At a time when climate change is threatening humanity, genetically modified foods are proliferating, and medical science is making incredible strides, it would seem safe to assume that most people pay close attention to science. Prominent scientists should, in a rational society, be as famous as actors or sports stars. But two-thirds of Americans can’t even name a living scientist.
As a result of this disconnect between scientists and the public, there is a big difference between what most Americans believe about scientific topics and what actual scientists think. The difference in views is highlighted in a new report from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed over 2,000 American adults and nearly 4,000 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) on a variety of science-related issues.
First, the good news. Most people, scientists and laypeople alike, believe that science is important, and that it has positively affected health care, food, and the environment. Some 79% of adults believe that science makes life easier for most people, and 54% think that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world or above average (compared to 92% of AAAS members).
Scientists and the general public are also in agreement that science,
technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education is sorely lacking. Over a quarter of the public and nearly half scientists believe that K-12 STEM education is below average. This is a big reason why Americans have such limited scientific knowledge to begin with.
But the similarities between scientists and the rest of us end there. Part of the reason is that many science-related issues have been politicized to the point of unreasonableness. For example, 88% of scientists think that GMO food is safe to eat, but only 37% of the public agrees. And while 87% of scientists think that climate change is caused by human activity, just 50% of other adults believe the same (there’s a big political component here, with Democrats being more likely than Republicans to say they believe the earth is warming).
It’s not that scientists are all pro-everything-technology and laypeople are luddites. Just 32% of scientists favor offshore drilling, compared to over half of the public, and more laypeople think that astronauts are essential to the future of the U.S. space program than scientists.
These disparities have led to a situation where the majority of scientists think that the best scientific findings aren’t being used to guide policy choices related to clean air, clean water, and land use.
The problem is that scientific consensus is not being clearly communicated to the public. Beyond a lack of widespread STEM education in the U.S., scientists surveyed also believe that a lack of public interest in science-related news, a lack of scientists communicating their findings properly, and a corresponding lack of media interest in science, are all to blame.
Whatever the reasons, the relatively poor scientific understanding in the general population is not doing our future any favors.