This hasn’t been a great month for scientifically literate Americans. Just last week, a poll indicated that 41% of American adults believe antibiotics treat viruses. The week before, a different poll revealed that 80% of adults want special labeling for food containing DNA (which would basically be all food). Now, new poll results from Pew Research Center have revealed that there are wide discrepancies between the American public and scientists in regards to issues surrounding technology, science, engineering, and health. The poll results come from 2,002 American adults and 3,748 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) who are currently living in the United States.
Most of the public appears to view science favorably, with 79% saying that science makes daily life easier. However, when it comes down to individual topics, there appears to be less confidence in the science, particularly when it comes to issues such as evolution, climate change, and vaccines, as can be seen here:
Only 54% of the public views work done by American scientists to be the best in the world or at least above average, which is 11% lower than when the question was asked five years ago. In contrast, 92% of scientists believe work done in the U.S. is the best in the world, with 6% saying it is above average.
Conversely, the public views American K-12 STEM education more highly than scientists, with 29% of the public regarding it as the best in the world, whereas only 16% of scientists agree. In fact, 84% of the scientist respondents viewed limited public knowledge as a major problem, citing insufficient K-12 STEM and lack of public interest as the top reasons, though 40% also believe a major contributing factor is that not enough scientists are communicating their results.
The public seemed to be glaringly unaware of what issues were of scientific consensus, including climate change, evolution, and the Big Bang. In fact, these issues are nearly universally acknowledged within their respective fields.
Though it is disheartening to hear that scientists and the American public are not fully on the same page since public perception can influence scientific funding and policy, it is important to know where the discrepancies lie so that they can be improved. If old ways of public outreach aren’t working, something new needs to be tried.
“Such disparity is alarming because it ultimately affects both science policy and scientific progress. How can we bridge this gap?” lamented AAAS CEO Alan Leshner in an editorial responding to the poll results. “Forget the staged “town hall” meetings—studies show that they are not very effective. What does work is respectful bidirectional communication, where scientists truly listen, as well as speak, to the public.”
[Hat tip: PBS]