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Poll Reveals Rift Between Scientists, Regular Folks

When it comes to food, energy, and education, Americans don't follow experts' lead.

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Recent outbreaks of measles have been tied to children who haven't been vaccinated. Many people still believe that childhood vaccinations are dangerous, despite scientific evidence to the contrary.

What do the International Space Station and bioengineered fuels have in common? They're about the only technological advances that both scientists and the American public actually like.

On most other scientific matters, a widespread "opinion gap" splits the experts from everyday folks, pollsters at the Pew Research Center reportedThursday. The rift persists in long-running issues such as the causes of climate change and the safety of nuclear power. And it crops up in the news today in battles over outbreaks of measles tied to children who haven't been vaccinated.

Scientists say this opinion gap points to shortcomings in their own skills at reaching out to the public and to deficits in science education. On the last point, at least, the public agrees, with majorities on both sides rating U.S. education as average at best.

That's bad news for the future, says American Association for the Advancement of Science head Alan Leshner, if Americans want to keep enjoying the benefits of science.

"There is a disconnect between the way the public perceives science and the way that scientists see science," says Leshner, whose Washington D.C.-based organization collaborated with Pew on the polling. "Scientists need to do something to turn this around."

In an editorial in the journal Science, Leshner called on scientists to personally stem a swelling "unbridgeable chasm" in attitudes between researchers and the taxpayers who largely fund essential research.

Mind the Gap

In a head-to-head comparison of expert and everyday attitudes, the two new polls asked 2,002 U.S. adults and 3,748 AAAS members (described as "a broad-ranging group of professionally engaged scientists") identical questions about their views on scientific achievement, education, and controversial issues.

"People are still mostly positive about science," but compared with five years ago, "we are seeing a slight souring of the views," says Pew polling expert Cary Funk. "When you look across the questions, you are struck by large differences in citizens and scientists."

On the safety of genetically modified food and pesticides, for example, experts and the public differed by 40 percentage points or more in their approval, with the majority of scientists saying GMO foods are safe to eat. On their beliefs in human-caused climate change and human evolution, the groups differed by more than 30 percentage points. Differences nearly as large are seen on vaccination, animal research, and offshore oil drilling.

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"We are seeing the gaps as larger now across a large set of issues," Funk says, compared to past polls.

Political Science

Though scientists point to a lack of public understanding of science, "having scientists speak at Kiwanis club meetings is not going to change a lot of people's views about science," says polling expert Jon Miller of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

The survey results don't differ a great deal from past polls, but this only reinforces anxiety over the future of science, Miller adds. Support for research has gone from a bedrock American principle to one suffering fissures from political fistfights over human evolution, embryonic stem cells, climate change, and other issues.

"A lot of scientific issues have become politicized," Miller says. "I think this report is kind of tiptoeing around that reality, where the [U.S.] Republican party has sought political support from voters with religious views who are often hostile to science."

To his point, an American Sociological Review study also reported on Thursday that roughly one in five U.S. adults is deeply religious and accepts astronomy, radioactivity, and genetics as settled science but rejects human evolution and the big bang. These are high-income, well-educated people who are "scientifically literate" and view science favorably, according to study lead author Timothy O'Brien of theUniversity of Evansville in Indiana. They just toss overboard science that clashes with literal readings of the Bible.

Over the last decade, public opinion researchers such as Yale's Dan Kahan have found that people's views on many scientific issues, such as climate and evolution, are largely driven by their cultural views. Sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University in Philadelphia likewise found that when political leaders change their views on climate change, voters are more likely to be swayed than they are by the voices of scientists.

Leshner, however, disagrees. "Political leaders don't carry the same kind of credibility that well-informed scientists do," he says.

He argues that scientists can better sway public opinion by making the case for science in smaller venues, such as retirement communities or library groups, instead of the traditional lecture hall. "It is important that the public understands that scientists are people too."

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