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Public Opinion on Science

July 30, 2015

Progress in science has the side effect that some "facts" learned by scientists while they were in college and graduate school are changed over the course of their careers. Many universities have a policy that a Ph.D. candidate must defend his/her thesis within a certain period, typically seven to nine years. The reason for this is that their competency has been diminished as their field has progressed.

Successful scientists are lifelong learners, reading professional journals, attending seminars and conferences, and chatting with colleagues. As an industrial scientist, I was required to complete at least forty hours of "professional development" each year, just as all other employees of the corporation were required to do. However, this was something I would necessarily have done without the requirement.

If it's that hard for a scientist to keep current, what hope is there for members of the general public, many of whom have had just one or two science courses in high school or college? Even a practicing scientist has specialized knowledge of just one scientific discipline; so, how do physicists make informed opinions on matters of biotechnology, and physiologists on matters of nanotechnology?

The results of a recent survey by the Pew Research Center show a wide gap of opinion on scientific matters between the general public and scientists.[1-3] In this survey, the scientists were members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), an organization that encompasses all disciplines of science and is the publisher of the prestigious journal, Science. I've been a member of the AAAS for more than thirty-five years, principally because I'm an American scientist interested in the advancement of science, but also because I receive Science as a perquisite of membership.

The public seems less educated in science today than in the past. As an example of past scientific literacy, at about the time of the American Revolution, the Frenchman, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788), published volume after volume of a natural history, Histoire naturelle, a modern take on Pliny's Naturalis Historia. It's written that this scientific work "was a best seller that was read by virtually every educated person in Europe."[4].

Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788)

Buffon is better known to mathematicians and computer scientists for Buffon's needle, a statistical method for determining the value of the mathematical constant, pi.

(Via Wikimedia Commons.)

Says the Pew Research Center,
"There is a common supposition that when ordinary people have different views from those of experts that the differences center on knowledge gaps: If only people knew more, the argument goes, they would agree with the experts."[2]

We can see this principle operating in three major scientific issues of the day, the safety of genetically modified foods, biological evolution, and global warming. As can be seen in the Pew survey results on the question of whether genetically modified foods are safe to eat, 88% of AAAS members believe this to be true, while the percentage falls precipitously at lower education levels (see graph).

Opinion on genetically modified foods by level of educationOpinion on the safety of genetically modified foods by level of education.

(Graphed by the author using Gnumeric with data from ref. 3.)[3]

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859. A hundred and fifty years later, human evolution and animal evolution is still being debated among the public, while scientists consider it to be a fact.

Opinion on evolution by level of educationOpinion on biological evolution by level of education.

(Graphed by the author using Gnumeric with data from ref. 3.)[3]

Global warming is a complex issue. Pew research asked whether the Earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity; or, it was getting warmer due to natural patterns or there is no solid evidence the earth is warming. Thirteen percent of AAAS members were hesitant to fully commit to a human cause for global warming, but that's still only one dissenter in eight.

Opinion on global warming by level of educationOpinion on global warming by level of education.

(Graphed by the author using Gnumeric with data from ref. 3.)[3]

This blog steers clear of politics. Everyone is entitled to his own opinion. The Pew Research Center, however, wasn't reluctant to examine political bias in scientific opinion. As a surprise to no one, Pew found that
"Overall, Democrats and liberals are more likely than Republicans and conservatives to say the Earth is warming, human activity is the cause of the change, the problem is serious and there is scientific consensus about the climate changes underway and the threat it poses to the planet."[2]

Twelve percent of Democrats and leaning Democrats, compared with 33% of Republicans, say government investment in basic scientific research is not worthwhile. This might not be an anti-science bias of Republicans, but just an expression of their opinion on government spending.[2]

Men and women differ slightly on some scientific opinions. While a majority of men favor using animals in scientific research, a majority of women are against this. Controlling for the level of education and politics, women are less in favor of building more nuclear power plants, fracking, and more offshore drilling for oil and natural gas extraction.

Men also are more in favor of manned spaceflight. However, men and women are about equally likely to support government funding of basic science, engineering and technology. While religion affects opinions on human evolution and cosmology, it doesn't influence opinion on other science topics, including biomedicine.[2]

The Pew survey was conducted in collaboration with the AAAS. Principal authors include Lee Rainie, Cary Funk, Brian Kennedy, Monica Anderson, Maeve Duggan, Kenneth Olmstead, Andrew Perrin, Shannon Greenwood, Michael Suh, Margaret Porteus, and Dana Page.[1]


  1. Pew Research Center, Americans, Politics and Science Issues," July 1, 2015 (4.3 MB PDF File).
  2. Cary Funk and Lee Rainie, "Summary of Findings: Americans, Politics and Science Issues," Pew Research Center, July 1, 2015.
  3. Pew Research Center, "Major Gaps Between the Public, Scientists on Key Issues," July 1, 2015.
  4. Buffon's American Degeneracy, Academy of Natural Sciences Web Site.

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