Survey shows healthy scepticism to fake science news online

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Fake news is a fascinatingly dangerous beast. One can plonk a few graphs in a tweet (without sources) and make rampant claims based on little to no evidence.

The danger is when folks consume this mess without thinking critically and we’re happy to say that more and more South Africans appear to be thinking critically about what they see online.

In its annual State of Science Index, 3M surveyed over 11 000 people including South Africans to gauge our opinions on science and how it can help inform solutions to our myriad problems. The survey was conducted in two parts, pre-pandemic and during the pandemic. We’ll be looking at the data acquired during the pandemic.

The highlight here is that the miscreants spreading fake news and misinformation about have less clout than they let on.

According to the survey results, 71 percent of respondents are sceptical of uncorroborated sources of scientific information including those from social media. More people are also sceptical of their colleagues spouting off fake news (64 percent in 2020 vs 57 percent in 2019) and most surprisingly, folks are sceptical of science information relayed by friends and family with 55 percent of respondents indicating they don’t trust their family.

As 3M points out, this presents an opportunity for trusted public and private sources to lead conversations about science online.

And this is where we meet something of a rock in the road.

Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths or STEM as they are collectively known isn’t appealing to the younger generation. The State of Science Index found that only 25 percent of people aged 18 – 38 planned to pursue a STEM-based career.

Even more concerning is that people from low income households are less likely to participate in STEM activities than high income households are.

With the above in mind, the question becomes why. Why aren’t more folks interested in STEM?

Truth be told that’s not a question one survey from one company can answer but the 3M study does make mention of something that could provided more insight. That something is access.

Of the 11 082 respondents to this survey, 17 percent said they were discouraged from pursuing science during primary or secondary school and the reasons behind this are alarming.

From that 17 percent, 36 percent indicated a lack of access to science classes at their school.

Perception matters

But worse than that is the respondents who were actively discouraged from pursing science in school because they were told they weren’t smart enough (34 percent) and that science was for nerds and geeks (25 percent). Gender and race also play a role in discouraging folks with 14 percent of respondents indicating their gender discouraged them and 8 percent of respondents indicating their race discouraged them.

This is heartbreaking. To think that in 2020 people are still clinging on to stereotypes that actively discourage folks from pursuing a career that may just benefit the entire world is beyond us.

And this is what makes stories about women and people of colour excelling in STEM fields so important. There is a need to shift the stereotypes that only men with grey beards and no hair can be scientists, engineers or mathematicians

To do that, however, there must be visible support from government and we aren’t talking about lip service here because perceptions are bad.

“The majority surveyed believe that the government was not meeting expectations in supporting science and felt that governments should be more involved in solving environmental issues today e.g., air quality and renewable energy. Yet, half (49 percent) rate government/politicians as doing a poor job in advocating for science,” reads an excerpt from the study.

It doesn’t matter if government is hosting science fares every weekend, the perception from the people is that they aren’t supportive enough.

This isn’t surprising given that the most many of us hear about maths and science is once a year when the Matric results are released.

Just like government pushed to get us to wear masks and be safe around others during this pandemic, we need that same energy championing STEM studies.

This is not to say that government isn’t doing anything but rather, that to most people it doesn’t look like it’s doing enough.

[Image – CC 0 Pixabay]

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz

Brendyn Lotz writes news, reviews, and opinion pieces for Hypertext. His interests include SMEs, innovation on the African continent, cybersecurity, blockchain, games, geek culture and YouTube.