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There’s a Big Rift in Opinion Between Americans And Scientists

New study shows that citizens and scientists only agree some of the time

(Roger Richter/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

Americans are upbeat about the impact of science—but they disagree with scientists on a number of key issues. That’s the finding of a new study on science and society that reveals deep rifts between public opinion and scientific understanding.

The Pew Research Center surveyed 3,748 United States scientists and compared the results with a public phone survey of 2,002 adults from all 50 states. And that comparison found plenty of differences of opinion.

For example, 98 percent of scientists agree that humans evolved over time, but only 65 percent of citizens concur. There’s a 33-point gap between scientists and the general public when it comes to human activity’s impact on climate change. And while 86 percent of scientists believe vaccination should be mandatory, their views are shared by only 68 percent of the public.

The study also asked citizens about whether scientists agree on different issues—and the results reveal stark differences between public perception and scientific consensus. Thirty-seven percent of people surveyed felt that scientists disagree on whether humans cause climate change. (But, in reality, nearly 90 percent of scientists agree on that issue.) And even though an overwhelming majority of scientists concur that humans did evolve, nearly one in three adults thinks that scientists don’t agree.

From the safety of GMOs and pesticides to whether animals should be used in research, the study shows plenty of places where the public says no and scientists say yes. And a majority of scientists agree…that’s a big issue. “Given the views expressed by the general public, it isn’t surprising that 84 percent of the [scientists surveyed] describe the public's lack of understanding of science as a ‘major problem,’” Scott Neuman writes for NPR.

So where do Americans and scientists see eye to eye? Though they couldn’t agree with scientists on whether American science is the best in the world, nearly 80 percent of the general public is positive about science and its impacts. Scientists and citizens only differed by two percentage points on whether the International Space Station was a good investment. And everyone surveyed had doubts about the quality of STEM education in the United States.

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