PCST Network

Public Communication of Science and Technology


How much science does a citizen need to know?

Toss Gascoigne   Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

How much science does an ordinary citizen need to function in modern society? How important is it for them to know whether the sun goes round the Earth, or vice versa? To understand the difference between a bacterium and a virus? To be able to explain how aeroplanes fly, or the causes of climate change? Or to know the Second Law of Thermodynamics (as CP Snow suggested)?

Do they need to know facts, understand processes, or be good at using Google? In selecting numbers in a lottery, is it important for people to know that the chance of five consecutive numbers being drawn from the barrel is exactly the same as five random numbers? Is an appreciation of the scientific method enough? Is ignorance of basic science and the way scientists operate causing resistance to the introduction of policies on climate change, vaccination and fluoridisation of water?

The session will be in two parts: a. the presentation of results of a survey conducted at local, national and international levels; and b. A discussion among participants to tease out the ideas presented in the results, and attempt to arrive at a consensus decision.

The survey will use a questionnaire and focus groups. It will be conducted so the responses of different audiences can be distinguished (eg school-age children, scientists, members of the public, science communicators etc).

A copy of the full paper has not yet been submitted.