Study finds wide gulf between public, scientist views about science

Americans hold science in high regard, but perceive risks and scientific theories very differently from scientists, a new study finds. The public is much more skeptical about the safety of genetically modified foods and pesticides than scientists.

Rich Pedroncelli/AP/File
A harvester works through a field of genetically modified corn on the dairy farm owned by Al Lafranchi, near Santa Rosa, Calif., Oct. 31, 2005. Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use, and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization.

For years, social scientists have tracked the public's perception of risk from various technologies or their perceptions of well-established scientific theories. A new study from the Pew Research Center takes that a step further to compare public views with those of scientists. Not only do the results find gaps between the two groups. It finds those gaps surprisingly high, but that it cuts across more issues than expected, according to the study's architects.

The results are raising yellow flags in some circles that public confidence in the United States' scientific enterprise, while still high, may be eroding. They are prompting a renewed call for scientists to step out of the lab and into PTA meetings, service organizations, and other groups not as lecturers but as neighbors with a useful perspective to share, especially on issues that have a scientific component to them.

In particular, researchers should be working to find common ground where the science generates "discomfort between science and the rest of society," says Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the executive publisher of the journal Science. Pew drew on a random sample of just over 2,700 scientists among the AAAS's US membership for its survey, as well as 2,002 adults picked at random from around the country.

"We only support science if it's going to pay off in benefits to humankind," he explains. Unless the public is receptive to what science has to offer and is familiar with what science can and cannot contribute to policy discussions, "the more difficult for society to reap the benefits of science."

Ironically, the angst comes at a time when public recognition of science's contributions to society is widespread – a persistent feature of studies gathered regularly by the National Academy of Sciences, as well as this new study. The Pew survey found that 79 percent of adults outside the science community agree that science has made life easier for most people, although the figure is four points lower than it was in 2009. Some 70 percent of adults agree that government spending on engineering and technology, as well as on basic research, at some point pays off.

Modest declines in the "positive" category also appeared in public views of the impact science has on medical care, food, and the environment.

Not surprisingly, the gaps between scientists' perceptions and the public's appear over specific issues. Some of these include:

  • Genetically modified food: 37 percent of Americans considered such foods safe to eat compared with 88 percent of the scientists surveyed.
  • Use of pesticides: 28 percent of Americans considered produce treated with pesticides on the farm safe to eat while 68 percent of scientists agreed.
  • Climate change: 50 percent of Americans agree that the warming climate is mostly due to human activity, a proportion that has remained relatively stable for the past eight years in other surveys. Meanwhile, 87 percent of the AAAS sample agreed that humans played a heavy role in climate change.
  • Childhood vaccines: 68 percent of Americans agree that childhood vaccines should be required, while 86 percent of scientists agreed.

On the other hand, Americans in general are more likely than scientists to back additional fracking and offshore oil and gas drilling and to see astronauts as essential to the future of the US space program, while comparable majorities of scientists and the public agree that the space station has been a good investment for the US.

Another area of general agreement is unhappiness over the state of STEM education in grades schools, the study found.

Some of these topics had been covered in a study the Pew Research Center conducted in 2009. But this time around, "one of the things we were surprised by is the size of the gaps and the extent to which they occur over this wider range of science-related topics," says Cary Funk, associate director of research at the center.

While the survey wasn't designed to explain the gaps, their magnitude and extent "begs for follow-up work where we can explore that in more depth," she says.

One oft-cited reason is the poor state of science education generally in grade school – a point raised in a section of the Pew study that focused on scientists' perceptions about the general state of science in the US and the general funding environment in which it operates.

Yet studies by other researchers indicated that levels of science education or science literacy as often measured by social scientists aren't a reliable indicator of whether a person accepts a scientific theory such as evolution, the big bang origin of the universe, or climate change. In many cases, cultural influences – religious or ideological, for instance – trump the textbooks or latest research results.

For instance, Yale psychologist Dan Kahan has shown that among people who identify themselves as conservatives, the larger the amount of science comprehension, the less convinced the individual is likely to be about risks from global warming. The opposite is true for liberals, although the effect is less dramatic.

In this case, the trend for either group is the logical outcome of interpreting scientific information in ways that "achieve an important personal end" – remaining a card-carrying member of the cultural or ideological group with which one identifies.

In the case of religious inclinations, for example, a study released Thursday in the journal American Sociological Review explores the relationship between religious convictions, scientific literacy, and an individual's views on important ideas about science.

The study found that people tended to fall into three groups: Modern, about 36 percent of Americans, who rely on reason and science to make decisions about issues on which science and religion both have something to say; Traditional, about 43 percent of Americans, who lean more heavily on religious convictions when making such decisions; and a new group, Post-Secular, about 21 percent of Americans, who have deep religious convictions that will trump science, even though overall these people are scientifically literate.

"One of the things that surprised us most about the study was how many US adults are scientifically literate, who are appreciative for the most part of science and technology, but who are nonetheless very religious and who choose to disagree with scientists about a couple of particular scientific theories," says Timothy O'Brien, a sociologist at the University of Evansville in Indiana, who conducted the study along with colleague Shiri Noy at the University of Wyoming.

Evolution, the big bang, abortion, and stem-cell research are among the hot-button issues that have a strong science component to them, he says. The willingness to embrace the implications of some scientific ideas and reject others may become less difficult if the rejects are deemed to be corruptions of science or a secular conspiracy to undermine deeply held religious values.

Yet the public at large is only one part of the equation. Scientists themselves can bring their own sets of ideological values to the table.

The political leanings among the sample of scientists in the new Pew study weren't included, although they appear in the group's 2009 study. At that time, 52 percent of scientists identified themselves as liberal, 35 percent moderate, and 9 percent conservative. Among the public at large, 20 percent identified themselves as liberal, 38 percent checked the "moderate" box, and 37 percent listed themselves as conservative.

The influence of those values may become most apparent as a researcher in one discipline considers the policy implications of results in another field.

"As far as we can tell, political affiliation does not appear to influence where they [scientists] are on climate or where they are on stem cells or GMOs when they're talking about their own work. When they are talking about other people's work, I don't doubt that all kinds of beliefs and values influence how they hear other people's work," he says.

The survey itself may hint at this.

While the clear majority of scientists backed mandatory childhood vaccinations or were convinced that humans are exerting a significant influence on climate, 14 percent of the scientists in the survey held that childhood vaccinations should be voluntary, rather than required, while 13 percent didn't sign off on a significant human influence on climate.

Moreover, while a strong majority of scientists and the public in the survey agree that there won't be enough food or resources to feed a growing world population, "more scientists in this survey than the public say that we will run out of resources. The science literature agrees more with the public on this issue," notes Roger Pielke Jr., a science-policy specialist at the University of Colorado at Boulder and director of the Center for Science and Technology Policy Research.

This is "a good example of identity politics rather than knowledge," he says.

Pete Spotts is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

[Correction: This article has been updated to correct the percentage of AAAS scientists in the sample who agree that humans play a heavy role in climate change.]

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