literate."


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