Pew’s Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society Survey

Pew did a survey on the Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society that is of modest interest. Turns out civilians love whitecoats.

Science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals. Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and, despite considerable dispute about the role of government in other realms, there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.

Love scientists they might, but civilians don’t always agree with them. The featured picture shows a set of questions and the percent agreement of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists and civilians, and the agreement “gap” or discrepancy.

Take the discrepancy between “Safe to eat genetically modified foods”: 88% of scientists say yes, 37% of the public say no. Scientists would, ceteris paribus, know more than civilians about genetics and should be trusted. So should they be believed when they say it’s “Safe to eat foods grown with pesticides”, which has a gap of 40%. Scientists also know more about (the non-stellarly worded) “Humans have evolved over time”, which has a gap of 33%.

In one way, scientists are one up on civilians about “Childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required”, an 18% gap. But now wholly. Scientists can say what would happen given such-and-such a percentage of kids were not vaccinated for disease X, but the consequences of the things that happen are not scientific but moral questions. Should all kids be forced by the government to be injected with Gardasil, a vaccination which does carry the risk of side effects, or should they rather be taught to keep their pants on? Not a scientific question.

Ordinarily, you’d expect scientists to have superior knowledge about whether “Climate change is mostly due to human activity”. Mostly?! But that field is ruled more by politics than physics, so the civilians have an edge. Civilians are right to say that we cannot make this claim with anything approaching confidence, but most civilians, except to emphasize the politics, can’t articulate why. This is not a good situation.

Another knowledge imbalance comes with “Favor building more nuclear power plants”, a 20% gap. Who better than a physicist to describe energy output? These same folks can also tell you what would happen in a meltdown—and how exceedingly unlikely such a thing is. But not all scientists are trustworthy. Remember when our Surgeon General advised Americans to take iodized salt after Fukushima? I was in San Francisco at the time and saw a run on containers of Morton’s. Many rolled gently down Stockton as crowds of worried mothers plunged into the huge stack of boxes.

“Growing world population will be a major problem”, a 23% gap, is trickier. Most of the growth will be in people not dying as soon as they used to. This will be a problem in societies like Japan where, we have read, the sale of adult diapers now exceeds baby nappies. What to do about this is only marginally a scientific question. (Eliminate porn, perhaps? The Japanese aren’t having sex.)

The statement itself is ambiguous. One interpretation is that people can increase without number. They cannot. If, in any area, food is scarce, people will not reproduce. Human reproduction is self-limiting. Localized famines can occur, of course, but there can’t be new people (in any area) when there is not enough food. It is because of the increase in cheap food and energy that population has increased.

The survey goes on about other things. The most curious is this. 84% of scientists think it’s a major problem that the “Public doesn’t know much about science”. And the reason for this, the majority of them say, is “Not enough K-12 STEM” and “Lack of public interest in science news.” One follows from the other. Who has interest in subjects which they don’t understand?

More education is always the call. At the risk of sounding elitist…the heck with the risk. Elitist is what we should be. Any body of advanced knowledge—and science is only one of these—is elitist by definition. Scientific truths are not easily won. It takes not only effort, which more attention to education can cure, but also ability, which it won’t. There’s a very good reason only a tiny fraction of people end up as scientists. It’s the same reason, in nature, why most people aren’t in the NBA. It isn’t easy and not everybody is capable.

Interestingly, 34% of civilians say “Private investment is enough” to fund science, an increase from 2009’s survey. Then 48% of scientists say this is a “Bad time” for scientist, also an increase; more than a doubling. Why? Because 83% say “Federal funding” is harder to find. Ah. So the expansion-team syndrome has struck. There are too many scientists, which necessarily drains more money and also produces a greater proportion of lousy work.

Why must scientists always go begging to government? What makes government beneficent and disinterested? Nothing.

Proof? Read the linked article and consider this survey finding. Some 58% of scientists say that science “Always/Most of time” best guides government regulation in “New drug and medical treatment.” They’re less sanguine about how science influences “Land us” and “Clean air and water” regulations. The secret is out. Science—good or bad—is increasingly relied on by government for the express purpose of regulating. As in The Science Has Spoken.


  1. If only 28% of American adults think it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, why is the organic section of the supermarket so small? Methinks there is a disconnect here, either in belief and behaviour or in the survey methodology.

    The genetically modified food question is based on the public’s ignorance about what genetically modified is (medicines and much of our food is already genetically modified). In other words, they know no what they eat.

    More science education really means people should be taught how to think and not just mindlessly drink up government propaganda and what your 8th grade science teacher demanded you write on your paper or flunk. We don’t encourage children to ask questions–no, we punish them when they do. We may not get any more science geniuses, but we would get a lot of kids asking why the emperor has no clothes. If a scientist cannot explain in a way that is non-threatening and clear what he does and why, he needs to work on that. Sure, kids aren’t going to get the Stephen-Boltzmann constant in climate science, but you should be able to show how the idea works, how the models work (and they better), etc. Kids need to know the correct way science works–asking questions, revising theories, etc, not the mess we currently call science. That mess is about as far from science as you can get. Might even make kids more interested in science if they found out how much fun it is when is works the way it is supposed to.

  2. I’m curious – haven’t read the whole study yet, but one thing I noticed is that the scientists are all drawn from the AAAS. One of the main ways that organization advances science is by lobbying for more government funding, right? So, the questions about government funding are like asking a Ford salesman if people should buy more Fords. And what are those questions doing in a survey about science, anyway?

    Also, the mix skews strongly toward medical/biological scientists (50%) and has an unlikely % of retired or otherwise unemployed scientists (25%). I sure hope those medical/biological scientists aren’t just run of the mill MDs – love doctors, they will forever have my gratitude, but an MD in itself does not make you a scientist. Note also that a disturbing percentage (13%) are “Social/History/Policy/Other”. Huh? I should care what their opinions are on nukes, GMOs and climate? Hey, maybe there should be a spot in the AAAS for me as a “Philosophical Scientist” or “Finance Engineer” or something…. Then they could ask me about stuff, too! Would I need to buy a lab coat? I suspect I’d skew the numbers a tiny bit.

  3. Sheri – it says it all that those “Cosmos” series get all the awards for science education, when, between the pretty pictures, all Sagan and that other clown ever did was try to make sure the viewers understood that all the cool kids agreed with whatever the dude in the lab coat was saying.

    As you say, learning to think and question for yourself is the key step. But it ain’t no use to the cowboys if’n the cattle start thinkin’ for themselves.

  4. In this Pew survey, if you look at the detailed report, “scientists” is short for “members of the AAAS”. I’m not sure that you have to be a scientist to join the AAAS (what exactly is a scientist anyway?)

    Another interesting snippet of information has just been tweeted by Matthew Nesbit:
    Among AAAS members, 55% are democrat, 32% independent and 6% republican. He suggests that might explain some of the results that show diffeences between the scientists and the public.

  5. Paul M: That just means Republicans are as unscientific as the public. 😉

    Joseph: Love that last sentence!

  6. Nate

    @Sheri, re “If only 28% of American adults think it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, why is the organic section of the supermarket so small?”

    Most American adults think that Froot Loops are part of a balanced diet (and fit both into the “fruit” and “cereal” section of the food pyramid).

    In general:
    If you want to find out what beliefs an individual has, watch their behavior.
    If you want to see what beliefs have high social value to them, ask them a series of yes/no questions.

  7. Ray

    Self reporting is notoriously unreliable People will say one thing but do another. People will claim they believe organic food Is better for you, but they don’t eat organic food.
    There was a study in the Washington Post that purported to prove that blacks and whites commit the same amount of crime but that blacks are imprisoned much more often. How did the WAPO reach this conclusion? They asked people about their criminal behavior and naturally almost everybody denied being a criminal. About equal numbers of blacks and whites admitted they had committed a crime so the conclusion of the study was that blacks were being discriminated against by being sent to prison while white criminals were not being prosecuted.

  8. Steve E

    Ray, agreed, people wish to be seen in what they perceive to be the best possible light when self reporting. It’s the kind of phenomenon that leads to new products like the McLean from McDonalds (remember that one) and grilled chicken from KFC. People say they will purchase a healthy alternative when it’s available when in reality they go for the high cal food choice when they reach the order counter.
    Nate, I don’t think people really believe that Fruit Loops are part of a balanced diet; I think they don’t care and are willing to hide behind the marketing. I agree that behaviour is more important than stated belief when you’re trying to define reality.

  9. I agree that people often self-report what they think is the “right” answer. I don’t know if it would have helped, but I would have asked “Do you buy organic food?” “Are your children vaccinated?” etc. It might be a bit less slanted. Looking at the sales of organic versus non-organic, vaccinated versus non-vaccinated, etc is a better way to tell what people actually believe. Whether they believe things because of science or something else would still be unknown. The survey just asked what you believe, not why. The “why” could have been interesting.

  10. Yawrate

    That 37% fears GM food shows how the media and NGOs can influence discourse. Here in the Peoples Republic of Ann Arbor we are constantly accosted by those seeking funding for, among other liberal causes, action against polluters, stopping GM food, defunding Israel, and funding ‘alternative energy’. I’ve come to believe, that in this town (well educated), whatever is heard on NPR, Salon, HuffPo etc is the gospel to follow. They either don’t or don’t want to think critically.

  11. Gary

    There’s a long but interesting guest post at Judith Curry’s blog by Andy West that looks at the psychology of stated opinions and cultural group affinity. It has some relevance to the topic of this post.

    The basic conclusion is that opinions tend to change relative to the degree people believe they belong to groups espousing a consensus. While they may respond one way to a survey question that’s independent of any linked influence, they often will answer differently if they think their group favors a different answer.

  12. Sheri,

    “If only 28% of American adults think it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, why is the organic section of the supermarket so small?”

    I suspect because people imagine crop growers don’t routinely use pesticides. I also suspect the public don’t realise that organic crops also use ‘organic’ pesticides rather than ‘synthetic’ pesticides. Because nature good, science bad. Except scientists are greatly admired. Don’t expect to find rational patterns of behaviour in any survey of this type.

  13. BruceC

    @ Joseph Moore

    Anybody can became a member of the AAAS. From their website;

    “Open to everyone, the non-profit AAAS is home to a community of over 120,000 people, from Nobel Laureates to high school students, who believe in the power of science to make our world a better place.”

    What’s more, anybody who subscribes to the journal Science automatically becomes a member of the AAAS.

  14. Will: The latter part of your comment, concerning “organic” pesticides is certainly true. If those propanants of organic really knew what and how much is dumped on their “chemical free” produce, they’d be horrified.

  15. “People will claim they believe organic food Is better for you, but they don’t eat organic food.”

    Just what foods are inorganic?

  16. Definition of ORGANIC. : an organic substance: as. a : a fertilizer of plant or animal origin. b : a pesticide whose active component is an organic compound or a mixture of organic compounds. c : a food produced by organic farming.

    Organic has a different meaning in chemisty and biology—carbon/hydrogen containing compounds.
    People tend to use the term to mean “living” or “came from living” but that is not the only meaning.

    Sadly, now, words have many, many meanings.

  17. The whole definition of ‘organic food’ is somewhat vague. It’s got something to do with use of more ‘natural’ methods of crop growing. With the definition of ‘natural’ being somewhat vague. Anyway, farmers get to charge a premium for an ‘organic’ carrot as opposed to a ‘normal’ carrot, even if there is no test on Earth that could tell the difference.

    RE: AAAS membership. I would hope and expect they filtered AAAS membership surveys by asking questions such as what degree does the member have and how are they employed.

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