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Your Age, Race, and Political Affiliation Can Predict What You Think About Science

Many aspects of Americans' lives work together to influence their opinions on issues such as global warming, animal testing, and sending people to space.
(Photo: Kevin Case/Flickr)

(Photo: Kevin Case/Flickr)

Tell me your age, race, gender, and political leanings, and I'll tell you your likely views on issues such as human-caused global warming, GMO foods, and childhood vaccines. I'm no psychic, but I can play the odds: Americans' opinions about these matters of science and technology align strongly with certain personal characteristics, according to a new survey.

The survey, which comes from analysts at the Pew Research Center, offers a fascinating glimpse into the many aspects of Americans' lives that converge to influence how they think, and perhaps vote, about science issues. The findings belie the common assumption that science is apolitical or acultural; whether or not they should, people's cultural environments play a big role in how they think about science. The Pew study can also act as a tip sheet for those wishing to change others' minds about hot-button topics such as GMO foods and vaccines, because it identifies the topics for which a knowledge of facts really helps—and for what topics it doesn't.

The survey required a representative sample of 2,002 American adults on their landline and cell phones. The scientists performed statistical analyses to tease out which characteristics affected people's views on different issues strongly, independent of other factors.

Here's a short list of some important science questions and the personal characteristics that held the greatest influence over people's opinions on them:

  • Is global warming real and human-caused? Political party, age.
  • Should we frack more? Political party, age.
  • Did humans arise through evolution? Age, religion or church attendance.
  • Are childhood vaccines safe? Race. Black Americans are more likely than whites to say vaccines are generally safe for kids.
  • Should sick people have access to experimental drugs before they're fully tested? Age, race. Black Americans are much more likely than Americans of other races to think experimental drugs should not be made available early.
  • Are genetically modified foods safe to eat? Education or science knowledge.
  • Is it okay to use animals in research? Age, education or science knowledge, gender.
  • Is it important for NASA to send humans into space? Gender. Men are more likely to say "yes" to this question, which presents a great argument that astronomers need to work on how welcoming their field seems to women. Win the hearts of women and you'll win a large contingency of voters who affect NASA funding.

It's not encouraging to see that people's opinions on topics such as global warming and vaccines hew with factors like political party and age. The former presents the risk that people may automatically decide on science based on their favorite party, instead of thinking through the issue by themselves. The latter is impossible to change.

In addition, education and knowledge have only a weak effect—if one at all—on people's opinions about whether vaccines are safe for healthy children, or whether America should frack more or drill more for oil offshore. These are arguments proponents must win in other ways.

Still, there's some hope. Having better education and science knowledge appears to strongly alter people's opinions on animal testing, nuclear power plants, and GMO foods. More education and knowledge also affect people's opinions on the need for limits on power plants' emissions, the reality of human-caused climate change, and evolution. That's great because education and knowledge are straightforward—if not always easily obtained—objectives.

As for the rest, scientists, politicians, and activists will just have to get creative.