September 26, 2022

US public and scientists see world through different glasses

A Pew report finds significant differences in views on 13 science-related issues

Despite similar views about the overall place of science in America, the general public and scientists often see science-related issues through a different lens, according to a new pair of surveys by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

The report finds significant differences in views on 13 science-related issues. For instance, there is a:

  • 51-percentage point gap between scientists and the public about the safety of eating genetically modified foods — 88% of AAAS scientists think eating GM food is safe, while 37% of the public believes that.
  • 42-percentage point gap over the issue of using animals in research — 89% of scientists favor it, while 47% of the public backs the idea.
  • 40-percentage point gap on the question of whether it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides — 68% of scientists say that it is, compared with 28% of citizens.
  • 37-percentage point gap over whether climate change is mostly caused by human activity — 87% of AAAS scientists say it is, while 50% of the public does.
  • 33-percentage point gap on the question about whether humans have evolved over time — 98% of scientists say we have, compared with 65% of the public.

There is no single direction of differences between scientists and the public. By a 20-percentage point margin, citizens are more likely than scientists to favor offshore oil drilling. And by a 12-point margin, the public is more likely to say that astronauts are essential for the future of the US space program.

“We were surprised by the size of those differences and how often they occur,” said Cary Funk, of Pew.

There is agreement between the public and scientists on one core issue: Both groups believe that science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM) in America’s elementary and secondary schools is not performing well. These surveys find that science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals, but both groups are less upbeat about the scientific enterprise than they were in 2009 when the Pew Research Center conducted similar surveys.

A majority of adults say science has made life easier for most people (79%) and has had a positive effect on the quality of US health care (79%), food (62%) and the environment (62%). At the same time, the share seeing a negative contribution of science has ticked up across each of these measures compared with 2009.

“While the public is still broadly positive about the contributions of science to society, there has been a slight rise in negative views across a number of measures, suggesting some softening in the perceived value of science to society. These patterns will be important to watch over time,” Funk said.

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