Wednesday, July 22, 2009

The Public Understanding of Science

So what do people think about science, anyway? I ran across a new survey report by the Pew Research Center which gives some insight into how the general public views science (they like it) and how their views compare to those of scientists (who see some problems). While more than 80% Americans hold scientists in high regard and believe that science has a positive effect on society, scientists point to low levels of scientific knowledge and lack of media coverage as major challenges.

Some stats worth noting:

Evolution and Climate Change: About a third of Americans reject evolution entirely (an unsettlingly large number, I think). 32% believe that humans and other living things have evolved due to natural selection, compared to 87% of scientists. There is a similar divide on climate change: about half of the public says that global warming is caused by human activity, compared to 84% of scientists.

Politics: The public approves of scientists becoming politically involved–more than 75% think that scientists should have an active role in debates on issues like stem cell research and nuclear power. 97% of scientists agree.

Religion: 95% of Americans say they believe in God or a higher power, while 41% of scientists don’t believe in either.

Scientific Knowledge: The good news is Americans seem to be aware of scientific topics that are personally relevant to their health and daily lives (91% of Americans know that aspirin can prevent heart attacks, for example). But they have trouble answering questions on basic scientific concepts (less than half of the public know that electrons are smaller than atoms).

I’ve been fascinated by the recent coverage of this survey, which has been a clear indicator of current tendencies in the presentation of science to the public (think: conflict & decline). Although the Pew survey–more than 50 pages long–has plenty of encouraging information to guide and inform a productive public discussion of science in society, reporters have focused on the negative findings of the survey: lamenting the large gap between scientists and the public on issues like climate change, the conflict between science and religious beliefs, and the general decline of American favor of science. This is not to say that the media has deliberately skewed the findings; after all, the Pew survey itself contains phrases like “wide divide” and “sharply diverge”. But consider the strikingly different tone and focus in the commentary at the end of the survey:

The good news is that opportunities abound for finding common ground on issues spanning science and society. Americans with a wide array of views, including scientists, clearly are united by the shared goal to improve human welfare by leveraging scientific advances. In the Pew Research survey of 2,533 AAAS members and 2,001 public respondents, a majority of both groups cited advances in medicine and life sciences as important achievements of science. Nearly three-fourths of public participants recognized that federal investment in basic scientific research as well as engineering and technology promises long-term societal benefits. That view persists across partisan lines, with a majority of Republicans (68%) and Democrats (80%) saying that support for basic science pays off in the long run, with comparable percentages saying the same about investments in engineering and technology.

Could it be more productive to concentrate on this shared recognition of the benefits of science, rather than continuously stress the divisions between scientists and the public?

In this post Matthew Nisbet says that it’s inappropriate (yet, sadly, predictable) for commentators to interpret and present the Pew findings using a narrative of decline. He suggests that the rhetoric of a public crisis in science could be “potentially distracting, if not harmful, to public engagement efforts.” But this narrative is nothing new. In fact, it has its roots in what Nisbet describes as a common–and, he claims, false–assumption of the scientific community that ignorance is the sole source of public distrust in science. In other words, scientists assume that if we could only get the public to learn more scientific facts, we would have a culture of public support and appreciation of science. This “deficit model” is something I want to consider in more detail later, since I have come across various arguments for and against scientific literacy as the antidote to public distrust. To be continued, then.

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