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Thursday, February 5, 2015

Beliefs of Scientists and the General Public

I’ve long been interested in science – mostly earth sciences and the science of living things, including how people think. So when Pew research released their latest study of how scientists felt about different issues from what the general public believes I not only read the article in my newspaper, but googled it to find out more details. The research found that in 8 of the 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 30% point or higher gap between scientists’ opinions and the general public’s opinion.

Last May, the comedian and late night talk show host John Oliver had scientists on discussing human-induced climate change. Some endorsed the idea, others didn’t. Out of 100 scientists, only three were skeptics. I didn’t see it, but as one who believes in mostly human caused climate change, wouldn’t you think almost everybody should believe it by now? However, according to the Pew research only 50% of the general public believes in people caused climate change. That means half of our country doesn’t believe it. Incredible! It makes one wonder where they get their information.

Then when you get to genetically modified foods, 88% of the scientists believe it’s safe to eat while only 37% of U.S. adults do. That’s a big gap. Another big gap comes with the belief in evolution. Ninety-eight percent of scientists believe in it, but only 65% of the general public believes in it. I found that very surprising.

Moving on to something that has recently surfaced in the news. Measles. Huge outbreaks are happening in California as well as to a lesser extent in other parts of the country. Not all of the children were unvaccinated, but most of them were. Reason?  The group of parents who believed the now debunked research those vaccinations caused Autism, refused to have their children vaccinated. Statistics show that 86% of scientists feel vaccinations should be required while only 68% of the general public do. Fortunately, most parents still get their children vaccinated even if they don’t believe it should be required.

Off shore drilling. What do you think about that? I’m against it. The oceans are already in trouble as scientists are finding. Coral reefs are in trouble. Sea creatures; mammals, fish and birds are dying off. Baby sea lions are dying on California beaches. The scientists who study marine mammals think maybe mother sea lions are abandoning their young to go further out to sea to find food. Only 32% of scientists favor off shore drilling, while 52% of the general public favors it.

Sixty-five percent of scientists favor building more nuclear power plants, 45% of the general public do.  Are astronauts essential for the future of the U.S. space program? Fifty-nine percent of the general public believes that while only 47% of scientists believe it.

The study polled a random sample of 3,748 AAAS scientists based in the U.S. that included chemistry, medical sciences, earth sciences, social sciences and astronomy. Cory Funk, the lead author of the study and associate director of science research at Pew, said they tried to cover as broad an array of topics as possible in creating the study.

She found it hard to pinpoint a single reason there’s such large gaps in perception between scientists and the general public.  However, a few in-depth questions may have skewed what scientists themselves believe. Thirty-seven percent of the public doesn’t think scientists agree on climate change and yet a large percentage of them do. The general public thinks that scientists don’t understand the danger in health effects of genetically modified crops.

One thing that experts and amateurs agreed on was the need for better K-12 STEM (science, technology, engineering, & math) in schools. Personally, science was one of my favorite subjects to teach in third grade. I had a large science center in my room with all sorts of hands on items there depending on the topic being covered as well as microscopes and magnifying glasses. But not all teachers embrace science. Not all would have snake skins, hornet nests, insects, spiders, bones, etc. in their rooms.

According to the study, scientists view the discrepancies in public opinion on science as affecting all levels of society. A majority of scientists don’t believe the best science guides clean water, air, or food regulations. And only 58% of scientists find that the best science guides new drug and medical treatment. That’s kind of scary, isn’t it?
Although the general public generally supports the sciences, why is there such a disparity of belief by the general public from what the scientists believe? In my opinion, it’s where they get their news or don’t get their news. I think those who debunk the scientific view of topics, tend to be louder and speak as authorities about falsehoods. If something is said often enough and loud enough with a voice sounding like an authority on the topic, a lot of people will believe and like an oil spill on the ocean, it spreads and contaminates the public.

I do my part in saving the earth by recycling, driving a small car that uses little gas, etc. and not using insecticides. Well, I might spray a ground nest of yellow jackets if it’s near where I mow. In my small way as a writer, I’ll include people and topics in my books on my viewpoints, like environmentalism in my second book. Already, I’m thinking of putting in a future book, a character that embodies the outdated views of much of the general public.

What are your views on the topics covered by the Pew Research?


Kait said...

Off-shore drilling makes my blood run cold. As an avid diver, the only off-shore rigs I like to see are the Tenneco Towers - a wreck dive site in the water off Broward County. We are still seeing (and learning about) the effects of the tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico a few years ago. It not only decimated the aquatic life, the human toll was huge. To paraphrase an old margarine commercial - it's not nice to fool with Mother Nature!

Gloria Alden said...

Kait, I so agree with you. One would think that after what happened in that Gulf spill, we would learn. I'm as happy to spend less at the gas pump as everyone, but there is a downside to the drop in gas prices, too. Now people are back to buying large vehicles that use more gas leading to more climate change. Nine of the ten hottest years on record since they started keeping track, have been in since 2000.

Jim Jackson said...

I think the Pew study is flawed in this regard: When asking about the safety of nuclear power plants, for example, a lepidopterist is no more qualified to answer than the vast majority of layman. More interesting would be to compare professionals in the field in question to (1) other scientists and then (2) the general public.

Secondly, entrenched scientists are prejudiced toward their research. It took a long time for physicists to embrace quantum mechanics. Now they do. I don’t know what percentage of physicists embrace string theory, but I will bet that the percentages have been changing over the last decade.

The public does not understand that when scientists refuse to say that X definitely causes Y it does not mean they think X does not cause Y, only that they are unable to scientifically test the hypothesis to disprove the null hypothesis. The MOUTHS jump on this “inconsistency” combined with anecdotal evidence and come to their own definite (and often incorrect) solutions.

When my father taught statistics he had a graph that showed the number of births in (I think it was) Amsterdam for a long period in the past. Over that he laid a graph of the number of stork nests in the city. The correlation was nearly 1:1. Only the most feeble minded believe this proved storks brought babies to the mothers. Yet the public and the trumpeting media make that same mistake all the time.

~ Jim

Gloria Alden said...

You make a very good point, Jim. I hadn't thought of that. Still, I do think there's enough evidence that climate change is human-caused.

Warren Bull said...

I think part of the problem is that, as a group, scientists don't explain well what they do. Another part is that journalists rarely report science accurately since, as a group, they don't understand the basic concepts. I remember one story when experimental results debunked a popular belief. The reporter gave the results and then said but it does not explain why...He then repeated the popular belief.

KM Rockwood said...

Scientific knowledge is constantly evolving, and what scientists "know" often changes, leading people to be skeptical.

Even the advisability of the foods we eat changes constantly. When I was a child, parents were encouraged to emphasis meat, eggs, cheese, etc. in their family meals. Liver and bacon was considered one of the most nutritious meals around.

Soft margarine was much better than solid butter.

Smoking was supposedly calming.

Babies were seldom breast fed.

Chemical pesticides were a boon to mankind.

Shoe stores had X-ray machines so you could see if a pair of shoes squashed the bones in your feet.

Eventually some opinions do become so obviously wrong that they join the "Flat Earth Society" set of beliefs, but there is so much we don't know, it's not surprising that people are confused. Or that some interests distort information for there own purposes.

And then, of course, we have the perceived chasm between religion and science over the centuries. As in, some ethnic groups (African, Native American, Irish) are subhuman, and don't need to be accorded the same consideration as "real" humans. Or that God will never permit any species of his creation to become extinct, so we don't have to worry about killing off huge populations.

Gloria Alden said...

Warren, I think you're right about scientists not always explaining themselves for the average person to understand what they're trying to get across. For instance, I know I wouldn't be able to understand a discussion on quantum physics, for instance. Maybe it's also why journalists don't explain things accurately, either.

KM, you are so right about the changes made. I remember those shoe X-ray machines. Weren't they fun? Also I often served my kids lunch of macaroni and cheese with hot dogs. My poor kids. Me, too. And then there are the new medications on the market that promise so much only to be found not good for you after a certain amount of time taking them. I'm thinking of the miracle drug for menopause that would keep us forever young. I certainly feel some religions promote false science, too.

Kara Cerise said...

I didn't realize there was a substantial gap between the opinions of scientists and the general public. Perhaps scientists need to learn how to translate the data so it's understandable to a larger group of people. Or, maybe the sciences should be emphasized more in school.

Also, after living in the D.C. area for a number of years, I have learned that scientific organizations (I won't name names) have a political aspect to them. Sadly, it's not just about the science. I understand why people mistrust the message.

E. B. Davis said...

Jim and Kara make good points. The biggest problem with the weather issue is one of longevity. Mini weather patterns can't predict long-term changes in climate. I think we are impacting the weather, but then I thought we had a hole in our ozone layer, which miraculously disappeared. Sometimes observations, no matter how real, can't be used for predictive measure. Three hundred years from now, perhaps we'll have enough data to make those predictions, but now, we barely have 120 years of data. So I can understand why people question what the "experts" say. You know all about those studies--one day something isn't good for you, the next day--it's fine for you. We want instantaneous answers. When they are given to us, we distrust them--rightly so.

Gloria Alden said...

Kara, I don't doubt that sometimes there's money behind certain research, however I don't believe that's the norm.Or at least, I don't want to believe that.

E.B. I'm so glad they've now decided coffee and dark chocolate is good for us. :-)

Shari Randall said...

This was a fascinating post, Gloria. I've been following the vaccine debate closely because of a conversation I had with our pediatrician years ago.
He had been chief of staff at a large hospital and said part of the training for young doctors involved watching a video of a child with pertussis/whooping cough (which he showed me). I'll never forget how absolutely sickening it was to watch that terrified child in the video struggle to breathe. Pertussis is another disease that is making a comeback after years where it was virtually eradicated. More people should see the real effects of these diseases before they decide not to vaccinate their children.

Gloria Alden said...

Shari, I was just reading about the whooping cough making a come back. So sad. It's awful that children with leukemia and other illnesses that can't be vaccinated are no longer safe because there are parent's who won't have their kids vaccinated.