New Pew Poll of Public Science Beliefs
It is a reasonable assumption that scientists know more about science than non-scientists. This is the premise of a recent Pew poll comparing the attitudes of the general public with the attitudes of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). Many issues have a large gap between public and scientific belief, and the reasons for these gaps is worth exploring.
The PEW research center published some of this data back in January, but are now releasing what appears to be more complete data, including a breakdown of demographics.
The largest gap existed with the statement, “it is safe to eat genetically modified food.” 88% of AAAS members agreed with this statement, while only 37% of the general public did, a gap of 51 points. This gap may be due to several factors: GM technology is still relatively new in the public consciousness and is not well understood. Food can also be a highly emotional issue – it is easy to trigger our disgust reflex with the idea that food is tainted or unnatural.
Perhaps the biggest factor, however, is the anti-GMO campaign that has been waged by organic competitors and ideological groups. There is a great deal of misinformation about GMOs in the public, and scientists are only recently trying to address some of this misinformation.
Other issues with large gaps between public and scientific opinions include (scientists vs public opinion):
favor using animals in research: 89 vs 47%
safe to eat food grown with pesticides: 68 vs 28%
the earth is getting warmer mostly due to human activity: 87 vs 50%
humans and other living things have evolved over time: 98 vs 65%
The demographic breakdown for these issues is also interesting. For the GMO, animal research, and pesticide questions the gap between the public and scientists was greater for women, minorities, and those with less scientific education and knowledge. There was very little difference in age, ideology, or political affiliation. This implies that rejection of the scientific consensus on these particular issues may be due to a subculture that cuts across traditional political identity.
For the global warming and evolution questions the trends were quite different. There was almost no gender difference. There was a large ideological difference, however, with conservatives rejecting the scientific consensus and liberals accepting it at much higher rates. However, even among liberals there was a large gap between public and scientific opinions, just not as large as for conservatives.
For these latter two issues there was also a trend toward a greater gap with increasing age, so younger people accepted the scientific consensus at a higher rate. Minorities also had a smaller gap, but this might be explained by ideology and party affiliation.
For all the issues having more scientific knowledge correlated with a smaller gap between public and scientist opinions. This was smallest for the pesticide question – 47% acceptance among those with low scientific knowledge and 52% among those with high scientific knowledge.
Regardless of the demographic details, the survey clearly shows the need for much greater science education and public communication from scientists regarding the major science issues of the day.