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Survey reveals large gaps between scientists and general public on climate change, vaccination and evolution

Pew Research Center has found that the general public and scientists sharply disagree on several high profile science-related issues, including climate change, genetically modified foods and human evolution.

The general public and scientists sharply disagree on several high profile science-related issues, including climate change, genetically modified foods and human evolution, according to a new survey by the Pew Research Center.

“There is a disconnect between the way in which the public perceives the state of science and science’s position on a variety of issues, and the way in which the scientific community … looks at the state of science,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), in a teleconference with reporters. “That’s a cause of concern.”

The public and the scientists do agree on a few things, though — including fracking for oil and natural gas (large majorities in both groups oppose it) and a belief that the U.S. is not doing a good job at teaching science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in elementary and secondary schools.

The survey was conducted last year in collaboration with AAAS. Its findings are based on the responses from a telephone survey of 2,002 American adults and an online survey of 3,748 U.S.-based members of AAAS. The margin of error for this survey is plus or minus 3.1 percentage points for the general public and 1.7 percentage points for the scientists.

Key findings

The biggest disagreement between the scientists and the general public was on the safety of eating genetically modified foods. There was a 51-point gap between the two groups, with 88 percent of the scientists believing such foods were safe and 37 percent of the public saying they weren’t. This issue appears to illustrate how the public often has a mistaken view of what the scientific consensus is on an issue, for 67 percent of the polled members of the pubic said they believed that scientists have yet to develop a clear understanding of the health risks posed by such foods.

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Other major splits between the public and the scientists involved using animals in research (favored by 89 percent of the scientists, but only 37 percent of the general public) and whether climate change is mostly due to human activity (87 percent of the scientists agreed, compared to 50 percent of the public). (Note: The consensus among climate scientists is much higher: 97 percent.)

A belief in evolution also revealed a major schism: 98 percent of the scientists said humans have evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of the general public.

On the issue of whether childhood vaccines should be mandatory, the gap was slightly narrower, with 86 percent of the scientists and 68 percent of the public favoring the idea. (The survey also found that, among the public, younger adults are less supportive of mandatory vaccination than older generations. Some 37 percent of adults under age 50 believed parents should not have to vaccinate their children, compared with 22 percent of those aged 50 and older.) 

Topics of agreement

On two issues, the scientists and the public were in remarkably close agreement, however. When it came to favoring increased use of fracking, only 39 percent of the scientists and 31 percent of the general public favored the idea. And similar percentages of both groups — 68 percent of scientists and 64 percent of the general public — believed the space station has been a good investment for the United States.

The scientists and the general public also agreed on some broader issues. Both groups, for example, were critical of the way STEM education is taught in K-12 classrooms. Only 16 percent of the scientists and 29 percent of the public said U.S. STEM education is above average or the best in the world. Indeed, almost half of the scientists (46 percent) and almost a third of the public (29 percent) ranked U.S. STEM education as below average when compared with other industrialized countries.

Among the scientists, 75 percent cited poor STEM education as a major factor in the public’s limited knowledge about science.

Opinion Differences Between Public and Scientists

Political differences

Public views on the survey’s 13 specific issues sometimes, but not always, revealed a strong partisan divide. For example, 66 percent of the Republicans (and Republican-leaning independents) said that science has exerted a mostly positive effect on the environment, but so did 61 percent of Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents).

But on the issue of whether climate change is occurring and whether human activities are the primary factor behind that change, Republicans and Democrats were sharply divided. Seventy-one percent of Democrats said the Earth’s warming was mostly due to human activity, compared to 27 percent of Republicans.

Also, while 61 percent of the general-public adults in this survey said government funding is essential for scientific progress, another Pew Research Center report released earlier this month found that Republicans are less inclined to make “supporting scientific research” a top priority for Congress and the President in the coming year.

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A more downbeat mood

The public and the scientists questioned for this latest survey also agreed on giving the country high marks for its past scientific achievements. But both groups were less upbeat about science and its impact on society than they were in 2009, when Pew Research conducted a similar survey. The researchers explain:

Among the public, perceptions of the scientific enterprise and its contribution to society, while still largely positive, are a little less rosy than five years ago. Fewer citizens see U.S. scientific contributions as top tier compared with other nations. And, while most adults see positive contributions of science on life overall and on the quality of health care, food and the environment, there is a slight rise in negative views in each area. Similarly, most citizens say government investment in research pays off in the long run, but slightly more are skeptical about the benefits of government spending today than in 2009. While the change is modest on several of these measures, the share expressing negative views on each is slightly larger today than in 2009.

Scientists’ views have moved in the same direction. Though scientists hold mostly positive assessments of the state of science and their scientific specialty today, they are less sanguine than they were in 2009 when Pew Research conducted a previous survey of AAAS members. The downturn is shared widely among AAAS scientists regardless of discipline and employment sector.

You can read the full report on the survey at the Pew Research Center’s website.