EVERY now and again, some newspaper or other runs a story lamenting the pig ignorance of the general public. In the run-up to the 2015 general election in the UK, for example, the Independentreported that 59 per cent of people in the country could not name the current prime minister. The Daily Mirror later reported a “shock” geography poll that found “ignorant Brits couldn’t find France or the USA on a map”.
The credibility of these surveys has to be questioned – is it really plausible that six out of 10 British people do not know who the PM is? But they chime with a widespread belief that the great unwashed are really, horribly unwashed – obsessed with trivia and celebrities and wilfully ignorant of almost anything that matters. The thinking is that more people can probably name the cast of Made in Chelsea: Croatia or the stars of the Croatian football team than know anything about Croatian history or politics.
In recent years this belief in mass ignorance has morphed into something more insidious. People are no longer ill-informed, they are well-misinformed. Echo chambers and lying politicians have ushered in an age of “alternative facts”. People have been given permission to believe whatever they want, and a cesspit of fake news to float their false beliefs upon. We thus live in a world where the US president can claim that authoritative reports of the death toll from a hurricane were fabricated by his opponents – and get away with it.
Against this background you might expect public knowledge of science to be woeful. When we decided to conduct a survey of attitudes to science, technology, medicine and the environment, we feared finding that to be the case. But the results are a breath of fresh air.
“Our survey reveals that the public has a surprising level of knowledge and appreciation of the issues”
Our 2018 New Scientist Asks The Public survey – carried out with a representative sample of the UK population – reveals a high level of knowledge and appreciation of the debates (see “Revealed: What the UK public really thinks about the future of science”). The four issues that the British public think are most likely to have an impact on our lives are artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, cancer and climate change. A poll conducted among experts would probably pick at least three of those. On climate change especially, the public are way ahead of their elected representatives, regarding it as both very real and very dangerous.
Another surprise is that people have serious misgivings about the technology that has done much to create the post-truth world. Social media inspires more concern than optimism, with the number one worry being fake news.
Our survey thus suggests that misinformation and its sources are less influential than is widely believed. People are, on the whole, better informed and more discerning than they are given credit for, capable of sorting fact from fiction and sensitive to the credibility of information sources.
It would be an overstatement to say that this survey reveals the post-truth age to be yet more fake news, or that the tide is turning against it. But it is food for thought for those who believe the public can be endlessly duped, and a comfort to people who care about such quaint values as evidence and fact.
This article appeared in print under the headline “General ignorance?”
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