Beyond partisanship: Engaging in debates about science and society

February 18, 2014, American University

New research suggests scientific institutions and organizations can improve their communication and outreach with the public by addressing people's strongly held beliefs about science and its role in society. These beliefs play a key role in shaping people's opinions, and ultimately, their support for scientific advances, according to the study "Understanding Public Opinion in Debates Over Biomedical Research: Looking Beyond Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society," by American University professor Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D., and Ezra Markowitz, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow at Columbia University. The study was published today in the interdisciplinary journal PLOS ONE.

"What divides the American in their views about scientific advances? The easy answer, especially over the last decade, is political partisanship and ideology. The commonly held view is that Conservatives and Republicans are anti-science, and Liberals and Democrats are pro-science," said Nisbet, a social scientist who studies the impact of strategic communication in policy debates over science and the environment. "Yet if we continue to think about in this narrow way, as policy conflicts emerge, mistakes will be made and opportunities will be missed to effectively engage the public on the questions and concerns that matter to them."

The two researchers analyzed nationally representative surveys collected between 2002 and 2010 with the goal of better understanding how the U.S. public came to form opinions in the debate over human embryonic . Intense campaigning on stem cell research across elections and states, as well as the 2004 election between President George W. Bush and then-Senator John Kerry, provided a valuable case study to compare the factors that drive public opinion.

To be sure, political party affiliation, ideology, and religious beliefs played a role – but they weren't the strongest influences on why people supported stem cell research. The primary influence, Nisbet and Markowitz determined, was that of differences in people's perceptions about the social implications of science. Instead of viewing people exclusively in terms of their politics or faith, scientists can benefit from understanding the public through four distinct groups that are not easily defined by traditional labels. In their analysis, Nisbet and Markowitz classified the groups as follows:

"Scientific optimists" comprise a third of the public, believe strongly in the link between science and social progress, and are likely to support most . Optimists are on average highly educated, financially well off, and disproportionately white. They also tend to split almost evenly by partisan identity, although they trend slightly more Democrat.

"Scientific pessimists" comprise about a quarter of the public, have strong reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists, and believe science may lead to new problems. They are the most likely to oppose advances in and related fields. This group on average scores much lower in terms of educational attainment and income and trends more female and minority in background. Pessimists split evenly relative to partisan identity.

The "Conflicted" comprise about a quarter of the public and view science in both optimistic and pessimistic terms. Though they are socially similar to Scientific Pessimists in their background, they tend to be older than members of other segments. They appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasize the benefits of research.

Finally, the "Disengaged" comprise about 15 percent of the public, appear to lack strong beliefs about how science might impact society, and as a consequence are likely to be the most susceptible to shifts in opinion driven by high profile news coverage or political messaging.

Over the coming decade, developments in the life sciences such as in-vitro fertilization, the demand for human tissues by scientists for research, or the engineering of new life forms, will raise ethical and moral issues that transcend partisan politics. People's concerns are likely to center on several recurring themes, Nisbet says, including whether scientific breakthroughs promote or undermine social progress, whether research gets pursued too cautiously or too quickly, whether moral boundaries are crossed or respected, whether research is seen as serving public or private interests, and the process by which decisions are made.

"Our dysfunctional media system is not capable of adequately addressing these questions. On cable news or via social media almost every complex debate is re-defined in terms of partisan and ideological differences," Nisbet said. "We need to build a new civic infrastructure that enables public learning and input, and the place to start may be in the cities and states where research is taking place."

Nisbet's prior research examining public opinion about climate change and energy insecurity also revealed for communicators that understanding the public in more precise ways than partisanship or ideology allowed for improved outreach. Other research by Nisbet has analyzed the role that journalists and their organizations play in engaging the public on complex policy problems.

Explore further: Peak oil and public health: Political common ground?

Related Stories

Peak oil and public health: Political common ground?

August 9, 2011

Peak petroleum—the point at which the maximum rate of global oil extraction is reached, after which the rate of production begins to decline—is a hot topic in scientific and energy circles. When will it occur? What ...

The role of genes in political behavior

August 27, 2012

Politics and genetics have traditionally been considered non-overlapping fields, but over the past decade it has become clear that genes can influence political behavior, according to a review published online August 27th ...

Recommended for you

Archaeologists find ancient necropolis in Egypt

February 24, 2018

Egypt's Antiquities Ministry announced on Saturday the discovery of an ancient necropolis near the Nile Valley city of Minya, south of Cairo, the latest discovery in an area known to house ancient catacombs from the Pharaonic ...

A statistical look at the probability of future major wars

February 22, 2018

Aaron Clauset, an assistant professor and computer scientist at the University of Colorado, has taken a calculating look at the likelihood of a major war breaking out in the near future. In an article published on the open ...


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

2.3 / 5 (3) Feb 19, 2014
Science needs some quality control - be great to see SCIENTIFIC investigation of issues that simply are taken on faith and continual bombardment by MSM. AGW- the Fuku Flu - 911 - all global concerns that science has failed - I heard recently that the stature of climatologists now lies twixt astrologers and alchemists.
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2014
Science needs some quality control
Hey great idea! Maybe we could force scientists to have their work reviewed. Of course, we don't just want anyone reviewing it, we'd need people who actually understand the tenants of the work being done. Wait I know, let's get other scientists to do it! Maybe what we could do, is force scientists who want to have their work taken seriously to explain their work and findings by putting it into a paper. Then we could have that paper reviewed by other scientists to make sure that the paper meets standards of internal consistency, proper use of accepted norms, and a logical sequence leading to the conclusion being made. Yea, and then, we could make it hard for those scientists who don't meet the standards set by the scientific community as a whole to get their work accepted!

And THEN we can call that system "peer review"! Yea that might work!

And then just maybe, morons will stop coming to science sites to publically post their lack of
Feb 19, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Feb 19, 2014
This comment has been removed by a moderator.
Captain Stumpy
5 / 5 (1) Feb 19, 2014
I have nothing against basic research, but the applied research has much stronger quality control (it just does work or it doesn't

sounds like a Zephir argument
the only problem with that is: basic research UNDERPINS ALL OTHER SCIENCE
(without the basics) everything else is just a crap-shoot in a dark windowless room with no lights
who really knows what will come up?
The abstract basic research is more comfortable and safe for them

not really
it is much harder than you believe and involves much more maths, proof and data that you can imagine
In this way just the most important research gradually gets dedicated only for scientists, who already have nothing to lose (elderly ones)

personal conjecture with no evidence
links? Proof?
Your speculations are wild and inaccurate and have no supporting evidence
next you will want someone to build a perpetual motion machine to generate power????

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.