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We Like Science (we just don’t believe in it) August 3, 2009

Posted by Will Thomas in Uncategorized.

I generally don’t worry too much about contemporary science issues on this blog, but a recent poll from the Pew Research Center (pdf), in conjunction with the AAAS, brought to my attention by Physics Today, seems to bear relevance for issues pertinent to what the public objectives of science communication (including science studies work) ought to be, as well as on the problem of what tea leaves we can read to divine the character of the relationship between science and society.  The results are interesting.

First off: Americans like science!  Fully 84% of people surveyed think science has a “mostly positive” effect on society; and 70% think scientists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being, behind only teachers (77%) and members of the military (84%).  No word on historians….

Interestingly, only 17% think that American science is the best in the world (relating to how frequently we’re told we’re falling behind?)  47% think American science is “above average”. (The numbers are rather higher when scientists themselves are polled.)  Since 1999 America’s achievements in science and technology has slipped from 47% thinking it is this nation’s “greatest achievement” to only 27%, but it still tops any other individual response.  Civil rights, incidentally, rose from 5% to 17%.

Americans aren’t about to let science trump their most basic beliefs.  32% of the public “Think that humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes” (87% of scientists do).  49% of the public thinks the “earth is getting warmer because of human activity” (84% of scientists do).  83% of the public believes in God; 33% of scientists do.  41% of scientists believe neither in God nor in a higher power.  That number is 4% for the public.

These disagreements apparently only color some people’s more general opinions: 67% who say that science conflicts with their beliefs say that scientists contribute “a lot” to the well-being of society, while 27% say they contribute “some”; the numbers for those who don’t think science conflicts with their beliefs are 72% and 21% respectively.  24% of Americans think science has a “mostly negative” effect on food.

85% of scientists think that the fact that Americans don’t know a lot about science is a major problem.  What Americans know about science depends on the topic.  In a multiple choice quiz, 91% know that aspirin can help prevent heart attacks, and 77% know that tsunamis are caused by underwater earthquakes; 76% know that continents have been shifting (something no one knew 50 years ago), while 46% know that electrons are smaller than atoms.  67% of Americans regularly watch science channels such as Discovery and programs such as Nova.  20% read science magazines.

76% of scientists think that the media does not do a good job of distinguishing between well-founded findings and those that are not; 48% think the news media oversimplifies scientific findings. 1% of scientists think TV coverage of science is “excellent” versus 48% “fair” and 35% “poor”.  Newspapers do a bit better.

46% of scientists think lack of funding for basic research is a “very serious” problem, 41% think it is a “serious” problem.  17% think visa problems for foreign scientists and students is a “very serious” problem, 39% think it is “serious”.  We shouldn’t take individual anxieties to be indicative of an overwhelming anxiety: 76% of scientists think these are “good times” for science.

60% of the public think that government investment is essential to science; 29% think private investment is enough.  For Democrats who are moderate-to-conservative the numbers are 70%-22%; even for conservative Republicans, the numbers are 44%-48%.  39% of Americans say they would support increased federal funding for science.  Education and health care get 67% and 61% respectively.  Science’s numbers have been pretty stable over the last decade, but the numbers for education and health care have dropped about 10%.

By party, 51% of Democrats think funding should be increased; 39% think it should be kept steady; 8% think it should be decreased.  For Republicans: 25% increase; 46% keep it the same; 21% decrease.  For independents: 40% increase; 37% same; 14% decrease.  Contrast to April 2001, when only 38% of Democrats thought funding should increase; 37% of Republicans thought it should increase; and 43% of independents did.  About 10% of each thought it should decrease at that time.

All in all, an awesome poll.  I wish the section addressed to scientists had addressed the availablity and quality of students.  Hopefully people will read it, and it will lend some focus to conversations about the relationship between the efficacy of issue-oriented anti-science PR efforts, the quality of science education, the quality of science communication, the public’s general attitude toward “science”, the public’s willingness to fund science, and the availability of scientific talent.



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