In general, people value the contributions of science but when it comes to perception of specific issues, there is difference in perceptions between the general public and the scientific community. A study conducted by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) looked at how these perspectives differ.
The general message from the study released in February 2015 is that there are broadly similar views about the overall place of science. Although the data are all from the US, we can probably accept that Canadian attitudes are not entirely dissimilar in most areas.
Scientific innovation and research are deeply embedded in our lives: they influence the economy and government policy, and affect choices people make for themselves. The Pew study found that 79% of adults believe science has made life easier for most people and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment. However, on many issues, the public and scientists see through very difference sets of eyes.
Genetically modified (GM) foods are an issue that reflects the biggest differences. A majority of the public (57%) say GM foods are not safe to eat while only 37% feel they are safe. In contrast, 88% of scientists say GM foods are safe to eat. This gap of 51 percentage points is the largest opinion difference in the study. The general public also tends to be skeptical about the scientific understanding of GMO effects. A minority of adults (28%) say they think scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops while 67% say their view is that scientists do not clearly understand this.
There are a number of other issues worth reviewing. For example, childhood vaccines: about two-thirds of the public feel childhood immunizations should be required versus 86% of scientists. Evolution is another. 65% of the general public believe humans have evolved over time; 98% of scientists support that statement, a gap of 33 percentage points.
That climate change is mostly due to human activity is supported by half of the general population; among scientists, the figure is 87%. Whether we should build more nuclear power plants is supported by 45% of the population, but 65% of scientists. That a growing world population will strain natural resources is supported by 59% of public and by 82% of scientists.
Reasons for the differences in findings between the two groups vary. There is belief among scientists that the public’s limited knowledge of science is a significant problem. In fact, they widely (84%) consider this to be a major problem. There are opinions about why this might be the case, the most prominent of which is that (in the US) education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) is lacking. Scientists also point to a lack of public interest in science news and a lack of media interest in science.
Given the pace and type of change in our economy and the demands on workers, we can certainly conclude that more and better STEM education is a worthwhile investment.
Dr. Paul Martiquet is the Medical Health Officer for Rural Vancouver Coastal Health including Powell River, the Sunshine Coast, Sea-to-Sky, Bella Bella and Bella Coola.