America's Science Debate, on a Molecular Level

America's Science Debate, on a Molecular Level

According to a new report by the Pew Research Center, Americans are divided on a number of issues related to science and policy — and these divisions don't always occur along party lines.

We recently spoke with Lee Rainie, one of the authors of the report and the director of internet, science, and technology research at the Pew Research Center, to learn more. The conversation has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Parts of this poll have been in previous Pew surveys, and I was wondering what has been the most notable change in Americans' attitudes toward science issues in recent years.

This survey was only connected to some of the work we did in 2009, so there isn't a lot of trend data on some of these subjects. Our political units have been tracking global-warming attitudes for a considerable amount of time, but some of it's brand new, where we didn't even ask it in 2009.

Vaccine policy is one of those newer things, but we do know that something happened between 2009 and 2014, particularly on the political side. There seems to be a little bit more of a political difference over the advisability of insisting that parents have their children vaccinated as opposed to giving parents an option for that. We didn't see any political differences in 2009. We're beginning to see them in 2014. It's something we don't have a lot of data points on, but we'll be exploring it in the future because it's an issue that might get more politicized.

Also, when we looked at these data when they came in last fall, we were pretty startled by the differences between Pew's American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) member survey and our general-population survey on the genetically modified food question. That was the biggest gap between what the AAAS members were saying and what the public was saying, and we're going to pay a lot more attention to it going forward, because it seems to be rising as an issue in the public domain that probably relates to people's trust in science and scientists in general.

Were there any issues that you expected to divide along party lines or political ideology that were actually the result of some other sort of factor?

When we got the data back this time around, the first thing we did was map these gaps between the AAAS member data and the general-population data. And it became pretty clear just from the overall data that there were different explanations for different topics.

In this most recent report that we put out, we explored that a lot more in depth than we had done in our original release, which we did in late January. For instance, we put these numbers out right in the midst of the first wave of coverage of the measles outbreak at Disneyland in January, and right at that moment Rand Paul was talking about it as a public-policy issue. So a lot of the early questions were about his vaccination policy becoming politicized.

It's not necessarily the case up and down the line. On energy issues, on climate issues, yes — it is a highly politicized and politically charged atmosphere. But on other issues, other things were going on, and even on the measles vaccine issue, there were greater differences that tied to age than there were tied to political affiliation. So we wanted to explore that.

There were other differences that were tied just to other cultural values: Women and men, and the general public and the science community, differ about whether it's okay to use animals in scientific research. It has nothing to do with politics; it has very little to do with other kinds of issues. But for women and men, that was a big issue, and particularly we noticed big differences between those who had graduate degrees and those who had less education.

It turned out the pattern was that different issues have different dynamics, and that's what we wanted to explore in this more in-depth examination that we put out last week.

According to your analyses of the poll's results, African-Americans differ from non-Hispanic whites in a number of ways: They are more likely to be against alternative energy projects and stricter power-plant emissions limits, in favor of fracking, and skeptical of childhood vaccines, experimental drugs, GMOs, and foods grown with pesticides. What could be some reasons for these differences along racial lines?

We're still looking at that, and it's not entirely clear that there's a unicausal explanation for it. For instance, the African-American community has a really long and troubled relationship with a lot of scientific research that's gone on in the past. You can see that their worries and their skepticism play out in a variety of ways that are special to the African-American community and don't show up as much in the white community.

At the same time, we're now consistently finding that Hispanics are very likely to say that global warming is caused by humans, much more so than whites and African-Americans. And it isn't entirely clear what the causal things are that are going on there. We don't ask a lot of causal questions in these surveys, because we weren't expecting necessarily to find a lot of differences, and so again we're going to be looking at lot more carefully and more in-depth in the future, because this survey surfaced them.

What kind of projects do you see, going into the future, to look at these questions and others?

One wave of questions that we got, especially from the scientific community and from science communicators, is: "Is there a collapse in trust in science in the American public?" Our data don't show that. The public still feels pretty good about the role of science in general life, in helping in medicine, and in improving the environment and things like that, and they think that science is important for the economy. So there are ways in which people have quite strong positive views about scientific enterprise. But there are also clear indications in our data that when you get to particular issues, the public isn't aligned with the viewpoint of scientists and people who care a lot about science.

So we're going to try to go more deeply into issues about trust and what people understand about the scientific process, the scientific method, and how they think about it. We're trying to think about how people imagine science in their everyday lives.

This is a much more elaborate subject area for us to cover now, and we've made that long-term commitment at the Pew Research Center to cover science issues in part because they're so centrally now civic issues. It is also clear that our survey isn't the end of the story.

You mentioned that education levels and knowledge of science play a role in determining Americans' trust in science. Does this have any relationship with, or any effect on, the emphasis on STEM education in schools and colleges? Where could such a relationship go going forth?

We're going to try very seriously to figure out where we can make a contribution on the increasing issue debates about the role and place of STEM education in the culture. That earlier report we released in January showed that scientists are quite baleful about the K-12 STEM system and how it's not necessarily serving Americans well, and Americans themselves don't think that the K-12 system stacks up well when you compare it with other nations.

When we released the earlier findings, scientists looked at the data and said, "Well, of course this is highly correlated with people's education levels and science knowledge. If they knew more about what we do and what we found and what we published, they'd feel differently about these issues." It turned out that at some level, education and knowledge matter a lot, but as you saw in this more recent report, they are not necessarily the most salient drivers of public attitudes. Sometimes they matter a lot, but oftentimes they're pretty weakly associated with people's attitudes.

Education isn't sort of the be-all and end-all, silver-bullet solution to the credibility issues that scientists have and the public-policy challenges they get from the public. It's more complicated than that.

Matthew Disler is a RealClearPolitics intern.

Show commentsHide Comments

Related Articles