American scientists v. the rest of us

Traditionally, the relationship between our nation’s scientists and the rest of us has been somewhat distant. It’s hard to accept what you don’t understand without a serious education — even scientists have to accept findings outside their individual fields that they may not quite comprehend. However, some disturbing trends have caused concern over the nature of disparities between these parties.

Scientists are annoyed with the public. Graphic from Totally Off Beat
Scientists are annoyed with the public. Graphic from Totally Off Beat

A recent set of surveys by the Pew Research Center in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) found that scientists and the public have widely different views about scientific issues. Their research shows that the scientists surveyed tended to have a more positive opinion of many newer technologies than the general public.

While it’s been clear to many that these disparities exist (such as the ongoing debate on global climate change), the most troubling result of these surveys is that they show a small decline in positive views about science. In a study done in 2009, 83% of Americans felt that science made life better, whereas the numbers from 2014 show that only 79% of Americans share this view.

Major differences in the views of scientists surveyed and the public include GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms), pesticides, and fracking. Most scientists (88%) said they viewed GMO foods as safe, but only 37% of their fellow Americans said they felt the same. Similarly, 68% of scientists stated that pesticides are safe, but only about a fourth (28%, to be exact) of the US public said they shared the belief. And 39% of the American public said they are for fracking, whereas only 31% of the surveyed scientists agreed.

AAAS CEO Alan Leshner responded to these poll results, claiming “such disparity is alarming because it ultimately affects both science policy and scientific progress.”

The economy, policies on natural resources, and our own self-care are only a few of the areas that scientific innovations make a huge impact on our nation. Therefore, the public opinion and accessible communications between the public and scientists are a major concern for all Americans. This set of surveys simply underscores the necessity of improving communications on both scientific work and the motivations behind it.

Clearly, there’s  a need to ensure that science maintains and builds its place in our society through having members of the scientific community engage with the public in ways that allow them to hear from fellow citizens. Unfortunately, oftentimes the loudest voices of disagreement from those sharing opinions with our nation’s scientists seem to be aggressive, labeling people as deniers or irrational.

Hopefully, with these new figures to motivate, those like curator of IFLScience Elise Andrew will continue trying to make scientific innovations and understanding more accessible and fun to engage in, as well as motivating others to further the effort.

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