The role of Politics and Media in Public Understanding of Science


As much as science is well understood by scientists, they cannot create any impact with the knowledge without involving the public. In his interview with Science for the Twenty-First Century, Zhang Kaixun the vice president of CAST Institute of Automation for Machine-Building in China says that the public perception of science has direct bearing on social progress and national prosperity. This means that it is through the popularization of science that scientific achievements produce a significant impact on society. Since most of what happens in a country is guided or controlled by government policies, there are situations where these policies affect directly and indirectly the public understanding of science. Media on the other hand could be considered a unique means of communication between governments and the public. In effect, the manner of communication through media greatly influences the perception of science by the public.


Among the most popular headline-grabbing stories over the past few months, has been the issue of the outbreak and spread of Ebola. The virus first broke out in the west Africa and has killed thousands of people in its wake. Amidst the confusion, fear and panic caused by the pandemic, several controversies publicized in the media and associated with politics characterized the Ebola issue. Liberia was one of the first countries to be hit by Ebola and is also arguably one of the least economically developed countries in Africa known for its government corruption and civil war. Thus the world had no doubt that the effects the Ebola virus would have on the already weakened country would be detrimental. However, one difficulty that the Liberian government perhaps never anticipated was resistance from its citizens. When Ebola was initially identified in Liberia in March 2014, the Liberian government initiated plans that aimed to reduce the spread of Ebola. However, following years of mismanagement and corruption on the part of the government, warnings issued to citizens fell on deaf ears. Many Liberians believed that the Ebola virus was simply a hoax fabricated by the Sirleaf government to receive more foreign aid and enhance their political position. It is safe to conclude that although the government may have been committed to improving the public understanding regarding the issue of Ebola virus, its bruised reputation led to disregard of information by its citizens. The media also played a key role in feeding the unfounded beliefs of the Liberians. Several articles were written, giving rhetorical proof why Ebola did not exist and Liberians were given no reason to doubt these non-governmental and non-scientific claims.


In the US, a research done by the  US global Change Research Program in 2009 showed that many Americans perceive climate change as a distant problem that will primarily affect the future generations of people in other countries. As a result global warming is consistently ranked as a relatively low public priority, compared to a range of other national issues (Pew Research Center for the people and the Press, 2012). Moreover, global warming and the environment more generally, have become politically divisive issues. This polarization may be considered as the product of the use of media as a conduit for casting doubt on the science of climate change among ideologically receptive audiences- in this case, the public . Surveys and experimental research have found relationships between exposure to conservative information outlets and beliefs in global warming. For instance, Fox News and other news stories that present evidence questioning the certainty of climate change would contrast with an interview with a scientist commenting on the existence of global warming. All these inhibit the development of the public understanding that global warming is a note-worthy environmental issue.


The above events are evidences that at times, governments are not entirely committed to improving public understanding of science and this popular trend diminishes the trust of the public in government interpretation of science. Media more often contributes to hindering the improvement of public understanding of science as it offers a free platform for public expression of opinions, whether true or untrue, that inevitably affects the public’s perceptions of science.


For most people, understanding science is no longer, if indeed it ever was, a product of free choice or formal training. It has become a necessity for modernity. Almost every facet of life in advanced industrial societies is mediated by scientific knowledge and its far flung applications. Consequently, the effects of media and politics on the public understanding of science are a vital topic of consideration.


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