Survey results published Thursday by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Academy for the Advancement of Science indicate most Americans hold science in high esteem, while revealing huge opinion gaps between scientists and the general public over issues like GMOs and anthropogenic climate change.
The surveys' key findings are highlighted in a companion report co-authored by Lee Rainie and Cary Funk, the Pew Research Center's director of Internet, science and technology research and director of research, respectively. "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," the authors write.
For instance, 79% of the 2,002 adults surveyed said that "science has made life easier for most people." About seventy percent said that government investments in engineering, technology, and basic science typically pay off in the long run, and roughly 60% said that these investments were essential for scientific progress. And a majority of those polled said they felt "positive about science's impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment."
However, the surveys, which also polled American scientists belonging to AAAS, also revealed that researchers do not see eye-to-eye with the rest of the public on a number of science-related issues. The following table summarizes the range of issues in question, and the sizable gaps in opinion over said issues:
The biggest difference in opinion between scientists and the rest of the public – a 51-point gap – has to do with the safety of eating genetically modified foods.
Nearly nine out of ten AAAS scientists surveyed said it is generally safe to eat GM foods. Only about one in three members of the general public agreed. The report concludes one possible explanation for this particular divide could be that "two-thirds of the public (67%) say scientists do not have a clear understanding about the health effects of GM crops."
The Pew Research Center has released several summaries in conjunction with the complete, 111-page report, including a roundup of 5 key takeaways. The best reportage I've seen on the results has come from Nature's Erika Check Hayden, whose interviews with Daniel Sarewitz (a geoscientist and co-director of the Consortium for Science, Policy and Outcomes at Arizona State University) and Dan Kahan (who teaches law and psychology at Yale Law School) offer counterpoints to some of the conclusions drawn in the Pew Research Center's report.
Kahan, for example, disagrees with the claim that these vast differences in opinion stem primarily from the public's distrust in science (he cites a similar Pew report from 2009 whose findings seem to contradict several of those drawn in its late-date counterpart). Sarewitz, for his part, takes issue with the Pew Center's polling methods, which lump all scientists into one, monolithic category.
"The very exercise itself is aimed, perhaps unintentionally, at perpetuating the lie that 'science' is one unified enterprise that can be meaningfully isolated from society," Sarewitz says, "and that scientists' views about issues outside of their specific domain of expertise are more imbued with objectivity and less clouded by bias or ignorance than the unwashed 'public'."
Read the full study, and the Pew Center's accompanying summaries, here. Read Check Hayden's coverage, which includes some thoughts from Kahan about why more education about scientific topics won't necessarily change people's views about those topics, over at Nature. See also John Timmer's coverage of a newly published study that examines why there might be a gap between scientists and the public, at Ars Technica.