The Complex Relationship Between Science and the Public
More than ever, scientific and technological innovations touch every aspect of our lives and influence the choices we make in a wide variety of areas. A 2015 study by the Pew Research Center revealed that most Americans have a positive view of science and of the accomplishments of scientists. But, despite broadly similar views about the place of science in the country, there were large differences between the general public and scientist across a number of important issues, including genetically modified foods, vaccine safety and climate change.
Two years ago, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences launched The Public Face of Science, an initiative whose objective is to better understand the complex relationship between scientists and the public in America. A few weeks ago, the Academy released Perceptions of Science in America, the first in a series of reports from the Public Face of Science initiative. The report aims to analyze the public’s perception of scientists, explore how opinions vary among different populations, and shed light on how public opinions are shaped. Its analysis is based on survey data from multiple sources, including the Pew Research Center, the National Science Board Science and Engineering Indicators, the National Opinion Research Center, Research!America and ScienceCounts.
What do we mean by science? “The term science encompasses a range of disciplines in the physical, social, and life sciences, along with applied fields, such as engineering and medicine,” notes the report. “Science can be defined as ‘the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural, as well as the knowledge generated through this process.’” But, one must keep in mind that the word science is interpreted differently by different individuals, - e.g., medical treatments, technological advances, fundamental research. “When interpreting the available survey data, it is important to consider the range of responses a question might prompt.”
The report is divided into three sections: an overview of the general perceptions of science, demographic influences on these views, and a detailed look at three controversial science topics. Let me discuss each of the sections.
General perceptions of science
Overall, confidence in scientific leaders has remained relatively stable over the past thirty years. Throughout that timeframe, 40% of the public has expressed a great deal of confidence in the scientific community, a figure only currently surpassed by the over 50% who express confidence in the military, and far above the confidence levels in financial institutions, the press and Congress
Almost 80% believe that science has made life easier for most people, compared to 15% who believe that science has made life more difficult. But many are concerned with the pace of change, with opinions fairly evenly split among those who agree and disagree with the statement “science makes our way of life change too fast.”
Around 90% of Americans support public investment in research, with 50% saying that Federal spending should increase and 40% saying that it should stay the same. Over 70% believe that Federal investments in basic scientific research and in engineering and technology pay off in the long run. And almost 80% feel that research investments have been very or somewhat important for job creation, technological breakthroughs and economic growth.
Americans also support an active role for scientists in public life. In response to the question: “How important is it for scientists to inform elected officials and the public about their research and its impact on society?,” 86% said that it was very important or somewhat important. In addition, 67% indicated that they strongly agree or somewhat agree that public policies should be based on the best available science. Medical and health research and the environment were the two top areas where the public said that scientists should help shape public policy.
The report found that confidence in scientific leaders varies based on demographics and related factors. Overall, 90% of Americans expressed either a “great deal” or “only some” confidence in scientific leaders. While the number does not vary significantly among demographic groups, there was some variation in the strength of the support. 28% of black adults reported a “great deal” of confidence compared to 43% of white adults and 45% of “other”; 37% of females did so compared to 45% of males; and so did 48% of younger adults (18-34) compared to 35% of adults over 65.
There were also regional variations among those reporting a “great deal” of confidence in scientific leaders, with the Northeast and West higher at 47% and 46% respectively, and the Midwest and South lower at 39% and 35% respectively. There were also variations by political affiliation with Democrats at 42%, Republicans at 35% and Independents at 43%.
Educational attainment made a big difference in a number of areas. 50% of those with bachelor’s or higher degrees expressed a “great deal” of confidence in scientific leaders, compared with high school graduates at 37% and less than high school at 29%. Higher educational attainment also correlates with positive perceptions of science, ranging from 94% of those with graduate or professional degrees to 52% of those with less than high school. There were also variations by educational level in the percentage of people who agreed that science causes life to change too fast, from 41% of those with graduate or professional degrees; to 69% of those with less than high school.
Demographic variations highlight the need to consider the audience when discussing science, since how people think about science varies in important ways among and within groups. While it’s clear that people of different races, genders, educational levels and political affiliations have different levels of confidence in the scientific community, the causes are unclear and should be a topic of further research.
Case studies of specific controversial topics
The report’s last section explores three controversial topics where the 2015 Pew Research study found a sizable difference of opinion between the general public and the scientific community: genetically modified foods, vaccine safety and climate change. This is important because although such controversies only arise around a small number of issues, the ensuing, often heated debates can undermine the public’s confidence in scientists, making it difficult to develop the appropriate public policies.
Genetically Modified Foods. The largest difference in opinion between scientists and the public concerned the safety of genetically modified foods. 88% of scientists said that they were generally safe, compared with 37% of the general public. Some of it is based on lack of information. A subsequent Pew Research study uncovered that only 42% of adults mistakenly believed that scientists agree that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, instead of the actual 88% agreement. The perception that genetically modified foods are safe to eat is higher among survey respondents with high science knowledge (64%) compared to those with low science knowledge (28%). So does trust that scientists will provide full and accurate information on the health impact of such foods, - which varies from 51% of respondents with high science knowledge to 18% of those with low science knowledge.
Vaccine Safety. Public concerns about the safety of childhood vaccines have long been part of the public discourse, despite assurances by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Academy of Pediatrics and a host of other scientific bodies that the vaccines are safe. 88% of Americans agree that the benefits of childhood vaccines outweigh the risks, with only 9% expressing a lack of trust that medical scientists are providing full and accurate information on childhood vaccines.
But, younger people are more skeptical, with 15% of those 18 to 29 not trusting medical scientists, compared to 8% of people 30 to 64 and 6% of those over 65. Parents of children up to 4 years old are the more concerned with only about 50% saying that the risks of side effects from the vaccine are low compared to 70% of those with no children under 18.
Climate Change. The 2015 Pew Research study found that while 87% of the scientific community agreed that climate change is mostly due to human activity, only 50% of the public did. This is a highly ideological topic. Only 15% of conservative Republicans have a high degree of trust that climate scientists will provide full and accurate information on the causes of climate change, compared to 32% of moderate Republicans, 45% of moderate Democrats, and 70% of liberal Democrats
Public opinion data “reveal a high degree of divergence on climate science between liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans,” notes the Perceptions of Science report. “Perhaps counterintuitively, recent research suggests that this political polarization is particularly severe among those with higher educational attainment, science education, or science literacy. However, this phenomenon is limited only to a few areas of science; others, such as genetically modified foods, exhibit no such association… Such insights demonstrate the value of additional research into the underlying factors that inform group identity, as well as the potential efficacy of various evidence-based communication strategies.”