Canadians: How is it possible that, in a year where we've seen record-breaking temperatures month after month—and in which the Arctic sea ice has shrunk to such an extent that a massive cruiseship managed to barge through the Northwest Passage this summer—a full 40 percent of us still thinks the science of climate change is "unclear or unsettled"?
This comes in a new Leger survey, done for the Ontario Science Centre to mark Canada's Science Literacy Week, which kicked off on Monday. The survey suggests we've got a long way to go before we can consider ourselves science literate, because according to this survey, 19 percent of Canadians—nearly one in five!—thinks there's a potential link between vaccination and autism, a link that's been disproven over and over. How is that number so high?
Another 19 percent of us reports that, when it comes to forming opinions on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), we'd rather trust our "intuition" than consult the science. The same number, just 19 percent, agreed that GMOs are good for us. Although some people might have their own reasons for opposing GMOs, such as not wanting multinationals to have vast control over the food supply, researchers have found no ill effects from consuming them.
This survey, which included a representative sample of 1,578 Canadians, and was completed online, was designed as a way to test out science literacy in Canada. As Maurice Bitran, CEO and Chief Science Officer of the Ontario Science Centre, told me: "For an organization like ours, that tries to bring science knowledge and literacy to the population, [these findings are] worrisome. I think science literacy is going down."
"Science literacy is important for democracy"
The survey found that Albertans were most likely to believe that the science behind global warming is unclear or unsettled—which is unfortunate, given that the province faced a wildfire that demolished Fort McMurray earlier this year. Warmer, drier weather conditions, which are linked to climate change, will cause more forest fires.
Albertans had the greatest understanding of vaccination in this survey. Quebeckers, meanwhile, were more likely to grasp the science of climate change. But people in this province also said they relied on their intuitions when forming opinions on vaccination and autism, and GMOs, instead of actual science.
If you still think vaccines cause autism, I don't believe that any amount of new scientific research will convince you otherwise. But if you're relying on your gut feeling to understand the science of climate change, well, you're doing it wrong.
It's worth noting that 85 percent of people in this survey still claimed that they understand the basic science of climate change—and then 40 percent of the same group called it "unclear or unsettled," so there's obviously some disconnect here. (Questions were asked in a nested fashion, Bitran explained, which allowed respondents to first say whether they understood the science of climate change, and then indicate whether they think it's "unclear or unsettled.")
The Arctic makes up over 40 percent of Canada's landmass—and that part of the world is experiencing climate change faster than nearly anywhere else. Scientists recently said the Arctic sea ice extent reached its second-lowest minimum on record this year. (It tied with 2007.) More important, though, are the long-term trends. One NASA analysis looked at 37 years of monthly sea ice in both the Arctic and Antarctic, and found that there hasn't been a record-high in the Arctic sea ice any month since 1986. Meanwhile, there were 75 new record lows.
Science literacy is more important now than ever. "It's important for democracy," Bitran said. "There's hardly any issue in public policy today that doesn't have a scientific component."
Even if Canadians are struggling to understand climate change, GMOs and vaccination, there's a bright spot here: Millennials get it. Those aged 18 to 34 were most likely to agree that GMOs are fine, and to disagree that the science of global warming is unclear.
There's hope for us yet.
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