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Scientists and the public often don't see eye to eye

Most people view scientists favorably, but the lack of scientific knowledge on controversial issues can impact policy decisions.

By Peter N. SpottsStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / July 10, 2009



Have you hugged a scientist today? Had dinner with one lately? Know anyone who knows someone who knows one? (Watching "Bones" doesn't count.)

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If you answered "no" to any or all of these questions, you're not alone. That acquaintance gap symbolizes a broader cultural gap between many scientists and the rest of the public.

That gap is highlighted in new public-opinion research released today by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and the Pew Research Center, both in Washington.

And it's a gap that could lead society to make some unwise choices as a new set of science-related issues looms on the horizon, some science-policy specialists say.

On the one hand, the public generally has a very favorable view of scientists, despite the political tugging and hauling over global warming or teaching evolution as the last theory left standing to explain the emergence and development of life on Earth.

Some 67 percent of respondents said that while science conflicts with their religious beliefs, scientists make significant contributions to society's well-being. Slightly fewer (63 percent) of those who take a literal, biblical view of creation also acknowledge science's general contribution to society.

Over all, scientists as a group enjoy very high standing with the public. Some 70 percent of the respondents agreed that scientists contribute to the well-being of society, compared with 84 percent for the military and 77 percent for teachers. (For the record, only 38 percent of the respondents thought journalists contribute to society's well-being.)

But when it comes to scientists' views of the public, 85 percent of those responding to the pollsters agree with the proposition that the public's lack of scientific knowledge is a problem for science. On a battery of basic questions about well-established facts, non-scientist respondents collectively scored an average of 65 percent – and they were not grading on a curve. And some 49 percent of the scientists responding say the public holds unrealistic expectations about how quickly scientists can answer their burning research questions.

When it comes to science as a guide to public policy on issues ranging from global warming to the use of animals in lab experiments, the gap also becomes apparent. On nuclear energy, for instance, or the use of federal funds to support embryonic stem-cells research, scientists are far more likely to support these than the public at large.

"Some of that is a difference in understanding what the science shows," says Alan Leshner, the chief executive officer for the AAAS. But the difference also reflects the fact that advances in some scientific disciplines over the last 20 years or so "are coming into conflict with some core human-values issues. And, of course, only scientists are stuck with what science is showing. Policymakers or the public are free to deny, disagree, or disregard what the science is showing."

Organizations like the AAAS are trying to encourage scientists to do a better job of communicating what they do to the general public. It's a notion that seems to be resonating with many younger scientists, Dr. Leshner and other say, although it's still tough to do while trying to teach, conduct research, and hunt for the grant money that will pay for the research.

When scientists talk about trying to close the gap, they often focus on what the public and educators need to do to boost scientific literacy. And they focus on the media, which communicates at varying levels of accuracy, as to what researchers are up to and why.

But these may not be at the core of the problem, suggests Chris Mooney, who has written widely on science and public policy in the US.

"I don't think the gap you see is attributable to ignorance," he says. People form their political positions based on a variety of factors, and scientists don't know how or don't try to reach out to them, he says.

"A very small percentage of Americans know a scientist personally," he explains. "Scientists are just not on their radar."

To change that, "scientists need to reach out to America," he continues. Personal contact may not change an individual's worldview, Mr. Mooney suggests, but it does have the potential to demystify scientists and the way they approach their world more than huddling in a lab would.

Policy debates involving science will continue long after those over global warming or stem cells fade, he says. "Knowing every last fact on the part of the public would be nice, but it's not as essential as being in tune in a deep and engaged way with the role of science in the country."

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