Scientists, general public disagree on many key issues

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

When it comes to some of biggest hot-button issues facing the world today, there is little common ground to be found between the scientific community and members of the general public, according to a new report from the Pew Research Center.

In fact, there is a 51-percentage point gap between scientists and the population at large over the safety of consuming genetically modified foods, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), which collaborated with Pew on the study, said in a statement.

Only 37 percent of the public believes that it is safe to eat GMO products, which 88 percent of the AAAS scientists polled during the study believe that consuming such products is not harmful to a person’s health. This was the largest opinion difference between the two groups.

When it comes to the idea of using animals for research purposes, 89 percent of scientists are in favor of it, while just 47 percent of the general public supports the idea. Eighty-seven percent of scientists said that they believed that climate change was caused primarily by human activity, but only half of the non-scientific community felt likewise, the study revealed.

Similar disagreements were present on several other issues, including whether or not it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides (68 percent of scientists say yet, compared to just 28 percent of citizens, a 40-percentage point gap) and whether or not humans have evolved over time (all but two percent of scientists say yes, while less than two-thirds of the public agree).

“Science is a huge, sprawling cluster of subjects,” explained lead author Cary Funk, associate director of science research at Pew. “We knew from the 2009 Pew Research Center study that there could be differences between the public and scientists on at least some issues. But we were surprised by the size of those differences and how often they occur.”

According to PBS Newshour, there is less disagreement between the populace and the scientific community when it comes to whether or not children should be vaccinated (86 percent of experts say yes, as do 68 percent of the general public); whether or not offshore drilling should increase (32 percent of scientists and 52 percent of the public agree); and if there should be more fracking (only 31 percent of scientists and 39 percent of the general population say yes).

Likewise, the public and scientists agree on one other core issue: that US elementary and secondary schools are not doing enough to advance science, technology, engineering and math education (STEM). Just 16 percent of scientists and 29 percent of the general public said they would rank American K-12 STEM programs as above average or best in the world.

“Whatever their disagreements, most in the public and science community see STEM education as a concern,” explained Lee Rainie, co-author and Pew Research Center director of internet, science and technology research. “When both groups basically speak in the same voice about an issue, it is worth paying attention.”

“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,” Funk added. “These patterns will be important to watch over time.”

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