According to a new survey by the Pew Research Center, American scientists and Joe Q. Public have a very different understanding of science-related issues, and 98% of scientists say the lack of general scientific understanding is major problem.
This Pew survey polled 2,002 adults by phone and did an online survey of 3,748 AAAS members in the late summer and fall of 2014. Of note, the statistical margin of error is plus or minus 3.1% for the public and 1.7% for the scientists.
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More details on the survey
The survey determined that in eight of 13 science-related issues, there was at least a 20% gap between the opinions of the public and those of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. After subgroup analysis, it was also determined that the gaps didn’t correlate to a liberal-conservative political split.
In a major difference of opinion, 88% of the scientists surveyed believe is safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37% of the public say it is safe and 57% say it is unsafe. Around 68% of scientists replied it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, but only 28% of the general public felt the same way.
A solid 98% of scientists say humans evolved over time, whereas only 65% of the public share that belief. In regard to vaccines, 86% scientists favored mandatory childhood vaccinations while 68% of the public were against it.
More than 87% of scientists reported believing that global warming is mostly due to human activity, while only 50% of the public did.
Statement from Pew Research
In reference to to the science issue perception gap, “These are big and notable gaps,” noted Lee Rainie, Pew Research’s director of internet, science and technology research. He commented that the gaps are “pretty powerful indicators of the public and the scientific community seeing the world differently.”
“On the whole, as compared to most members of the public, scientists are likely drawing from a larger scientific knowledge base — and thinking more scientifically — about each of these issues,” George Mason University communications professor Edward Maibach pointed out in an email to ABC. “Therefore, their views appear to be more in line with a completely dispassionate reading of the risks versus the benefits.”
Lack of science understanding a cause for concern
Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS, argued that the size of the gap between the way the public and scientists perceive important issues is a cause for concern.
“Science is about facts; science is not about values,” Leshner commented. “Policies are made on facts and values and we want to make sure that the accurate, non-distorted facts are brought in to any kind of discussion.”
The survey reported that 84% of the scientists said it is a major problem that “the public does not know very much about science” and another 14% called it is a minor problem.
Furthermore, 97% of the scientists were critical of the U.S. the educational system. Close to 75% of the scientists said not enough science and math education is a significant problem and another 22% perceived it as a minor issue.
“It’s not about being smart or dumb,” Leshner said. “It’s about whether, in fact, you understand the source of the fact and what the facts are.”