06 March 2015

Science and Society

Welcome back. I’ve a pop quiz for you. Here’s how it goes. I will list nine statements derived from a recently released report on two science-related surveys by the Pew Research Center. I’ll tell you the extent to which two groups of people--Group A and Group B--agree with the statements. After considering the nine responses, you have to identify the two groups.

For example, suppose the groups were animals, not people, and I wrote: I love catnip–A, 92%; B, 3%. If the responses to the other eight statements fell in line, you would get a gold star if you identified Group A as Cats and Group B as Dogs. (Please don’t repeat my invented statistics or belittle your dog if it’s crazy about catnip.)

If you’re already familiar with the surveys, please find something quiet to do and don’t bother those who are taking the quiz.

Groups’ Views on Nine Issues

1. It’s safe to eat genetically modified foods: A, 37%; B, 88%
2. Animals should be used in research: A, 47%; B, 89%
3. Humans evolved over time: A, 65%; B, 98%
4. Childhood vaccines should be required: A, 68%; B, 86%
5. Climate change is due mostly to human activity: A, 50%; B, 87%
6. K-12 education in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) in the U.S. is the best in the world or at least above average: A, 29%; B, 16%
7. The growing world population will strain food and resources: A, 59%; B: 82%
8. More nuclear power plants should be built: A, 45%; B, 65%
9. There should be more offshore drilling: A, 52%; B, 32%

Surveys and Groups 

Are you ready for the answers? 

The bridge between science and society
is rather shaky. (Photo modified from
Group A: the U.S. public--a nationwide sample of 2,002 adults, 18 and older, interviewed by telephone (landline and cellular) last August. The group was roughly half male, representative in race and age, 482 had some college and 813 graduated college or more. Politically, 737 were Republican or leaned Republican and 959 were Democrat or leaned Democrat. The margin of error was 3.1%.

Group B: U.S.-based scientists--a random sample of 3,748 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science from different disciplines. The group, surveyed online last September and October, had 71% male, 72% PhDs and 43% in academia. The margin of error was 1.7%.

Public's Perception of Scientists’ Views

The surveys covered much more than the nine issues I selected. One item was the public’s perception of what scientists think.

For example, while 87% of the scientists blame human activity for climate change, the U.S. adults surveyed think that only 57% of scientists blame humans.

Perhaps more striking, while only 2% of scientists don’t agree that humans evolved over time, the public’s perception is that 29% of scientists don’t agree.

Wrap Up

There are a handful of reasons why the public and scientists may differ on certain issues; however, the survey found that most US adults view science favorably--79% feel science has made life easier for most people; just over 70% think government investment in basic science, engineering and technology pays off in the long run; and 54% consider U.S. scientific achievements to be the best in the world or at least above average.

Unfortunately, the reasons behind the differences on issues may be having an effect. The public’s favorability toward science is down somewhat from a survey taken in 2009. Further, although 52% of the scientists say this is a good time for science, that’s a sharp drop from 76% in 2009. Work is needed to bridge the gap, and the report will surely help.

Take a look at the report and see what you think. Thanks for stopping by.


Pew Research Center report, Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society: www.pewinternet.org/files/2015/01/PI_ScienceandSociety_Report_012915.pdf
Summary report: www.pewinternet.org/2015/01/29/public-and-scientists-views-on-science-and-society/
Editorial on the report in Science Magazine and article on Science Daily website.

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