20 November 2018

By Peter Weingart (chair), Lars Guenther (research fellow), Bankole Falade (postdoc) and Corlia Meyer (PhD candidate)

Science communication programmes often do not relate to the interests and expectations of their audiences, especially when audiences differ greatly with respect to their culture, education and experiences of science. Only if more is known about these audiences can effective science communication strategies be conceived.

For this purpose, the South African Research Chair in Science Communication, hosted at CREST, Stellenbosch University, is undertaking a study of South African rural and semi-urban communities to understand how they relate to science. The Chair is specifically interested in how differences between towns with no connection to science and towns hosting scientific installations/science centres impact on their inhabitants’ perceptions of science.

In the first phase of the project, the research team interviewed 52 people living in four towns in the Northern and Western Cape provinces. The interviews were done in Carnarvon, which hosts the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) and Sutherland, home to the South African Large Telescope (SALT), Clanwilliam, an agricultural town and Paternoster, a fishing town.

The findings from this study show that there are indeed different rural publics, but they are not automatically all equally culturally distant to science; rather, they exhibit various cultural distances to science. Those that have a comparatively high level of education and have spent some time in urban environments (“culturally close to science”) display the smallest distance to science, but, somewhat surprisingly, they have the strongest reservations towards a tax increase for the benefit of science. Those grouped together as moderately educated (“moderately close to science”) have average interest and exposure to science, largely indirect experiences, and they predominantly use associations for the terms relating to science that emerge from their immediate personal everyday experiences. They also showed a moderate awareness of examples of science and expressed some expectations of science. Thus, they occupy a middle position with respect to their cultural distance to science. In contrast, those interviewees grouped together as “culturally distant to science” (low level of education and no urban experience) showed the greatest distance to science. They have less interest in science, little or no exposure to it, no concrete experiences, and they do not formulate concrete expectations. However, this public expresses the strongest support for a tax increase in support of science.

Some of the data were interpreted with respect to the complex relationship between science and religion among the rural publics. Contrary to what may be expected, this may not always be a zero sum game. Scientific knowledge indeed causes psychological discomfort in some people, but the resolution can be in favour of science or it assumes a hierarchical relationship within the individual where science (or religion) is regarded as the superior ‘truth’. Some respondents also do not see any conflict between both forms of knowing and even when the contradiction narrative is accepted, they do not feel any psychological discomfort and are comfortable living with both forms either in parallel, addressing different aspects of life or in complementary relationship where one enhances the experience with the other.

A second phase of the project, which will build on the findings of the first, is set to commence early 2019 in Limpopo and KwaZulu-Natal provinces to expand the research to the north of the country and other cultural groups. So far the studies are still exploratory and the findings are preliminary. The Chair needs more data on the relationship between science and the public  to improve the design of science communication formats and make them responsive to the diverse communities in South Africa.