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Pew Research survey on science and public attitudes

MarsLake.jpg

An artist's view of what a recently discovered Martian feature
might have looked like 3.4 billion years ago on the planet
(AP Photo/University of Colorado, G. Di Achille)

Pew Research just published a survey it conducted in conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  "Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media," is how Pew summarizes the results.  That's good news as far as the public attitude toward science is concerned.  After eight years of Bush administration foot dragging on climate change and the environment, it's refreshing that this evident hostility toward science and knowledge didn't spread beyond Washington.  As far as the scientists are concerned, isn't that the attitude of everyone who is an expert in a certain field - that the public is woefully ignorant about the subject?  That's human nature.

As part of the study, Pew included a short, 12 question general science quiz which it administered to a random sample of 1005 adults.  Pew invites readers of the survey to take the quiz  - but do so before reading the report.  No peeking.  I accepted the challenge, and it took only a couple of minutes to complete, and it was fun to see what sorts of questions they asked.  You know the answers or you don't, so it won't take up much time, and then you can compare yourself against the sample by age, sex, and education.  More on the results at the end of this post.

The basic survey was conducted among 2001 adults selected randomly from the general population, and 2533 scientists who responded to a mailing to nearly 10,000 members of the AAAS who were likewise chosen randomly.  Note, though, the 2533 were not randomly selected, only the pool from which they were drawn.  The report is quite lengthy, but well worth reading beyond the summary.  I won't repeat the details that were highlighted in the introduction, but there were a few surprises and a couple of jaw-droppers. 

And there is an angle that I like to point out in polls when the figures point overwhelmingly in one direction - I always wonder what the few in the minority were thinking.  For example, it turns out that while less than half (49%) of the general public believe in anthropogenic global warming (although 85% accept that the temperature of the earth is rising), fully 84% of the scientists believe it is caused by human activity.  So much for the deniers, who insist that there is no consensus among scientists.  There certainly is, and it is overwhelming.

But the flip side is, why do so many (16%) disbelieve it?  If the evidence is as indisputable as we've been told, then wouldn't you expect 99% of the scientists to accept it?  The answer is probably found in the makeup of the survey scientists within their various specialties.  For example, more than half come from the biological and medical science disciplines.  Why would they have any more knowledge about climate than the lay person?

The biggest shocker to me was that only 32% of the people accept the purely natural theory of evolution.  More than two-thirds see the hand of God in the process, if not directly, then guiding it along, despite a mountain of evidence supporting natural evolution.  That is simply mind-boggling. On the other hand, 87% of the scientists accept the purely natural theory.  Then again, what were the other 13% thinking?

When it comes to religion, 33% of the scientists believe in a traditional, personal God, 18% in a higher power, and 41% in neither.  In contrast, only 4% of the general public describe themselves as non believers.  Not much of a surprise, I suppose, but what a difference.

Another result that I found fascinating was by political ideology and affiliation.  While in the general population conservatives outnumber liberals by roughly 2-1 (37% to 20% in this survey), among scientists the orientation was starkly reversed, with 52% of the scientists liberal, and only 9% conservative.  Wow!  As for party affiliation, only 6% of the scientists were Republican, versus 23% of the general public.  Now why would that be?  Scientists are extremely conservative, meticulous and cautious in their research and in the conclusions that they draw from their work.  Then again, scientists must accept wherever the data takes them.  Science is not the place for those with preconceived worldviews.  Something to ponder. 

But that represents only a fraction of the wealth of material found in the study.  I chose to highlight only some of the random facts that jumped out at me.  Do take a long look at the report.  I'll have more to say in future posts about this landmark study.

As for the 12 question quiz, there were no surprises.  A computer answering randomly would average 4.4 correct responses, while human men and women scored 8.1 and 7.4 respectively.  Seniors did the worst among the four age groups, with only 6.5, and as one might expect, college graduates outperformed everyone with a 9.5.  Only 10% answered all questions correctly. Republicans and independents outdid Democrats, 8.1 to 7.4.

The accompanying photograph provides a clue to the answer to one of the questions.

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