Scientists and public disagree, but let's not get too excited

January 30, 2015 by John Besley, The Conversation
Average Americans don’t view science issues the same way scientists do. Credit: www.shutterstock.com.

A new set of surveys of scientists and the public finds the two groups have widely different views about scientific issues. Conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the survey found scientists tended to have a more positive opinion of many technologies than the general public.

Those involved in science may get frustrated by the 's findings, wondering why the public isn't as enthused by their work as the researchers themselves. But the acceptance of new technologies is rarely straight-forward. The needs to remember that it continues to benefit from widespread, hard-won admiration.

The survey might be a reminder to scientists that they can always do better at communicating their work and its motivations to the general public.

Survey says:

Some of the contrasts in the Pew Research Center data are stark.

Almost all of the scientists surveyed (88%) said they viewed genetically modified foods as safe, but only about a third (37%) of their fellow Americans said they shared this belief. Similarly, a majority of the scientists (68%) said they see pesticides as safe, but only about a quarter of the overall population said they felt that way (28%).

The only two issues where the scientists were more negative than the broader public were offshore drilling and hydraulic fracturing – fracking – to obtain fossil fuels. About half (52%) of Americans said they favor offshore drilling but only about a third of the scientists gave this response (32%). Similarly, 39% of Americans said they favor fracking in comparison to 31% of the surveyed scientists.

This difference may be linked to the fact that, whereas almost all scientists (87%) said they thought climate change was due to human activity, only half of Americans (50%) expressed this view.

Warm feeling toward science itself

In the face of all these differences, it's worth remembering that overall perceptions of science are quite positive. More than three quarters of Americans (79%) told Pew they thought science was making life better and that the effects of science on health care (79%) were mostly positive.

Ultimately, 72% of Americans said that government funding for engineering and technology pays off in the long run and 71% said that funding for basic research pays off.

The main thing that seems potentially troubling about the research results is the small decline in positive views about science. Such results echo through the report's comparisons of the 2014 figures against a similar study from 2009. For example, whereas 79% of Americans thought science made life better in 2014, 83% held this view in 2009.

However, it is difficult to know what to make of data based on only two data points and other research has not (yet) suggested we are in the midst of a substantial decline in support for science. Rather, other available data suggests that views about science have remained fairly stable in recent years.

What might be behind the gap?

Although 84% of the scientists surveyed said they thought the public's lack of scientific knowledge was a "major problem" for science, academic research suggests that scientific knowledge is only a minor driver of attitudes about science.

The science views reported by Pew are instead likely driven by factors such as the degree to which respondents have faith in the expertise and good will of scientists (i.e., key factors that drive perceptions of trustworthiness). Overall worldview also likely influenced responses, since we all tend to unconsciously adjust our views so that we see things we like, for example, as more safe and things we dislike as less safe.

For scientists, most of whom are also unlikely to be experts in more than one topic raised by Pew, it is reasonable to expect that they tend to trust their fellow scientists. The American public might be expected to be more cautious.

There's value in views

The fact that the Pew Research Center, as well as the National Science Board, the European Commission and individual countries such as Canada, are putting resources into these types of surveys speaks to the importance of tracking what citizens think about science.

We need these types of numbers to tell us whether science is losing support and where there might be room for improvement.

As is well known to science leaders, there is a need to ensure that science maintains and builds its place in society by having scientists engage with their communities in ways that allow them to hear from fellow citizens. This allows them to share the expertise that goes into scientific research and the deep sense of caring about society that underlies many scientists' work.

What seems less likely to be helpful – no matter how satisfying – are efforts to put down those who may currently disagree with scientists through aggressive tactics such as labeling people as deniers or irrational.

It's especially important to learn what we can from reports such as Pew's while avoiding any the-sky-is-falling commentary that disparages the survey respondents.

Such measures are apt to make scientists seem less trustworthy.

Finally, it's worth noting that the scientists' surveyed were randomly selected from the American membership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Although the organization is very well respected and the world's largest general purpose scientific society, it also tends to have an older membership base (35% of respondents were aged 65 or older) and its mission to "advance" may also mean that the type of person who joins may be more outward facing than many .

Explore further: Poll shows giant gap between what public, scientists think

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randythauvette
2 / 5 (4) Jan 30, 2015
To many industry funded studies makes it hard to know what to think. We believe what we believe based on what we think and we think what we think based on what we've been told and most of the time what we're told is wrong.
ryggesogn2
1 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2015
To many industry funded studies

AND government AND special interest group studies.....
Lab7
1 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2015
Problem is when so called "scientist" become "tax sucking" and "fund seeking" parasites.
We the public as a whole see through this facade of tax seeking men.
Unfortunately, liberalism has crept into our schools public and universities.
Lab7
1 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2015
Oh boy! Here we go again. Did not the many released emails with the IPCC show the phony science of climategate?
A real scientist at least carefully looks at both sides of a story before drawing a conclusion.
A real scientist does not base his conclusion by pop culture (peer pressure) nor the need for budget funds in his university department.
A real scientist should filter out pride, fear, lust and greed from their method of reasoning!
A real scientist does his best to walk in the truth at all times.
A real scientist uses the scientific method and not driven by a personal agenda.
If you fail at anyone of the above mentioned points, then let's face it:
YOU ARE NOT A REAL SCIENTIST !
And that's a fact no matter how many letters are after your name.
randythauvette
1 / 5 (4) Jan 30, 2015
"Scientists and public disagree". I'm in the Joe public side of things and I recently tried to explain to my cardiologist that I wasn't sure that the numbers he was quoting me were legit because the studies he was quoting were industry funded. He said it doesn't matter who pays for the study just eat your lipitor. He's no longer my cardiologist. You can lie with the numbers but the proper numbers don't lie. Opinions, Facts its all so confusing. Think I'll have a bacon burger
unjustifiablyoptimistic
5 / 5 (3) Jan 30, 2015
There's no need to polarize when so many possibilities exist. Industry-funded studies are by definition suspect as self-serving, with the underlying reality that greed will find a way. But so many seem to equate all science with "bought" science.
And when does "both sides of the story" become a universal standard of science? C'mon. The scientific explanation is that water freezes below 32F because the plasticity of the substance changes at 32F. If someone comes along and says water freezes because the spaghetti monster shook a goat bone beneath a full moon, is that the "other side" of the story? Or is it nonsense?
julianpenrod
1.8 / 5 (5) Jan 30, 2015
The article pretends to "explain" why the public do not agree with "scientists". It posits the public being stupid and their depending on suggested illegitimate presumptions as to whether to trust "scientists". Why doesn't it add that "science" lies? Like th 90 percent of "reports" discredited because they haven't been subjected to appropriate peer review? What about thalidomide; fen-phen; Vioxx; failing to counter lies about mass production of banned weapons in Iraq; the malaria treatment that created sickle cell anemia; the fact that, before 1850, the AMA threatened to remove the license of any physician who washed their hands? At this point, "science" sleazes into claiming they never said they were 100 percent correct. They don't seem to be showing any uncertainty about condemning those suspicious of vaccines! They permits calls for those who don't vaccinate to be fined, refused benefits of society or even being jailed!
teslaberry
3 / 5 (2) Jan 30, 2015
another false dichotomy established to sew misinforation.

'scientists' versus the public. there is no such thing as 'scientists'. there are people who practice science who have phds and other degrees.

this is an article that used people with paper degress as part of institutions to 'poll' and then try and separate them from the 'general public' by creating another poll.

poll's like this aren't only meaningless, they are intentionally divisive, creating false divisions and separations for nefarious purpose. divide and conquer.
Eddy Courant
1 / 5 (1) Jan 31, 2015
When did scientists become lying sacks of shit? Answer: When they started working for the government.

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