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July 13, 2009
The Public Loves Its
Scientists, But Doesn’t Know What They Really Think
The latest Pew study on science and the public found that a majority of
Americans view scientists with a great deal of respect, listing them
just beneath members of the military and teachers on a list of respected
professions. An overwhelming number of Americans believe science
contributes to the common good, and a large percentage say they believe
that scientists should weigh in on science-related issues.
Were that to happen, the American public would learn that there is a
difference in what they believe about some prominent science and what
the scientists believe. More than 90 percent of scientists believe the
world is warming, compared to about half of the general public, for
instance. And the science of evolution and natural selection is nearly
universal among scientists – 97 percent – compared to a smaller majority
of all Americans.
What forms these opinions? Mostly political ideology when it comes to
global warming, and religious belief when it comes to evolution.
short, there is what the scientists have to say and what the public
perceives that they have to say. What exists in between is a breakdown
in communication and the completion of a shift in political affiliation.
Today, 55 percent of scientists identify themselves as Democrats, with
less than 10 percent at home in the GOP.
is worth viewing this through the eyes of history. The 1960’s gave rise
to the anti-war movement and the modern environmental movement. Both of
those, always more popular among Democrats, produced a backlash against
science, which produced chemical pesticides and weapons of war like
napalm. As a result, a considerable chunk of the left rejected science
as a tool of industrialists and war mongers.
Change began during the 1980’s with the rise of the Religious Right and
the coming of the Reaganite hostility toward regulation. When science
conflicted with the larger agenda of tearing apart the regulatory
apparatus, science was attacked. The Religious Right, with suspicions
steeped in attitudes as old as the Age of Reason, cheered from the
sidelines. Science was pushed out of the Republican Party. The backlash
within the Democratic Party over Vietnam and the environment subsided
and it embraced science as an ally.
While this was happening, scientists continued to pursue a deserved
reputation for holding the job of communicating with the public as a
contemptuous afterthought. Those who could, notably Carl Sagan, were
rejected by their peers as purveyors of popular fluff. Real scientists
pursued knowledge. Charlatans rubbed elbows with the commoners and
rubes. Reporters were often treated with barely concealed contempt.
Despite this, the gulf between science and the public could have been
avoided had the media – egged along by the rise of the “independent”
think tank – not gone to such lengths to prove correct its reputation
for hopelessly simplifying issues. Reporters, perhaps increasingly
pressured by tighter deadlines, rarely vetted the so-called experts
offered by think tanks or questioned their motives. Think-tank spokesmen
were frequently not scientists themselves, and their employers were
funded by corporate interests opposed to regulation that might arise
from acknowledging problems. This continues to this day.
Their quotes appeared alongside those of real scientists as if their
opinions should carry as much weight as real scientists. The underlying
– and lazy – assumption was that because someone had raised an
objection, they had something valid to say, and that in the end the
public is smart enough to sort it all out for itself.
was the perfect recipe for a perception gap. One ideology was being
influenced more heavily by forces focused on a different agenda.
Scientists failed to embrace the necessary role in communicating with
the public and the nation’s media – itself feeling the first pangs of a
decline readily evident today – washed its hands of it all. The results
came out in last week’s poll, in which Americans love their scientists
but remain deeply confused about what they really have to say.
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