Poll finds "regular folks" frequently disagree with scientists

There’s one serious problem I’ve had, particularly over the last decade, when it comes to the subject of science. Just to set a baseline here, I’d like to say up front that I love science. I was always something of a geek. I loved it in school, found it interesting in entertainment and spend probably far too much time watching things on the Science Channel and various documentaries. This doesn’t make me an expert in all matters (or any, really) but just a fan, assuming that word can apply here. My only personal areas of educational experience in scientific fields came in electronics and energy (nuclear and fossil fuels) but I wasn’t a “scientist” in either field. I find almost all of it fascinating.

Back to the “problem” I referred to above. There has been a tendency among some with a vested political interest in any number of policy areas to elevate all scientists and theories of the day to the level of a religion. This should be worrisome because one of the foundations of any solid scientific education should be to encourage a continued and healthy skepticism over any theory. Scientific theories which are not continually challenged and tested veer into the realm of faith rather than a comprehensive process of critical examination of the facts. Faith is wonderful, but the laboratory is generally not the appropriate forum for proselytizing.

With all that in mind, you might take some hope from a rather high handed examination of recent polling from National Geographic. To their collective horror, it is discovered that “regular folks” around the country (their phrase, not mine) frequently refuse to accept everything they are told by their lab coat wearing betters.

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 reported Thursday. 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.

This graphic lays out some of the areas under dispute.


There are areas of hard science where we can do comprehensive testing and move ideas from the realm of pure theory to fairly well established facts. (Though such facts should always remain open to challenge.) Water freezes at a given temperature and pressure absent the addition of other soluble compounds. You can repeat that test over and over again and get the same results. But there are many other areas under study where complex systems can produce mixed results and serious challenges in drawing conclusions. When scientists with a political bent get involved in the conversation, their own beliefs can leave the realm of the laboratory and enter the halls of their own new church. This sort of science can and should rightly be challenged, even by those without a string of degrees on their resume, and the best proof should be required before everyone toes the line. (I could go into an entire rant on Dark Matter here, but I’ll spare you.)

The tone taken in the analysis of this poll is instructive of how our Scientific Betters view the hoi polloi.

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.”

Gee… that’s not too biased, is it? And the response of the authors to these poll numbers highlight the real problem here. And it’s not with the public.