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22/10/2014

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Well-informed women are critics of science

Richard Simon investigates

Advocates for science have stressed the importance of a well-informed public for maintaining a positive public attitude toward science and technology.  The Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, for example, is just one of several private and public organizations in theUnited Stateswhich promote science through the distribution of information and the funding of research aimed at enhancing public understanding of science. 

This sort of research has generally assumed that the more people understand science, the better they will like it.  However, this in turn assumes that people generally use information in the same way. The focus is on the correlation between attitudes and knowledge, downplaying the possibility that knowledge may be used differently by different groups in society.

Questioning gender differences

Most studies that investigate gender differences in attitudes toward science conclude that men are more supportive of science than women, and are also more informed about science than women are.  This has led researchers to conclude that, if women were to become as informed about scientific topics as men are, they would be equally supportive.  One policy implication from these studies is that, if more support for science is desired from women, they should be supplied with the correct information about scientific topics.

Recently, I became interested in doing more detailed investigations into gender differences in attitudes toward science and technology.  I was not convinced that a knowledge deficit was capturing the entire story on why women have different attitudes from men.  I began running analyses of the Eurobarometer 52.1 (a public opinion database featuring 15 European countries)1, attempting to find out how men and women formulate their opinions on biotechnology in different ways. 

More informed women less positive

I found that when women are more informed about biotechnology, they actually become less supportive of it.  Men, on the other hand, become more supportive with higher levels of knowledge. 

This means that men and women use knowledge differently.  Men’s attitudes about biotechnology become more positive when they have a better understanding of it; women’s attitudes become more negative when they have a better understanding of it.

This result makes sense in the light of men’s and women’s different experiences.  Women may be more likely than men to view biotechnology as an intrusion into nature, because it is more likely to intrude into their own lives rather than those of adult males and non-childbearing members of society. Many feminists have made public criticisms of reproductive technologies, arguing that they are ways of controlling female reproduction. 

This could explain why women who learn more about biotechnology become more negative towards it than women who know less about it.  Women who know more might be more likely to make connections with what they perceive to be its negative consequences.

Not by facts alone

This study suggests that we cannot assume that all groups will use knowledge about science and technology in the same way.  Science is a powerful institution, and different groups in society experience power in different ways.  Gender inequality gives women an incentive to be critical of institutions such as science and technology which have traditionally been dominated by men. Convincing the public that science is doing good, or at least more good than harm, goes beyond exposing them to facts and would involve an understanding of what science means to them and how it affects their lives.

Research suggests that women experience science and technology in ways that differ from men and so any explanation of how opinions are formed will have to take this difference into account.  Other sociological categories, such as race and class, may also prove to be important for understanding how the public thinks about science and technology.

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Richard M. Simon
Richard M. Simon is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Department of Sociology at Pennsylvania State University
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