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13 Things Scientists and Public Opinion Don’t Agree On

A survey shows that scientists have different opinions on things like climate change, vaccinations, and genetically-modified foods.

by Victoria Turk
Jan 29 2015, 6:55pm

Image: ​US Army RDECOM/Flickr

The researchers surveyed a representative sample of around 2,000 US citizens and 3,784 AAAS scientists.

Scientists and Joe Public tend to have a very different view on topics like genetically modified food, animal research, and climate change.

A ne​w study by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) puts a number to these differing perspectives, and the results give an interesting overview of how science professionals and your average citizen don't always see eye to eye.

It's unsurprising that scientists and random members of the public had different views on some of the more divisive topics in the realm of science and tech. Take evolution: 98 percent of scientists agreed that humans "evolved over time," while only 65 percent of other US adults did, the majority of the remaining agreeing that humans "existed in their present form since the beginning of time."

Or climate change: 87 percent of the scientists responded that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity; among the citizen respondents only 50 percent agreed.

In a statement, lead author Cary Funk said they expected to see differences between the two groups—"But we were surprised by the size of those differences and how often they occur."

A few more, just for fun:

  • 89 percent of AAAS scientists favour using animals in scientific research, versus 47 percent of US adults
  • 88 percent of AAAS scientists think it's generally safe to eat genetically modified foods, versus 37 percent of US adults
  • 86 percent of AAAS scientists think children should be required to be vaccinated, versus 68 percent of US adults
  • Only 47 percent of AAAS scientists think it's essential to include human astronauts in the future of the US space program, versus 59 percent of US adults

Perhaps what's more interesting than the gap between the two groups' overriding attitudes, however, is the disconnect between them. The survey asked the non-scientist group what they thought scientific consensus was on these topics. Sixty-six percent (including half of those who didn't believe in evolution) said they thought scientists "generally agree" that humans evolved over time. Fifty-seven percent thought scientists generally agreed the Earth was getting warmer due to human activity.

In some ways, these studies can help connect the public with the scientific community, then, and settle misconceived ideas about how controversial these kind of hot topics are among scientists. It's something AAAS has spoken out on before, especially regarding climate change.

That's not to suggest scientists are necessarily any more "right" than the general populace on everything. When 92 percent of AAAS scientists say US achievements in science are either the best in the world or at least better than average (versus 54 percent of the non-scientists), you can't help but think there might be a little bias at play.

The whole report is chock full of interesting findings, and worth looking over (with all the caveats that go along with basing research on surveys like this).

The authors do highlight one area in which scientists and the public agree: STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) education in the US is not good enough, scoring mainly an "average" or "below average" rating compared to other countries from both groups surveyed.

And according to co-author Lee Rainie: "When both groups basically speak in the same voice about an issue, it is worth paying attention."

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