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Attitudes to biotechnology: estimating the opinions of a better informed public

Attitudes to biotechnology: estimating the opinions of a better informed public
Attitudes to biotechnology: estimating the opinions of a better informed public
Public familiarity with basic scientific concepts and principles has been proposed as essential for effective democratic decision-making (Miller, 1998). Empirical research, however, finds that public ‘scientific literacy’ is generally low, falling well short of what normative criteria would consider ‘acceptable’. This has prompted calls to better engage, educate and inform the public on scientific matters, with the additional, usually implicit assumption that a knowledgeable citizenry should express more supportive and favourable attitudes toward science. Research investigating the notion that ‘to know science is to love it’ has provided only weak empirical support and has itself been criticised for representing science and technology as a unified and homogenous entity. In practice, it is argued, how knowledge impacts on the favourability of attitudes will depend on a multiplicity of factors, not least of which is the particular area of science in question and the technologies to which it gives rise (Evans & Durant, 1992). This article uses a new method for examining the knowledge-attitude nexus on a prominent area of 21st century science—biotechnology. The idea that greater scientific knowledge can engender change in the favourability of attitudes toward specific areas of science is investigated using data from the 2000 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 1999 Wellcome Consultative Panel on Gene Therapy. Together the surveys measure public opinion on particular applications of genetic technologies, including gene therapy and the use of genetic data, as well as more general attitudes towards genetic research. We focus our analysis on how two different measures of knowledge impact on these attitudes; one a general measure of scientific knowledge, the other relating specifically to knowledge of modern genetic science. We investigate what impact these knowledge domains have on attitudes towards biotechnology using a regression-based modelling technique (Bartels, 1996; Althaus, 1998; Sturgis, 2003). Controlling for a range of socio-demographic characteristics, we provide estimates of what collective and individual opinion would look like if everyone were as knowledgeable as the currently best-informed members of the general public on the knowledge domains in question. Our findings demonstrate that scientific knowledge does appear to have an important role in determining individual and group attitudes to genetic science. However, we find no support for a simple ‘deficit model’ of public understanding, as the nature of the relationship itself depends on the application of biotechnology in question and the social location of the individual.

34-56
Sturgis, Patrick
b9f6b40c-50d2-4117-805a-577b501d0b3c
Cooper, Helen
db1ca58e-e219-47ac-ba75-f402c81d2e81
Fife-Schaw, Chris
0396dae8-1cb2-4b4b-b1da-2ccd137e3565
Sturgis, Patrick
b9f6b40c-50d2-4117-805a-577b501d0b3c
Cooper, Helen
db1ca58e-e219-47ac-ba75-f402c81d2e81
Fife-Schaw, Chris
0396dae8-1cb2-4b4b-b1da-2ccd137e3565

Sturgis, Patrick, Cooper, Helen and Fife-Schaw, Chris (2005) Attitudes to biotechnology: estimating the opinions of a better informed public. New Genetics and Society, 24 (1), 34-56. (doi:10.1080/14636770500037693).

Record type: Article

Abstract

Public familiarity with basic scientific concepts and principles has been proposed as essential for effective democratic decision-making (Miller, 1998). Empirical research, however, finds that public ‘scientific literacy’ is generally low, falling well short of what normative criteria would consider ‘acceptable’. This has prompted calls to better engage, educate and inform the public on scientific matters, with the additional, usually implicit assumption that a knowledgeable citizenry should express more supportive and favourable attitudes toward science. Research investigating the notion that ‘to know science is to love it’ has provided only weak empirical support and has itself been criticised for representing science and technology as a unified and homogenous entity. In practice, it is argued, how knowledge impacts on the favourability of attitudes will depend on a multiplicity of factors, not least of which is the particular area of science in question and the technologies to which it gives rise (Evans & Durant, 1992). This article uses a new method for examining the knowledge-attitude nexus on a prominent area of 21st century science—biotechnology. The idea that greater scientific knowledge can engender change in the favourability of attitudes toward specific areas of science is investigated using data from the 2000 British Social Attitudes Survey and the 1999 Wellcome Consultative Panel on Gene Therapy. Together the surveys measure public opinion on particular applications of genetic technologies, including gene therapy and the use of genetic data, as well as more general attitudes towards genetic research. We focus our analysis on how two different measures of knowledge impact on these attitudes; one a general measure of scientific knowledge, the other relating specifically to knowledge of modern genetic science. We investigate what impact these knowledge domains have on attitudes towards biotechnology using a regression-based modelling technique (Bartels, 1996; Althaus, 1998; Sturgis, 2003). Controlling for a range of socio-demographic characteristics, we provide estimates of what collective and individual opinion would look like if everyone were as knowledgeable as the currently best-informed members of the general public on the knowledge domains in question. Our findings demonstrate that scientific knowledge does appear to have an important role in determining individual and group attitudes to genetic science. However, we find no support for a simple ‘deficit model’ of public understanding, as the nature of the relationship itself depends on the application of biotechnology in question and the social location of the individual.

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Published date: 2005

Identifiers

Local EPrints ID: 80186
URI: https://eprints.soton.ac.uk/id/eprint/80186
PURE UUID: 3c8f7e28-0b81-4e1d-addb-985b4bd5f438
ORCID for Patrick Sturgis: ORCID iD orcid.org/0000-0003-1180-3493

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Date deposited: 24 Mar 2010
Last modified: 15 Jan 2019 01:33

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