Do You Think Like a Scientist?

Study Finds Gaps Between Scientists’ and Public’s Views on Key Issues

While 87 percent of scientists believe that global warming is attributable to human activity, just 50 percent of US adults do. A study by Pew Research Center, which surveyed a representative sample of US adults and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, found this and other major differences in views on many science-related issues. (The key findings are presented in this fascinating infographic.)

Some of the gaps may surprise you. For example, the largest gap between scientists and the public–51 points–exists around views on whether it is safe to eat genetically modified foods (GMO foods). While 88 percent of scientists belief it is safe, just 37 percent of US adults do. Views on the use of pesticides in farming also presents a sizable gap. Sixty-eight percent of scientists believe it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, but most of the public fear this practice. Just 28 percent of US adults believe it is safe. Another potentially surprising finding is that though there is scientific consensus for the theory of evolution, just 65 percent of US adults believe in it.

Other gaps exist around issues of resource consumption, sustainability, and climate change. Eighty-two percent of scientists believe that population growth is a major problem, but just 59 percent of US adults do. While these numbers represent a majority viewpoint from both camps, the level of consensus is quite different, with a 23 point gap between the two.

Gaps are smaller however around questions of how society should address the issues of energy and climate change. A minority of both favor the use of fracking to generate natural gas (31 percent of the public and 39 percent of scientists), and a majority on both sides are proponents of replacing gasoline with bio-fuels (78 percent of scientists and 68 percent of the public). However, there is a great divergence around possible solutions. Scientists are considerably more favorable of building nuclear power plants–65 percent to 45 percent of the public–and of offshore drilling for oil and natural gas (52 percent versus 32 percent).

Another major divergence was found around the question of whether childhood vaccines, like the MMR series, should be required by law. Though 86 percent of scientists believe so, just 68 percent of the US public does.

From a sociological standpoint, one can read these differences of opinion in part as evidence of conflicting values. For example, the divergence in belief in evolution is likely related to the cultural strength of religious dogma in the US. In a 2013 study, Pew Research Center found that 24 percent of US adults believe that “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

In terms of divergent views of the causes of climate change, it is quite possible that the consumerist values that underpin capitalism’s growth imperative play a significant role in shaping the public viewpoint. Though an abundance of scientific research demonstrates that humans have caused and are causing climate change, the drive to acquire new things and live a consumerist lifestyle may cause many of us to look away from the evidence and disregard our culpability.

Fear also seems to play a sign role in shaping the views of the US public. Fear of unknown consequences is likely fueling resistance to GMO foods, use of pesticides, and vaccination; and fear of practices that have been the center of major disasters also likely hampers public support for nuclear power plants and offshore drilling.

While some of these findings reflect healthy skepticism for practices that are relatively new and thus may have longterm consequences that are as yet unknown, others, like the resistance to vaccination, pose significant public health threats. The divergence of opinions about issues of climate change and energy may have great political and practical implications too, as they pose potential barriers to effective policy development and implementation of sustainable initiatives.

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