Sunday, July 12, 2009

Poll: How the Public Views Scientists

A new Pew Research Center poll released July 9 is interesting in what it shows about the public’s perceptions about science and scientists compared to the views of scientists themselves on the same topic.

The good news is that the public holds scientists in high esteem, with 70 percent of respondents saying that scientists contribute a lot to the public’s well being. Scientists rank third, below the military (84 percent) and teachers (77 percent).

But even though people tend to view scientists in a favorable light, they still do not concur with them on some hot-button issues that are almost universally agreed upon by scientists. Take climate change, for example. Whereas 84 percent of scientists agree that the earth is getting warmer due to human activity, only 49 percent of the public believe the same thing. And there is a more dramatic schism between scientists and the public on the topic of evolution. Only about a third of the public (32 percent) believe that all living organisms, including humans, evolved by natural means from earlier forms of life, a full 87 percent of scientists believe it.

This brings up an interesting question. What is the source of the beliefs? Scientists tend to shape their beliefs based on things like empirical evidence, observation, and research. The public tends to base its beliefs on information it gets from politicians, the media, from church ministers, or just from word of mouth.

Take the evolution question as an example. A full 97 percent of scientists believe all life on earth evolved, with 87 percent saying that evolution occurred by natural means. Only 32 percent of the public believe evolution occurred by natural means and another 22 percent say evolution occurred, but was guided by a supreme being. Of those who claim a religious affiliation, only 19 percent of Protestants and 33 percent of Catholics believe evolution occurred by natural means, while 60 percent of those claiming no religious affiliation believe evolution occurred naturally.

But that is still a fairly wide disparity between the 60 percent of non-religious lay people and 87 percent of scientists who believe that evolution took place by natural means. The difference can be attributed to how and where the public gets its information. Again, scientists rely on facts and empirical data to form their opinions. The public gets is information from the media and from word of mouth. And there is a flow of information (much of it false) from the religious segment of the public to their non-religious acquaintances.

Even scientists blame the media in part for the public’s lack of good information on scientific topics. According to the survey, 76 percent of scientists say that the media does not do a good job distinguishing between well-founded scientific findings and those that are not. Typically, the media will report on the results of a single, small, and perhaps flawed scientific study as though those results represent a full scientific consensus. That can confuse the public especially when it is bombarded by conflicting results of several studies over a period of years.

Scientists do not accept the results of a single study until other scientists working in the field have confirmed those results with additional studies. Evolution and global warming have been studied by scientists for decades and those studies corroborate each other. But the public hears only two things: Scientists believe that global warming is caused by human activity or that organisms on earth have evolved, and conservative politicians say the evidence is lacking and no conclusions can be drawn. The media report both sides, in an effort to be fair and balanced.

But it really isn’t fair and balanced when comparing almost universal acceptance of an idea by those who have studied it for decades with the ideas of those who are not even in the field and whose agendas are political, religious, or personal. The public still sees equal treatment of both sides in the media and then must choose which side to believe.

Scientists also say that lack of scientific knowledge by the public is a hindrance. The survey indicated that 85 percent of scientists believe the public does not know very much about science. If the public’s science IQ were higher, people would find it easier to ignore media reports on flimsy research and they would be more adept at distinguishing well-founded scientific data from political opinion.

And that’s where a good science education comes in. The U.S. continues to lag behind other developed countries when it comes to educating its children in math and science. New priorities need to be established that will remedy that situation.

In the mean time, it is at least heartening to know that those who agree with scientists on the issues of global warming and evolution tend to be younger and more highly educated. So there may be some hope for the future after all.

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