The Gulf Between Opinions Held by Scientists and the General Public on Key Issues

Many Americans reject evolution, deny climate change and find GM food unsafe, survey finds. This study points to worrying gulf between the opinions held by scientists:  Many Americans reject evolution, deny climate change and find GM food unsafe, survey finds.

The report by the Pew Research Center in Washington DC was conducted with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and sought to compare the opinions of a cross-section of the US public with those held by the AAAS’s scientific members.

Published in the journal Science, the survey found that 31% of the US public believed that humans had existed in their present form since the beginning, with a further 24% stating that humans had evolved under the guiding hand of a supreme being. In contrast, only 2% of AAAS scientists said humans had not evolved in their time on Earth.

The proportion of the public who believed evolution had happened through natural processes, as described by Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago, was only slightly greater than a third at 35%. The survey drew on phone interviews with 2,002 US adults chosen to be representative of the nation, and online questions of 3,748 US-based members of the AAAS.

In some cases, a poor science education was at the heart of the differences in opinion, Leshner said. “Sometimes it’s simply a lack of understanding, sometimes it’s an economic or a politicial issue, and sometimes it’s a conflict between, say, core religious belief, or core values, and what science is showing,” he said. “In all of these cases, science is being trumped by these other factors and scientists need to do something to turn that around.”

“It’s not about whether the public is dumb or not. It’s partly a function of the American educational system that does a terrible job … at educating young people in science, math and technology,” he added.

Update: Article in today’s NYT shows majority backing for action on Climate Change.

2 thoughts on “The Gulf Between Opinions Held by Scientists and the General Public on Key Issues

  1. Or maybe it’s what it always has been – our emotions and values trumping science. Our hunter-gatherer heritage collides with “Trust Me.” And “Trust Me” loses. The inclusion of GM foods is, I think, an important clue. It’s not just those Neanderthal redneck Republicans – most of the opposition to GM foods comes from the political left.

    Climate change as an example. Too often lost in the debates about Global Warming (besides of course civility, humility and good sense!) is the fact that the deviations predicted in the average temperature are within the bounds of the fluctuations each of us experience every year. It’s hard for the average citizen to get worked up about that. The intellectually dishonest hucksters who authoritatively pronounce “Bad things WILL happen” are not scientists; the most a scientist can say is “This may happen” or “If X, then Y is more likely to happen.” It’s not that we need to tell the same story better, it’s that we need to reconsider the stories we tell.

    The climate is changing, but it has always changed. Is Man to blame for the warming from the late ’60’s to the ’90’s? If Man is a part of Nature, certainly we played a role. How big a role is still unproven. Is evolution a fact? Certainly, that can be proven. But if someone takes comfort in believing that a Creator designed the natural mechanism according to a Grand Design, fine for them. Are genetically modified foods safe? I believe they are, but my argument that they should be permitted, even encouraged, rests on the moral implications of improving the nutrition of those who will suffer and die without them.

    Our science has outpaced our biological evolution; Science should be only one of the factors shaping our policies.

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