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There Are Vast Gaps Between Scientists and the General Public on GMOs, Climate Change

A new study highlights the need for a new kind of public outreach, as well as stronger science education.
(Photo: Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr)

(Photo: Virginia Sea Grant/Flickr)

By now, there's a general agreement that science has been good for humanity, and a shared concern about the future of science education. Still, scientists' and the public's views often differ on specific scientific issues, according to a new joint study from the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Researchers surveyed 3,748 AAAS member scientists and 2,002 adults living in the United States, asking their views and beliefs on a range of scientific topics.

"The public overall tends to see positive benefits of science" on society, says Pew associate director for research Cary Funk. People generally agreed with scientists that K-12 science education lagged behind other nations.

Scientists may view GMOs as safer, Leshner says, because they are more familiar with the process of creating them. Issues like evolution, meanwhile, may just be at odds with core values.

"Despite those commonalities, we are also seeing large differences between the public and scientists on a range of science topics," Funk says, particularly on issues such as genetically modified foods, climate change, evolution, and, to a lesser extent, measles vaccination. The overwhelming majority of AAAS scientists surveyed—88 percent—thought GMOs were generally safe, compared to just 37 percent of the general public. A similarly large gap existed on the question of climate change: 87 percent of scientists said climate change was largely driven by human activity; only half of the public blamed human activity. There were smaller, but still substantial, gaps on human evolution and whether the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine ought to be required.

Though the sorry state of K-12 science education is among the major reasons for the gaps, "the individual issues differ a bit in the reasons for the disparity," says AAAS chief executive officer Alan Leshner. Scientists may view GMOs as safer, he says, because they are more familiar with the process of creating them. Issues like evolution, meanwhile, may just be at odds with core values. "Sometimes it is simply a lack of understanding. Sometimes it is an economic or political issue. And sometimes it is a conflict" between science and core religious beliefs or values. A follow-up report due later this year will analyze how religious and political beliefs, among other things, may shape the public's views.

To counter this observed disparity, scientists will need to up their outreach. To do that, Leshner says, scientists must focus on smaller, more localized sessions with the public, instead of big town-hall-style meetings. "There is a science of science communication to the public," he says, that shows small-group interactions are more effective than massive, lecture-style approaches. 

Leshner acknowledges that scientists have been "arrogant" in the past about communicating with the public and says the discussion should focus on facts—and not with proving the intelligence of the scientist at hand. "I think the scientific community is hoping to be able to engage more fully with the public in a dialogue," Leshner adds, "as opposed to the traditional monologue."