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

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.

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.

Comments (28)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 01/30/2015 - 09:32 am.

    Ideology vs. science

    Rhetorically, one wonders why so many think STEM education is important if many of the same people are going to discount or refuse to believe the information provided by those same people who got the STEM education.

    With a few notable exceptions, it appears that ideology (and, significantly, science-averse propaganda) is getting in the way of public acceptance of scientific research and conclusions that contradict that ideology. Those conclusions also have the potential to affect the bottom line of some very powerful vested interests, both ideologically and economically.

    Science and scientific organizations don’t allocate significant portions of their budgets to “think tank” and similar advocacy organizations. There are scientific organizations, to be sure, but they don’t have the kinds of dedicated funding streams, and, equally important, attention from widespread media, that routinely work to the advantage of corporate and other vested interests who prefer that their own set of “facts” dominate the public square. One of the side effects of treating capitalism as a religion is that we’re not inclined to believe information that’s critical of the ecological and other negative aspects of our economic system, and of course, corporations don’t want publicity for information that might negatively affect their quarterly earnings reports.

    Coca-Cola, for example, doesn’t want the negative effects of regular and frequent consumption of their signature product to be widely believed and publicized, so they spend billions of dollars annually so that we’ll all “Open Happiness.” It’s not always quite so stark as this, but when the question becomes one of profit vs. truth, not every corporate executive is going to come down on the side of the latter.

  2. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 01/30/2015 - 12:57 pm.

    Loss of credibility is the inevitable fallout from scientists tailoring science to attract government grants.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/30/2015 - 01:30 pm.

      If credibility is lost anywhere, it’s because of the appointment of fools like Inhofe and Cruz to high-ranking science committee posts in the US Government. These demagogues lie to the public about that which they know not, and their true believers drift further away from considering what those ‘liberal’ scientists are discussing. Their public crusade against facts and knowledge contribute to the decline of the American intellect.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/30/2015 - 01:42 pm.

      Most of the major scientific breakthroughs of the last 120 years have been the result of government grants.

      Splitting the atom, rocketry, space-flight, extrasolar exploration, lasers, satellite communications, the internet, hydraulic fracturing, cancer treatments, materials science, miniaturization, robotics, etc etc etc. All of these advancements can be directly tied to government funding of scientific research. You only get to comment on this website because of a whole bunch of federal funding that your parents paid up in taxes.

      It’s not even that ‘credibility’ has been lost- because many Americans are too uninformed to even have a functional conversation with one another about science without having to resort to crude analogies, those who cannot understand it tend to fear it… that and the quest for false balance in all public arguments.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 01/30/2015 - 02:43 pm.

      Science funding

      Actually, one of the drivers of the loss in faith in science has been the private funding of scientific research–you know, the type that supported the safety of cigarettes. It’s been further eroded by the lack of competent journalism, science journalism particularly.

    • Submitted by Neal Rovick on 02/01/2015 - 07:41 pm.

      ….Loss of credibility is the inevitable fallout from scientists tailoring science to attract government grants…

      It’s amusing to see those who claim science is selling out for a (relatively) few grant dollars fail to note the enormous influence of the trillions of dollars that are dependent upon people not being aware of the oncoming problems from business as usual.

      Scientist are all engaged in a conspiracy, but you can depend on the spokesmen of the big money because they’d never lie to you.

      Uh-huh.

      Like I said, funny.

  3. Submitted by Chris Pratt on 01/30/2015 - 03:51 pm.

    The Wrong GMO Question

    I have no doubt that it is safe to consume genetically modified foods but I still oppose GMOs. The question should not be whether genetically modifying crops makes them unsafe for consumption but whether introducing genetically modified crops has potential to introduce unintended genetic modifications into the “wild”.

    • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 01/30/2015 - 04:08 pm.

      Right, but if the general public can’t even get past the safe/unsafe question with any degree of certainty, how can they be expected to understand something as (relatively) complex as how said crops would interact with ‘the wild?’ Most GMO opposition I’ve seen and heard revolves exclusively around whether or not GMO based foods will give you autism or cancer or other such nonsense.

    • Submitted by Rachel Kahler on 02/04/2015 - 11:37 am.

      Risk…

      Fortunately, in higher organisms, genes don’t generally “escape” from one species to another unless they’re very closely related. That being said, it is possible for GMO crops to grow outside of farms–but the same is true of any crop grown and allowed to seed where it’s inappropriate. Is a GMO canola plant any more harmful in the wild than a non-GMO canola plant? Canola doesn’t exist in the wild–it’s derived from rapeseed. Most GMO canola is herbicide resistant. If we want to eradicate it, that means we can’t use a particular herbicide…but then, why would we want to apply herbicide–it would kill other plants (likely beneficial plants), anyway. So, it’s possible that canola could interbreed with wild rapeseed. If the newly hybridized rapeseed is herbicide resistant…what happens? Increased competition with native rapeseed? Unlikely–the herbicide resistance is unlikely to provide any survival benefit beyond herbicide resistance. And, if we must get rid of the hybridized rapeseed by other means, it’s not like we don’t already do this for non-GMO invasive species.

      That all being said, it would seem that most people are worried about the supposed health risks posed by GMO crops–something that there’s no evidence of. It would seem that your concerns are in the minority and that the right question was asked.

  4. Submitted by Patrick Tice on 01/30/2015 - 04:37 pm.

    The media are also to blame

    What do you expect when the media give the same credence to nonsensical fringe opinions as to a preponderance of peer-reviewed science in order to achieve “balance”? It is the “teach the controversy” meme writ large.

  5. Submitted by Jerilyn Jackson on 01/30/2015 - 07:06 pm.

    They are being duped

    Do people really believe that the vast majority of scientists (especially climate scientists) are desperate enough to engage in astoundingly unethical behavior in order to procure government grants? I doubt that they’re that hard up for work. Last I heard, there was a call for more students to enter the scientific fields in order for make up for a deficit of scientists in the U.S.. With the constant negativity towards science and the denunciation of scientists by conservatives, it’s no wonder that STEM education is suffering in this country and kids are passing on the science professions.

  6. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/30/2015 - 09:44 pm.

    Who trusts science more

    I want to make two interesting observation from the results.

    First, more Republicans believe in positive influence of science than Democrats. And second, that more young people (who are generally more liberal) don’t believe in vaccination than older people (who are generally more conservative)… So a question of who trusts science more is clearly answered…

    And while it is true that government has been involved in almost all major
    scientific discoveries, what the government sponsors now has changed – it has become more political and divisive…

    • Submitted by Pat Berg on 02/01/2015 - 12:05 pm.

      Hardly

      You state that “more Republicans believe in positive influence of science than Democrats.” The article does not bear that out.

      In the section discussing political differences, the statement that “science has exerted a mostly positive effect on the environment” was agreed with by 66 percent of Republicans v.s. 61 percent of Democrats. Such a small difference may or may not even be statistically significant.

      However, two other points under “Political Differences” (“whether climate change is occurring and whether human activities are the primary factor behind that change”) were supported by 71 percent of Democrats but only 27 percent of Republicans. So you can hardly infer from all of this that “more Republicans believe in positive influence of science than Democrats.”

      As to your implication that young people are more distrusting of science, consider another point made in the article, “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.” If young people are not being taught well when it comes to science (and with all the “teaching to the test” going on, I can easily see how that might be) then why would you be surprised that they may distrust science, especially in light of the poor science journalism going on these days.

      We need to do a better job of teaching the sciences. We need to do a better job of reporting accurately and meaningfully on scientific findings. And most of all, we need to do a better job of funding good STEM eduction so that these things can happen.

      And none of that should fall prey to Republican ideological whims of fancy.

    • Submitted by jason myron on 02/03/2015 - 04:33 pm.

      Wow…

      First, more Republicans believe in positive influence of science than Democrats. And second, that more young people (who are generally more liberal) don’t believe in vaccination than older people (who are generally more conservative)… So a question of who trusts science more is clearly answered…”

      Ilya, just because you wrote it and believe it doesn’t make it fact. However you inadvertently proved that in your world, republicans have little if any need for scientific method or the gathering of empirical data to prove a hypothesis. I guess that would be “political and divisive.”

  7. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 01/31/2015 - 08:33 am.

    A very interesting article

    Thank you, Beth.

    Some of the comments display an ignorance of the scientific method as well as yet more attempts to destroy the credibility of science as it is in the commenter’s political interests to do so.

    Considering some of the comments, our readers might find another article of interest:

    Even in 2015, the public doesn’t trust scientists – The Washington Post http://ow.ly/Igmzg

    “America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.”

    “Such discrepancies [between scientists and the general public] do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.”

    “There are serious implications for democratic governance when large minorities — or even, in the case of GMOs, majorities — of the general public ignore or disbelieve the scientific consensus. With vaccines the implications can be immediate: witness the recent measles outbreak in California. On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.”

    “Effective governance in a democratic society depends on voters being able to make choices based on accurate information. If the voices of scientific experts continue to be drowned out by those of ideologues, whether from left or right, America risks moving even farther away from the Enlightenment values on which the republic was founded. Such a shift would harm everyone – whether or not they believe the Earth is warming.”

    These sentiments seem to me to be a good description of the problem and indication of why we have it.

    Bill Gleason
    retired chemist and U of M prof

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/01/2015 - 09:53 am.

      Thans for the link, Bill. In an otherwise infantile rant, Lynas leaves us with an interesting example of why an increasing number of people have concluded science has been co-opted by political operatives.

      One can understand dismissing those that believe dinosaurs and humans roamed together on an Earth that is a mere 6,000 years old. Unlike climate pseudo-science, geologists use methods that are reproducible and provide hard evidence of the timeline of the Earth and it’s inhabitants.

      However, it’s not as easy to dismiss “creationism”. The hypothesis in no way argues against known scientific fact, it’s adherents are not arguing against evolution, they do not doubt the Big Bang, nor the age of the Earth. Yet Lynas & his ilk never fail to lump biblical story telling together with completely rational truth seekers, whose questions happen to intersect with religion at some points.

      Is seems for the leftist, the victory of “science” cannot be complete unless questions that casts doubt on leftist orthodoxy in any way (in this case atheism) are completely swept from public discourse.

      And if in that instance, why not any other?

      • Submitted by Eric Snyder on 02/02/2015 - 09:49 am.

        pseudo-science, eh?

        You demonstrate the very problem to which the article draws attention.

        Your quip about climate “pseudo-science” and also creationism reveals little to no knowledge of how pseudo-science is typically defined and in what contexts. The claim that climate science is a pseudo-science is pure nonsense, and makes one wonder if you have any knowledge at all of what science is. In a past post you even defended with vigor the claim that climate science is a vast conspiracy in the science community, the journalists who report on it, etc.

        For the “leftist” and the scientist and the critical thinker, there’s no conspiracy here against faith, as any number of creationists popularly think. There’s merely the rational demand that when we don’t have an explanation for a natural phenomenon there’s no requirement that we insert an explanation anyway and pretend it’s true just to satisfy what we all know is a psychological need for closure and the feeling of certainty. Not knowing things is OK.

        Your refer to the alleged “completely rational” truth seeker. There is no such thing. We might even consider it a pseudo-scientific construct. There’s a whole literature on psychological bias and irrationality (which has been around for many years), tendencies to which we’re all subject.

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 01/31/2015 - 03:08 pm.

    Climate science

    It looks like the most contentious point is climate science and global warming. However, there are two, or even three, aspects to that. First, that the Earth is warming; second, that humans are responsible for that; and third, that we need to start immediately investing billions of dollars to prevent a catastrophe a hundred years from now.

    Polls lump people disagreeing with even one of those statements in one group of “denialists” while in fact those things are so much different. The first two are science and can be debated on the scientific terms. The third one is futurology and, as such, is very subjective; it is also the one where most money is. To illustrate this point, imagine someone trying to predict in 1850 how many horses will be necessary in 1950…. That person may take into account population growth, trade growth, increased demand due to increased wages, even new stronger horse breeds. That will be very scientific because it will extrapolate every conceivable data available… it just will not be able to account for automobile invention. But as a result of the false prediction, hundreds of barns would have been built…

    Same with dire prediction of oil shortage – it was right in extrapolating existing known trends but did not take into account new oil reserves and reduction in oil consumption due to new technology…. And progress now is much quicker than it was a hundred years ago so there is absolutely no way to say what will really happen in 2100.

  9. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/02/2015 - 10:38 am.

    Creationism is an untestable hypothesis, Mr. Swift

    This is just another example of your misunderstanding of the scientific method and scientists.

    It is possible to be a believer in God, an afterlife, etc. while being a scientist. The current head of the NIH is a good example.

    Some scientists are also atheists. And the remainder we may refer to as agnostics if you are into labels.

    There is no such thing as “a completely rational truth seeker” if that person believes that one can use the scientific method to prove the existence of God or the truth of religion.

  10. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/02/2015 - 09:15 am.

    In 1915 there was no way to prove Einstein’s theory of relativity, Mr. Gleaston. Was it his misunderstanding of the scientific method that gave him the strength to claim he was right, or simple hubris? Was it an understanding, inferior to yours, of what constitutes rational truth seeking that gave Einstein’s peers the fortitude to take him seriously?

    Even today, there are still unresolved inconsistencies with quantum mechanics the scientific method is incapable of answering. What a mess!

  11. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/02/2015 - 10:29 am.

    Ah, Mr. Swift,

    again you reveal your ignorance. The theory of relativity was a testable hypothesis.

    Einstein proposed three tests of relativity:

    Perihelion precession of Mercury

    Sun’s deflection of light

    Redshift of light by gravity

    All of the predictions using Einstein’s theory have subsequently been verified.

    That’s how science works, Mr. Swift. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is useless.

  12. Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/02/2015 - 12:08 pm.

    Grants

    There are a couple of the problems with the whole “scientists are just in it for the grants” meme. One assumption is that scientists get rich off their grants, which is about as far from the truth as one can get. It’s a heck of a tough life to be a scientists, scrambling from one grant to the next to keep your research center open, staff employed, and scientists working on new discoveries. Everyone knows that if you want to make boatloads of money, go work on Wallstreet, construct derivatives, and cash in as the economy collapses.

    Scientists though? Not too many of them are out driving Hummers.

    More disturbingly, this notion assumes scientists are all on the take and are altering their data to fit their assumptions, namely that global warming is real and Mankind is the cause. That’s not how research works though. You gather the data, see where it leads, and then draw conclusions from that. Not start with a conclusion and then force the data to fit the assumption.

    If scientists really were on the take, it would be easy to grab their raw data, rerun the figures, and see where they got it wrong. That’s exactly what Richard Muller did, a noted scientist and climate change denier. And what did Mr. Muller find after he ran the numbers? The other scientists are right and global warming is real.

    If the deniers think warming is bunk, then they need to do the same as Mr. Muller and show the rest of the world exactly where they got it wrong. Until then they rightly deserve their well-earned label of being irrational and illogical.

    • Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/03/2015 - 09:15 am.

      I don’t know anyone who is suggesting global warming “scientists” are getting rich. Comfortable livings would be closer to the mark.

      The problem with grabbing their “raw data” is a) their data points change every few months as old ones fail to fit the narrative (vis “tree rings”) and b) the data doesn’t tell their story in the absence of the computer models they use to manipulate, extrapolate and prevaricate that data.

      Finally, speaking only for myself, I don’t deny global temperatures have risen. They may rise more, or they may fall…climate is ever changing.

      • Submitted by Jonathan Ecklund on 02/03/2015 - 09:44 am.

        Just because you don’t deny global temperatures have risen doesn’t make you not a climate denier. Now, how do tree rings refute climate change?

      • Submitted by Todd Hintz on 02/06/2015 - 12:45 pm.

        Data Points

        The data points are added to every few months, but the old ones aren’t changed. That’s the way science works. As new data comes in you refine your model so it more accurately reflects the real world. No one’s making up data though to fit the model.

        I’m not sure what data you don’t think doesn’t tell the story. Was not 2014 the hottest year on record? Did it instead get colder after data was altered? If so, what data was changed and who changed it? Why didn’t anyone call them out on their changes?

        I’m sorry, but your aspersions are confusing. They’re long on innuendo and short on facts. Could you please reverse those two?

  13. Submitted by Thomas Swift on 02/02/2015 - 02:15 pm.

    Ah, Mr. Gleason. Again you reveal a lack of reading comprehension.

    All of the predictions using Einstein’s theory have subsequently been verified using methods that in 1915 were the stuff of a Jules Verne fantasy.

    Here’s a fellow (whose credentials I’d love to see you challenge) who not only agrees with my point, but takes my point a step further:

    “I believe if Einstein were alive today, he would take advantage of the modern techniques and the modern instruments we have and he would wind up disproving his own theory,” said Dr. Dowdye, a physicist and laser optics engineer who retired from NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. He is an independent researcher and founder of Pure Classical Physics Research and he is a member of The American Physics Society.

    http://www.theepochtimes.com/n3/739183-former-nasa-physicist-disputes-einsteins-relativity-theory/

    During Einstein’s time there were many of his peers who found his hypothesis wanting. It took time for the scientific method to catch up with him.

    You’re suggesting the state of the art in science is with us right here and now. You’re suggesting that because we can’t test something today, it is patently false.

    Speaking of patents and with respects to yourself and Charles H. Duell, I disagree.

    • Submitted by Bill Gleason on 02/03/2015 - 10:33 am.

      Please don’t misinterpret what I’ve said, Mr. Swift

      “You’re suggesting the state of the art in science is with us right here and now. You’re suggesting that because we can’t test something today, it is patently false.”

      I’ve suggested neither of these things, nor are they true.

  14. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 02/04/2015 - 06:55 pm.

    Insert Economists for the word Scientists

    Or Politicians, Journalists, etc. and you’d find the same difference but you’d have to change the subjects being discussed. Strangely enough, the “general public” hasn’t always studied all the information for such a long time period.

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