Source: Pew Research Center.
Source: Pew Research Center.

The Pew Research Center has collected – and continues to analyze – a large amount of data concerning scientists and the general public, including differing views on science and society, the engagement of scientists with the public, and other potential gaps that may exist between those two groups. Non-scientist-related data also pointed to patterns and interactions between and within general-society groups that might well be correlated to views worth measuring, especially given that 60% of the general public feels that public opinion should play a role in science policy. Earlier studies had shown that the divide between political parties and other community-type associations was stronger in 2014 than it had been in the last twenty years. Contemplation of those results – perhaps also in light of the clustering and potential influence in social media venues – led researchers to question whether this widened gap was having a significant impact on public views of science-related issues. A new Pew Research Center report released on July 1, entitled, “Americans, Politics and Science Issues”, explores the many potential factors and interactions that might be influencing this gap.

One of the core questions about all this is whether public opinion should matter at all on policy topics for which scientific evidence is a central concern. Some have argued that such issues should not be affected by public views, especially if those views are not terribly well informed. But Americans disagree with that sentiment.
Americans, Politics, and Science Issues, Pew Research Center

pew graph
Source: Pew Research Center.

Incorporating results from a previous study on “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society”, Pew Research Center researchers compared survey responses given by a representative sample of 2,000 U.S. adults interviewed by phone last fall to responses from a survey given to members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In addition to including information on partisan identity, education, and other basic demographics, those administering the survey also asked a set of very detailed questions from several scientific disciplines in order to establish a baseline of knowledge and comprehension in general areas of science. Question topics include how lasers work, nanotechnology, and what gas is believed to cause an increase in temperature. See the questions, along with the percentage of correct responses, in the Pew graphic on the right.

The data was analyzed to ascertain patterns and determine whether the differences between the views of scholars and non-scholars might correlate with political ideology along with other factors such as education level, basic demographics, and general science knowledge.

pew politics
Source: Pew Research Center.

The researchers found several correlations with political identity and ideology, but these were also dependent upon the topic itself. For example, they found that “strong political differences among adults affect their views on climate and energy policy topics”.  Analysis of the data collected last fall (used in a series of 3 Pew reports) showed that 71% of respondents who identified as Democrat held the view that the Earth is warming because of human activity, and 75% held the view that the United States should prioritize alternative energy – both views widely supported by the scientist respondents in the study.

They also found a number of correlations related to the age of the respondents. In some cases, the age or generational correlation closely paralleled that of political ideology, such as in the above examples of the views of the Earth warming due to human activity or the importance of prioritizing alternative energy exploration. Level of education also played a role with some topics. According to the report, “the more education people have, the more likely they are to favor the use of animals in scientific research, to consider genetically modified foods as generally safe to eat and to favor building more nuclear power plants. These are all positions shared by a majority of those connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.”

If you look at Pew’s interactive graphic, you can compare the gaps between scientist views and views of the public on science-related issues across the various factors of potential influence analyzed. While the political correlations are informative, there is also a lot of data independent of a political or partisan connection or where political alignment was insignificant, so the results touch upon a variety of differences affecting the scientist/public viewpoint of a given issue. The Overview tab shows some interesting results; at 51 points, the highest gap between public and scientist views involves the perceived safety of ingesting genetically-modified foods. In other words, the disparity between the viewpoints of the non-academic public and the scientific community were largest. At the opposite end at 4 points, the lowest gap turned out to be the view of the International Space Station being a good investment – meaning that the public and the scientists had a high level of agreement. According to the study, “[w]hen it comes to government investment in the International Space Station, public views are influenced primarily by political factors and education. This pattern is in keeping with public views about government funding for science and engineering, more generally.”

Check out: 5 key takeaways on what influences Americans’ views of science

There is a lot of data worth considering here, such as the potential impact of science communication on knowledge or viewpoint gaps between scholars and the public. Considering the high amount of science communication and public outreach that revolve around space and the Space Station, and by those in related fields, it might be interesting to see further exploration of these findings in relation to the amount of science communication and public outreach within different fields, and whether that has any correlation with the viewpoint gap in the various disciplines those broader science issues represent.

Check out the latest Pew report, and be sure to let us know your thoughts in the comment section below. Is your field of study represented in one of the key science topics explored by Pew researchers? Do you see any insights worth further investigation, such as reassessing the priority (or success) that science communication generally has in your field or among your academic peers? What additional areas – or potential correlation factors – would you like to see the researchers at the Pew Research Center investigate further?