Socioeconomic Status May Determine A Person's Overall Understanding Of Science
July 7, 2014

Socioeconomic Status May Determine A Person’s Overall Understanding Of Science

Brett Smith for - Your Universe Online

Socioeconomic status may have an effect on the reading comprehension of science-related information, according to a new study from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Published in the journal Science Communication, the study found individuals with higher socioeconomic status tended to score better on tests of factual knowledge than those of lower socioeconomic status – despite the fact that both groups said they regularly read science new sites and blogs.

The study researchers didn’t give a reason for their findings, but speculated that some publications may be talking over the heads of those with less education, and therefore less status.

"The science section of The New York Times is not written for audiences with little or no prior knowledge of science and technology," said study author Dominique Brossard, professor and chair in the Department of Life Sciences Communication at the university. "Just putting more science in front of less-educated people may therefore confuse them rather than help them grasp complex science."

For their study, the scientists examined two approaches to measure a potential knowledge gap between the two status groups. They screened both the actual and perceived knowledge of people from high and low socioeconomic groups, with an emphasis on nanotechnology – a crucial, emerging scientific topic mostly free of partisan dispositions.

They scored a random sample of volunteers using their reactions to statements on nanotechnology, using a variety of answers from definitely true to likely true and definitely false. The scientists also asked volunteers to score on a 10-point scale how knowledgeable they felt they were regarding nanotechnology. The team then evaluated each group's scores against their levels of awareness of science and technology coverage in newspapers, television and blogs, and their level of involvement in discussions regarding science.

While higher socioeconomic volunteers felt they knew more on nanotechnology the more science they read in newspapers, their actual knowledge was also greater than regular newspaper readers in the low socioeconomic group, indicating a widened gap between them. Infrequent science readers scored low on actual knowledge, despite status.

The researchers noted that their study did not look into the cause for the gap and could only speculate. They theorized that people in lower socioeconomic circles may be getting their science news from biased sources that focus more on controversy than fact.

"We know people rely on their values and preexisting attitudes when confronted with science news," Brossard said.

Despite a potential negative effect of biased coverage – study author Dietram Scheufele, a life science communication professor, said the proliferation of science news on the web is mostly a good thing.

"Blogs and other ways of interacting online have allowed citizens to talk science in their own words, repurpose content from newspapers and work through it together,” he said. “As a result, blogs may be the perfect knowledge leveler for casual science audiences.”

Study author Leona Su, a graduate student at the Wisconsin-Madison, said people need to get the correct information when reading about science.

"It's important. People make science policy based on the existing data," Su said. "If you're not using the right measures, you won't be using the right data for policymaking."


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