Read Eric's bio and previous columns


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.


In 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.


It 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.


It 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.


© 2009 North Star Writers Group. May not be republished without permission.


Click here to talk to our writers and editors about this column and others in our discussion forum.


To e-mail feedback about this column, click here. If you enjoy this writer's work, please contact your local newspapers editors and ask them to carry it.

This is Column # EB117. Request permission to publish here.

Op-Ed Writers
Eric Baerren
Lucia de Vernai
Herman Cain
Dan Calabrese
Bob Franken
Lawrence J. Haas
Paul Ibrahim
David Karki
Llewellyn King
Gregory D. Lee
David B. Livingstone
Bob Maistros
Rachel Marsden
Nathaniel Shockey
Stephen Silver
Candace Talmadge
Jessica Vozel
Jamie Weinstein
Brett Noel
Feature Writers
Mike Ball
Bob Batz
Cindy Droog
The Laughing Chef
David J. Pollay
Business Writers
D.F. Krause