Having just finished reading an interesting article on public opinion regarding science, I felt some of you guys might be interested in reading it.
Funnily enough, an old quote came to mind whilst reading it.
There are in fact two things, science and opinion; the former begets knowledge, the latter ignorance.
Hippocrates (460 BC - 377 BC)
The public trusts scientists - but not their conclusion
In recent decades, the US has had an ambiguous relationship with science. In the abstract, scientists are considered trusted, valuable members of society, but when it comes to specific areas of science that the public is uncomfortable with (such as evolution), a sizable fraction of the public is willing to believe that the scientific community is engaged in a nefarious plot to deceive them. That strange gap in perception hasn't gone away, based on results from surveys of scientists and the public performed by the Pew Research Center.
The details of the surveys can be obtained at the Pew website. In short, the public and scientists were given partly overlapping surveys to gauge their perception of specific scientific issues. The scientists were chosen from among the membership of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, with statistical weighting used to adjust for the fact that older members were more likely to respond. Scientists were asked additional questions about the state of funding and research in their fields. The public received a short quiz to test their knowledge of science.
Admiration does not equal agreement
When it comes to the public, there's a clear trend: the more education you have, the better you know science, the more you value it, and the more likely you are to accept the findings of science on controversial subjects. In the US, those with higher levels of education tend to earn more, and some minorities are still underrepresented at higher education levels; as a result, these two demographic items also varied along with education, meaning that wealthier people tended to understand and appreciate science more, etc.
Overall, the public's appreciation is substantial. Eighty-four percent of the public thinks that science has had a positive impact on society, and that number cleared 90 percent among the demographic groups with the best knowledge of it. Well over two-thirds say that investments in science and technology pay off in the long run, and support for continued funding of science remained stable even as economic worries have caused nearly every other funding option to lose support over the last eight years. About 70 percent of the public thinks that scientists have a positive impact on society, behind only teachers and those serving in the military. By way of contrast, only a third of the respondents said this about journalists.
But if scientists are pleased about being admired and trusted, they should be aware that scientific conclusions aren't held in such high regard. Eighty-four percent of scientists consider the case for anthropogenic climate change to be on solid footing, and over 90 percent were either very or somewhat concerned about it (the discrepancy arises from a those scientists who consider the current warning to be driven primarily by natural events). This is especially striking given that geoscientists were the least represented scientific discipline in the survey, and acceptance of anthropogenic climate change is highest among climatologists.
In contrast, only about half of the public are convinced of the scientific community's conclusions, and that drops to only 21 percent among those who self-identify as conservative Republicans. Even among the most liberal fraction of the public, however, the numbers are lower than within the scientific community. One reason for this is that only half of the public believes that the scientific community has itself reached agreement on these matters.
Similar gaps are apparent in other areas. Scientists were nearly unanimous in supporting research involving stem cells and animals, and they want to see mandatory vaccinations; but in every case, the numbers among scientists far outstripped the public's support on these topics. About 70 percent of the scientists wanted to see nuclear facilities being built, presumably as a method of limiting climate change-only half of the public does. The scientific community also rates the completion of the human genome as its most significant achievement in recent decades; that event has barely registered with the public.
If the scientific community were to collectively point a finger, it would likely be directed at the media. Eighty-three percent of scientists rated TV coverage of scientific developments as "only fair" or worse, and three-quarters said that the press fails to distinguish between well-established and tentative results. Newspapers did slightly better but, in general, scientists remain deeply unhappy with the media.
Science, politics, religion
An uneasy relationship between religion and evolutionary science was apparent in the results, but the situation appears to be extremely complex. First, the easy part: 97 percent of the scientific community accepts that species have evolved (some of these ascribe to a form of theistic evolution). In contrast, nearly one-third of the public thinks that species have remained static since their creation.
It would be easy to chalk this up to a conflict between science and religion and, indeed, over half of the public feels there is a conflict between science and religion. But only 36 percent actually said that science conflicts with their own religious beliefs, and evolution and origin of life issues only accounted for half of that total-things like stem cells, abortion, and cloning made up the rest. The presence of a vocal crowd of atheists who say that science is incompatible with religion barely registered, with only four percent of the public agreeing.
But it's clear that there's a tremendous amount of confusion on the topic. Only 60 percent of the public thinks that science has reached a consensus on its acceptance of the evidence for evolution (97 percent of scientists think so) and half of those who think that species haven't evolved say that science doesn't conflict with their religious beliefs. The information gap isn't exclusive to science, either: 27 percent of Catholics think that species haven't evolved, even though their church has deemed evolution theologically acceptable and intellectually compelling.
About the only clear conclusion here is that a substantial fraction of the US public have no idea what's going on in the scientific community.
There's also a large partisan divide when it comes to science. Nearly half of the respondents who described themselves as conservative Republicans felt that private money funds sufficient research, and they were the only group where less than half felt that government-funded research was essential to scientific progress. The scientists, meanwhile, felt that funding from the National Institutes of Health and National Science foundation was critical to science.
That alone might be enough to explain the partisan divide, but there were some indications that the reasons run deeper. Perhaps because of their experience with the NIH and NSF, significantly less than half of scientists think that government-run programs are typically inefficient. Only 20 percent of scientists think businesses will act in the public interest, which is less than the public in general; this may in part be a result of the tendency of pharmaceutical companies pushing questionable research.
In terms of recent events, over 85 percent of the scientific community is aware of accusations that the previous US administration stifled scientific research that ran counter to their desired policies, and the majority of them felt that the accusations were probably true. Less than half of the public was even aware of these accusations.
Given the philosophical differences and the indications of actual antagonism, it's no real surprise that only six percent of scientists self-identify as Republican; given that "independent" levels are similar to the population at large, this means that scientists lean dramatically Democrat. This is ironic, given that Democrats as a whole performed the worst on the test of basic scientific literacy.
The outlines of the survey results are in line with similar studies, although Pew has clearly provided a higher-resolution view of the gap between the public's appreciation for scientists and its understanding of science. What may be new is how large the gap has grown among the Republican constituency, in particular. Political biases tend to be cyclical-the antievolution side in the Scopes trial was represented by a Democratic presidential candidate, after all-but the philosophical differences between the scientific community and the basic principles of the current version of the Republican party may be difficult to bridge.