Monday, July 13, 2009

New Survey: Scientists and the Public

The Pew Research Center has released results of a survey of scientists and the public showing ... lots of interesting things. Pew worked with the American Association for the Advancement of Science to survey 2,533 scientists. They also sampled 2,001 adults over the phone in April and May, and another 1,005 in June.

Whereas 35 percent of the public identify themselves as Democrats, 55 percent of scientists do. 23 percent of Americans admit to being Republicans, but only 6 percent of scientists. 37 percent of Americans call themselves "conservative," compared to 9 percent of scientists, with 52 percent of scientists saying they are "liberal" compared to 20 percent in the population at large.

Of course this can be interpreted in different ways. It possibly means that there is a bias in academia, and liberal professors allow only liberal grad students to succeed, to obtain a PhD and establish a research career. It could also mean that people who have an aptitude for objectivity and rationality, that is, people who become scientists, also tend to see the world from a liberal perspective. The saying is, "Reality has a liberal bias."

Turns out the public has high regard for scientists, ranking them third behind members of the military and teachers in terms of contributing "a lot" to society's well-being (just a percentage point above medical doctors).

85 percent of the scientists felt that the public does not know very much about science, and 76 percent said the news "does not distinguish between well-founded findings and those that are not." On the other hand, while 87 percent of the scientists agree that they "think that humans, other living things have evolved due to natural processes," only 32 percent of the public thinks so.

Thirty two percent. That number just amazes me.

84 percent of the scientists believe that "earth is getting warmer because of human activity," but only 49 percent of the public agrees.

"Favor use of animals in scientific research," 93 percent of the scientists, 52 percent of the public.

"Favor building more nuclear power plants," 70 percent of scientists, 51 percent of the public.

There are, then, major differences in opinion between people who understand the issues from a scientific point of view and the general public, who mostly get their information through commercial media.

Here's an interesting tidbit from the report:
Both scientists and the public overwhelmingly say it is appropriate for scientists to become active in political debates about such issues as nuclear power or stem cell research. Virtually all scientists (97%) endorse their participation in debates about these issues, while 76% of the public agrees.

Why would anyone want to leave the most knowledgeable individuals out of the debate? The report mentions that "older Americans (those older than 50) and less educated people are somewhat more likely to see scientists’ political involvement as inappropriate..."

95 percent of the public but only 51 percent of scientists say they believe in God or a higher power. 75 percent of the public identifies as Catholic or Protestant, compared to 30 percent of scientists, while 17 percent of the public and 44 percent of scientists report being "unaffiliated" (agnostic, atheist, or "nothing in particular"). Interestingly, where 2 percent of the public is Jewish, 8 percent of scientists are.
Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. In addition, more chemists than those in other specialties say they believe in God. More men (44%) than women (36%) say they believe neither in God nor a higher power; belief in God is comparable for men and women scientists, but more women than men profess belief in a different supreme being or higher power.

See? Isn't this interesting?

A democratic society relies on its citizens' knowledge to guide it to make correct choices. Science, by definition, possesses the most likely correct knowledge of subjects within its domains, it possesses beliefs that have been tested empirically and debated in the halls and journals of academia. Of course ordinary citizens are not expected to read the journals and keep up with the very latest findings, but the items measured here are generally not anything new -- Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859! It seems to me that if we are to excel as a society we should possess excellent knowledge. Scientists in this survey were concerned about the media's reporting of scientific topics and about the public's lack of knowledge. Ideally we would see some of these gaps close as the public absorbs more factual knowledge.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

interesting analysis, Jim

while I do agree that scientists need to be part of the conversaton, I can understand the apprehension about their role.

simply put, by the same token that laymen aren't as likely to possess correct information about empirical data, they also don't have the capacity to evaluate if the scientist is presenting an objective account

I know, theoretically, there should be a check with different researchers competing but, in reality, a widespread bias tends to develop and even get reinforced by advancement decisions and appointments

additionally, even if someone has a solid grasp of all research that's been done, the truth is even peer-reviewed papers can be based on falsified information

finally, all the data in the world won't settle value judgements and, unfortunately, scientists often fail to understand that

yes, we need scientists in the conversation

we just need to maintain skepticism

July 13, 2009 2:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The most likely explanation for this data might be that a profession that managed to get a foothold into the liberal camp probably chases out conservatives. (For instance, I was offered a new job a while back but declined because the company's website was very liberal.) Thus, liberals beget liberals and the cycle continues.

July 13, 2009 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

P.S. To clarify my last post -- I'm not saying that a liberal profession purposefully chases conservatives out (though it could be the case in some places). I'm saying -- it can be a matter of simple self selection. People generally wish to be with like-minded people.

July 13, 2009 3:59 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Andrea- not anon
As someone who has worked with a lot of scientists(in many areas of science) for many years- I find it funny that anon says we need to maintain skepticism about scientists. Right- because non-scientists are so right about so many things. The majority of lay people have no idea about anything in science- they get their information from popular media. Bigfoot, Loch Ness monster and Batboy(has he visited this President or is he dissing Obama?) . And anyway- what is a "scientist"? There is a huge range of areas- you cannot be sure a physicist understands what a biologist is saying and none of them understand the engineers.

July 13, 2009 5:24 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

“all the data in the world won't settle value judgements”

What if, to your satisfaction, the data determined the value?

July 13, 2009 8:13 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"I find it funny that anon says we need to maintain skepticism about scientists. Right- because non-scientists are so right about so many things"

Andrea, you fool. I simply meant they should be subject to the same skepticism about motive and bias that everyone else is.

"And anyway- what is a "scientist"? There is a huge range of areas- you cannot be sure a physicist understands what a biologist is saying and none of them understand the engineers."

This is actually a good point.

I knew it would happen someday, Andrea.

I never gave up hope.

July 14, 2009 10:04 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to one survey, just 7 percent of elite American scientists believe in a personal god -- the kind to whom you pray. About 8 percent, however, affirm their belief in personal immortality -- indicating that some egos are so large that they fill eternity.

Should it matter that President Obama's nominee to be director of the National Institutes of Health -- the Supreme Court nomination of the scientific world -- is part of the praying few?

Francis Collins presents a perfect test case. His qualifications are beyond dispute. As a pioneering "gene hunter," he helped identify the genetic markers for cystic fibrosis, neurofibromatosis, Huntington's disease and adult-onset diabetes. He was in charge of the NIH program that mapped the human genome, the biological equivalent of the Apollo space program. He is a leading advocate of personalized medicine (the use of genetic knowledge to tailor individual disease prevention and treatment) and of legislation to protect genetic privacy, so that sensitive information can't be used by employers and insurers to discriminate.

Collins is also a theist. And more than that, an evangelical Christian. And more than that, he sings hymns while playing the guitar.

July 15, 2009 9:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For some scientists, this combination of scientific excellence and religious faith is contradictory -- like being a geneticist and believing in unicorns or astrology. "You clearly can be a scientist and have religious beliefs," says Peter Atkins of Oxford University. "But I don't think you can be a real scientist in the deepest sense of the word because [religion and science] are such alien categories of knowledge." Behind this assertion lies the assumption that the scientific category of knowledge has superseded the religious one.

To which Collins, who has written and spoken extensively on this topic, replies that there are two categories of knowledge, two ways of knowing. And though they are different, they are not "alien" to one another, or contradictory.

The first category is scientific knowledge -- the kind achieved through testing, weighing and probing. And within its competence, according to Collins, science is supreme. He is, for example, a strong defender of Darwinian evolution, a theory he calls "absolutely incontrovertible." Collins is particularly compelling when discussing the genetic evidence for the common ancestry of all living things -- the precise similarities between our DNA and that of other species, and the precisely located mutations that can be explained only by common origins. Religious texts, in his view, must be interpreted in light of these scientific facts.

But Collins argues that there is a second way of knowing -- a realm of morality and metaphysics that involves not physical proof but probability based on evidence. Some scientists assert that anything beyond the possibility of touching and testing is equally mythological -- from unicorns to God to morality to hope to meaning to love. Collins calls this kind of reductionism a "logical fallacy." By definition, science yields information about only the physical world, which does nothing to prove that the physical world is all there is. As human beings, we still seek to know why things exist and how we should live. Science is silent on these matters; we need not be. Collins contends that the moral law within us, and the fine-tuning of physical constants in the universe, provides "signposts" (not proofs) that lead toward God. (See Collins's book, "The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief," for his full and informed explanation.)

For Collins, modern science and Christianity are not competing answers to the same question; they are ways of thinking about two very different sets of questions, both of which should be taken seriously.

Collins's appointment says something good about the maturity of modern evangelicalism, which is starting to abandon some of its least productive debates with modernity. Criticisms of evolution, rooted in 19th-century controversies, have done little more than set up religious young people for entirely unnecessary crises of faith as they encounter scientific knowledge. In the running conflict of modern biology and evangelicalism, Collins is a peacemaker.

And Collins's appointment says something good about the maturity of President Obama. This move has invited criticism from the secular left. It is unlikely to appease religious conservatives who assume cynicism from Obama. But this seems to be a case where the president simply picked the best person for the job. In the process, Obama has affirmed something important: that anti-supernaturalism is not a litmus test at the highest levels of science.

July 15, 2009 9:22 AM  

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