Public Attitudes to Science

Although not anti-science, people with a more religious or spiritual outlook on life are disproportionately more likely to highlight the limitations of science and to express reservations about the intentions of scientists. They are also the least convinced of the economic benefits of investing in science and that the Government has sufficient control over science and technology.

These are some of the principal conclusions drawn from a segmentation analysis which was applied to a very detailed survey of public attitudes to science undertaken on behalf of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills and published on 2 May. Fieldwork was conducted by Ipsos MORI through face-to-face interviews with 2,103 adults aged 16 and over in the UK between 11 October and 19 December 2010.

The religious outlook of the sample was determined not by direct questioning about their religious affiliation, beliefs or self-assessed religiosity but on the basis of their responses to a series of attitude statements impacting on science.

First of these (Q.16.2) was the statement ‘we depend too much on science and not enough on faith’. 29% agreed with this proposition, 46% disagreed, and 25% were neutral or did not know what to think. Particularly high levels of agreement were recorded among the 65-74s (37%), the over-75s (52%), BMEs (46%), the DE social group (40%), those with no educational qualifications (46%), those with no internet access (48%), and the cluster voicing concerns about science (45%). Dissentients were especially prominent among the AB social group (57%), those with a higher education (54%), readers of broadsheet newspapers (59%), Scots (52%), those informed about science (54%), and confident engagers with science (72%).

The next topic (Q.16.3) was whether ‘human beings have evolved from other animals’. 67% said that they had, 17% disagreed, and 15% expressed no firm opinion. Strongholds of evolutionism, where three-quarters or more agreed, were located among the 45-64s, the ABs, Scots, those with a higher education, readers of broadsheet newspapers, and confident and distrustful engagers with science. Creationism found greatest favour with BMEs (39%).     

Q.16.10 asked about the origins of life on earth in a different way, and was obviously deliberately separated from Q.16.3. It produced a much finer balance of public opinion, a useful illustration of the sensitivity of popular attitudes to variant question-wording. The statement was ‘God created the earth and all life in it’. 39% agreed, 37% disagreed, with 24% undecided. A strongly divine creation line was taken by the over-75s (62%), BMEs (74%), DEs (50%), Northern Irish (51%), those with no educational qualifications (52%), those without internet access (54%), those with concerns about science (59%), and those indifferent about it (50%). Dissentients concentrated among readers of broadsheet newspapers (47%) and the three most pro-science clusters (late adopters, confident engagers, and distrustful engagers).

Q.16.5 sought agreement with the statement ‘we are put on earth for a purpose’. 57% agreed with this view, 20% disagreed, and 23% took no position. The highest level of agreement was voiced by the over-75s (67%), BMEs (82%), DEs (66%), those with no educational qualifications (65%), those with no internet access (69%), and those concerned about science (74%). Respondents less likely to believe that there was a purpose to their existence included men, the ABs, and those with a higher education – all on 27% – and readers of broadsheet newspapers (29%), confident engagers with science (31%), and distrustful engagers with science (35%).

While this survey resurfaces the age-old tensions between science and religion, and demonstrates their linkage with ethnicity, it does not indicate that the UK is a particularly faith-based society. Asked unprompted in Q.1 which two or three issues in life were most important to them personally, only 3% mentioned their religion or faith, the same as in 2005 when the question was first put. The highest proportion (6%) was recorded among the over-75s and BMEs. Overall, friends and family (47%) topped the list of choices, with health on 25%, financial security on 20%, and career/employment on 16%.

The full data tables from this survey (with an unusually wide range of breaks by gender, age, ethnicity, working status, social grade, education, children in household, internet access, newspaper readership, country, region, science awareness and clustering) are available at:

http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/ipsos-mori-pas-2011-computer-tables.pdf

The segmentation analysis is discussed in chapter 8 of the main report on the survey, which can be found at:

http://www.ipsos-mori.com/Assets/Docs/Polls/sri-pas-2011-main-report.pdf


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3 Responses to Public Attitudes to Science

  1. Pingback: British Religion in Numbers: news

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  3. Iain Dunross says:

    The questions are ambiguous and might be interpreted in different ways by those with differing levels of language skills. The survey, whilst interesting, is flawed.

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