APS News

Gaps Widen in Attitudes toward Science

By Michael Lucibella

According to a recent survey, public attitudes towards science and scientists generally remain supportive. Over the last five years, however, controversies over certain topics have deepened. The survey found also that 80 percent of Americans say they are interested in new scientific discoveries, a level of interest higher than in Europe.

“There are some very specific debates that have become politicized,” said Cary Funk, a senior researcher at the Pew Research Center who helped conduct the surveys. “People on balance see more benefit than harm, but there are areas where they’re concerned about GMOs [genetically modified organisms] or they’re concerned about climate change.”

The report found also that Americans generally believe the science behind climate change, and only about 30 percent describe themselves as skeptical. Although the report itself doesn’t go into the specific political differences, presenters at this year’s American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting said that political divide on the issue continues to grow.

“We have definitely seen a widening of the partisan gap,” said Lydia Saad, a senior editor at the Gallup polling company. “Democrats’ views have either remained strong or increased in their support of climate science while Republicans’ [support has] weakened.”

Speakers at the meeting said that there is a similar growing political divide over evolution as well. In 2012 fewer Republicans said humans evolved from apes compared to responses taken in 2009. Responses from Democrats and independents have remained about the same.

“We found really an amazing level of stability,” Funk said, adding that over the last decade, about 60 percent of respondents indicate they believe in evolution. “What we found that had changed is a growing partisan gap.”

Funk added that this polarization was not necessarily unique to science. “Lots of issues have become politicized over the last decade if not longer,” Funk said.

The biennial Science and Engineering Indicators report issued by the National Science Foundation always includes a chapter about public attitudes and knowledge of science. It brings together numerous surveys from a variety of polling organizations, including Gallup Inc. and the Pew Research Center.

“It’s a wonderful trove of data about what Americans know about science… where they get their science news as well as questions about general attitudes,” said John Besley, a professor of advertising and public relations at Michigan State University who contributed to the report.

The report also compiles international polling data. One survey asked people around the world nine basic factual questions about science to gauge the general knowledge in various countries. The survey included such questions as whether the Earth orbits around the sun. On average, people in the United States answered 64% of the questions correctly, which is about on par with nations in the European Union and generally ahead of the six other nations polled, including China, Russia, Japan and Malaysia.

The survey also highlighted a number of other recent findings. One is that for the first time, the Internet surpassed TV news as the American public’s primary source of science news. It also found that 4 in 10 Americans said that the government spends too little on science and technology research and 5 in 10 say the spending is about right, a number that has been consistent for several years.


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