Science in Our Lives

Author(s): Bernie Hannigan
Document Type: Chapter
Year: 2002
Title of Publication: Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Eighth Report
Editor(s): Ann Marie Gray, Katrina Lloyd, Paula Devine, Gillian Robinson and Deirdre Heenan
Publisher: Pluto Press
Place of Publication: London
ISBN: 0 7453 1911 4
Pages: 56-69

Abbreviations: NILT - Northern Ireland Life and Times, NI - Northern Ireland

Background to the Research

  • The 1998 NILT survey included a series of questions designed to probe the public's interest in, and understanding of, science. The survey's interpretation of 'science' was broad, ranging from healthcare, through nature study, to nuclear power stations.
  • The influence of pseudoscientific topics such as astrology was also investigated, as were attitudes to the scientists themselves.

Research Approach

  • The data used by the author come from the 1998 NILT survey which began in 1998 and is carried out annually.
  • Each year, interviews are carried out with a random selection of adults (aged 18 years and over) who live in private households in NI.
  • The sample size for the 1998 NILT survey was 1,800 respondents - although some modules were asked of only half the sample.
  • The sample size for the module on science was 900 respondents.

Main Findings

  • Almost three quarters (73%) of respondents were interested in new scientific discoveries, 74% in new inventions and technologies, and 84% were interested in new medical discoveries.
  • However, only 41% of people would make a special point of watching television programmes about advances in medicine while programmes on stars and planets or new inventions and technology attract only 12% and 25% of watchers, respectively.
  • In addition, very few respondents have visited zoos, aquaria, safari or wildlife parks in the 12 months prior to the survey.
  • Despite the overwhelming non-participation in science, 75% of people agreed that science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier and more comfortable.
  • Only about half of all respondents perceived the benefits of science to outweigh the potential for harm.
  • With respect to scientific knowledge, correct responses to a short 'quiz' were mixed, ranging from 84% (the centre of the earth is very hot) to 41% (lasers work by focusing sound waves).
  • While 43% of respondents said they would have most confidence in a university-based scientist (most trusted) if they made a statement about 'mad cow disease' (BSE infection) only 1% said they would have confidence in a journalist (least trusted)
  • Over half of all respondents (54%) believed that the reason why scientists disagree on whether the presence of 'mad cow disease' makes it dangerous to eat British beef is that no-one has all the facts and only 6% thought it was because scientists have different political beliefs or different personal and career interests.
  • Just under half (49%) of all respondents thought that the reason why scientists disagree on whether living around nuclear power stations is safe is that, once again, no-one has all the facts.


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