Thank you to everyone who took part in the survey of science readers we ran a couple weeks ago. It will take us some time to think about how to use what you’ve told us, but we can definitely let you know what you told us about yourself.
To begin with, you’re generous. Well over 9,000 of you took the time to fill out the survey, and about 3,500 of you shared additional details via a text field. Public opinion companies would kill to have access to a test group like that.
Can’t get enough
Sort of. They would if you weren’t so… weird. One of our hopes was that we might hear from people who aren’t very interested in science but might occasionally read an article if it was pitched the right way. We didn’t. There were nine people who said they were either indifferent to science news or avoided it. That’s not nine percent of 9,000—it’s nine total. Nearly 70 percent said they were very interested in science, and another 23 percent said they do it for a living.
And you also think it’s important. Over half of you said you need to know both science and technology in the current world, and another quarter said not knowing it made your life harder. Twice as many people said you need to know science as said that about technology.
Your interest in science isn’t driven by any one thing. When asked for a single item that grabs you the most, 34 percent said they want to understand how things work, and another 21 percent want to learn about the natural world. Informing policy, creating a better world, and driving new technology all scored above 10 percent. Only one percent said it made their daily lives better, and another one percent sent in a text answer. The vast majority of those wanted to choose “all of the above,” though answers included things like “I want to be an evil scientist” and “How it blows things up.”
When asked what you like learning about the most, your interests were equally broad. No single answer made it to 25 percent of the responses, and all of them were over five percent. “All of the above” variants dominated the “other” selections, typified by “CANNOT PICK JUST ONE. MUST HAVE ALL OF THESE” and “This is like asking to pick your favorite child.”
Optimism + cynicism
That said, you’re not naive about things. When asked about general media coverage of science, 42 percent said it was too sensationalist, and the biggest complaint in a separate question was that unproven tech gets too much coverage (36 percent of respondents). You like knowing about science so much that a third of you complained that most media coverage is too superficial; only two percent said it’s good. “Other” answers in complaints about the media were dominated by “everything option but good”-style answers (e.g, “Complete unmitigated garbage” and “It’s pretty much shit, to be honest”).
The question about which areas of science receive too much coverage was unusual in that 17 percent of you selected “other,” placing it in second (the remaining choices were spread among the other answers). That 17 percent was completely dominated by people saying it’s impossible to over-cover any area of science, nicely summed up by the commenter who said “Too Much? Is that a thing? Just read less if you think there’s too much FFS.” Rare individuals picked a specific topic (“Spaceflight this spaceflight that, mars this mars that, blah blah blah.”), but there was little consistency in these answers. The one individual who responded “The Higgs field is observing space THROUGH TIME. eternally” has left us mystified.
Is there anything about scientific progress that leaves you worried? AI/robotics was the research field that caused the most concern at 22 percent, while gene editing didn’t clear 15 percent and nanotechnology sat at only six percent. Other options beat fears of a gray goo (nanotechnology) with 13 percent, but these were distributed among a large grab bag of worries, ranging from “bacon” to “Hydrino power will distruprt so many industries, such as oil, coal, solar, hyrdo power, wind power, untiles.” By far, what bugs you the most is the fact that we’re not using science to set policy—something we’ll come back to in a moment.
What would you like from Ars?
Most of you feel science belongs at Ars because science and technology have a symbiotic relationship (60 percent of you said one benefits the other). Another 30 percent said that you happen to like science, so you’re happy we have a section devoted to it, which pushes the number up to 90 percent. Other, which hit four percent here, largely consisted of people who felt science has a natural home at Ars. Largely. Exceptions ranged from “I’m here almost entirely for the science” to “The science section’s coverage is shallow, overly sensationalized, and often wrong” to “Plaid.”
Those of you who don’t fall into the “shallow” or “plaid” categories are evenly divided over why it’s good. Roughly equal numbers like that our authors have a strong understanding of their topics or that we add analysis and context to our stories. A quarter appreciate that they can find information here that’s lacking elsewhere. “Other” had a strong showing, but that’s mostly because people took “rely” in the question overly literally, and were anxious to inform us that they didn’t actually rely on Ars. A number wanted to pick all of the above. One used “other” to tell us “I had a dream a few years ago that if I read arstechnica I would become a wizard.”
A number of you mentioned how much you felt that the comments added to our coverage. Another common response was an appreciation of the fact that we provide a link to the original research. Rest assured that neither of these things will change.
We asked people what makes science more interesting to you. The largest response was for easy-to-understand language at 43 percent of you, and another 19 percent said diagrams and other visuals would help. Within the 12 percent who picked other, opinion was pretty evenly split over whether we should get more or less technical and detailed than we currently are. A larger fraction of the “other” answers were from people who either love or hate any science, and nothing could alter its appeal. But the most common write-in response was some form of “all of the above.”
When asked about where we might expand, math and computer science came out on top, but pretty much all the options had fans. The write-in option was dominated by people who wanted to see additional coverage in all areas. There was a lot of ambiguity about us doing product and software reviews. Over a quarter of you said you didn’t want to see these at all, but citizen science projects and energy/sustainability gadgets and software saw some significant support—combined, they came out with more than double the “no reviews” response, and a number of people used the free-form comments to express their interest in these.
The policy question
While the overall response was incredibly positive (thanks, guys—we like our audience, too!), there were a fair number of complaints. The single biggest category of complaint was that we handle policy and its attendant politics in our coverage. And while we take those complaints seriously, it’s important to put them in context. While 11 percent of the respondents singled out policy issues as something that gets too much media coverage, 15 percent chose science policy as an area we should expand our coverage. And the top answer for what worries people the most about science, selected by 45 percent of you, was that science isn’t being used enough to set policy.
(A significant number of those complaints also seemed to indicate that simply choosing to cover climate science is inherently political, or they were directed at Ars more generally rather than the science section.)
The numbers provide a strong endorsement of our science policy coverage. But even if we lacked the numbers, this topic is simply too important to ignore. Everything from the food you eat to the drugs you take to the electricity that powers your computer is influenced by countless policy decisions, and we would like to see those based on the best available information.
Science is often the source of the best available information, and we’d be negligent if we didn’t try to discuss how that information applies to policy—it’s critical to having both an informed public and informed policy makers. And when those policy makers choose to ignore the best available science, we’d be negligent if we didn’t make people aware of it.
There’s obviously information in your responses beyond what I can relay here, and I’ll be discussing those points with my fellow writers and editors. You’ve definitely given us a lot to think about, and there are certainly some things we’re going to try as a result. If we handle those well, you may not even notice them happening—they’ll just be something you expect to see when you visit Ars.
Beyond that, the poll was a refreshing chance to be reminded that most of you are here because of something we all love: learning about science. You may be weird, but we obviously share in some of that weirdness, and we’re lucky to have you as an audience.
This story was originally published in arstechnica