Skip to main content

Survey: Science Just One Ingredient of Opinion Cocktail

A new Pew survey finds Americans on the whole like science and even scientists, but aren't willing to give it, or them, the last word on science-related questions.

The public has a generally positive view of American science and scientists — but not always a need for the evidence those scientists unearth, according to a Pew Research Center study released Thursday and conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The survey polled both AAAS members and the general public and found several yawning gaps between them. Eighty-seven percent of scientists say humans and other living beings have evolved over time through natural selection; only 32 percent of the public agrees. Eighty-four percent of scientists say human activity has contributed to global warming; just 49 percent of the public agrees.

Differences between the two groups don't necessarily indicate ignorance on the part of the public, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research for the Pew Research Center. Rather, the public is aware of scientific consensus; individuals just may not accept it weighed against a combination of religious and political beliefs.

"Although people like science, they are not bound by what science shows," said Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS's CEO and executive publisher of the journal Science. "Advances in science over the course of last decade are coming into conflict with some core human values issues, whether it's when life begins or what you believe about evolution. Only scientists are stuck with what science is showing. The public at large and policy-makers are free to deny, disagree or just disregard what the science is showing. Scientists don't have that luxury."

The survey found that despite these disagreements, the public still highly regards scientists. Sixty-seven percent of those polled who say science conflicts with their religious beliefs still think scientists contribute significantly to the well-being of society. And among the public at large, scientists rate behind only two other professions — members of the military and teachers — in popular esteem.

The scientists polled in the survey didn't return the public's praise, with 85 percent saying the public's lack of scientific knowledge is a "major problem" for science.

The study was designed to gauge public perception of science — and scientists' perception of those views — at a time, Keeter said, when scientific and technological innovation are frequently hailed as a path out of the recession. The survey was also intended to follow several years of very public spats between the scientific community and the Bush Administration. The Pew Research Center has never before focused an entire study on the American public perception of science and scientists.

However, 54 percent of the public say they had heard nothing about accusations that the previous administration silenced government scientists whose findings contradicted the administration's views on issues like global warming.

Among the AAAS members, 55 percent say they had heard a lot about the accusation — and 77 percent say they believe it was true.

Leshner said he was most surprised that only 17 percent of the public believes American scientific achievements are the best in the world, while 49 percent of scientists themselves believe America ranks the highest. The public perception stands in contrast to the Pew center's research in other countries, which has consistently found that science and technology are considered America's most admired accomplishments around the world even in the corners where locals can find little else to like about the U.S.

As for the gap in understanding with the public, scientists largely blame the media, with 76 percent saying it is a major problem that the media fails to distinguish between research that is well founded and findings that are not.

Leshner would like to add blame both to the education system and the scientific community itself, which he said should learn from the study that more public outreach is needed. Public opinion does change over time, he said, citing understanding of stem cell research that has evolved dramatically in the last five years.

In the "Science IQ" survey included in the study, 52 percent of the general public correctly knew the answer to the question "How are stem cells different from other cells?" (If you want to know the answer, or just want to pit yourself against all the Americans who don't, the Pew center invites you to take the quiz used in the survey here).

"One can't just exhort, 'we all agree; you should agree with us,'" Leshner said. "It's a much more interactive process involved that's time-consuming and can be tedious. In fact, it's very important for the scientific community and the public to have more than sound-bite conversations about these subjects."

The study included three surveys: a poll of 2,533 AAAS members, a phone survey of 2,001 members of the public, and a second phone survey of basic scientific understanding among 1,005 adults.

Sign up for our free e-newsletter.

Are you on Facebook? Become our fan.

Follow us on Twitter.

Add our news to your site.