Grading the 2015 version of Pew study of public attitudes toward science

So everybody knows that the Pew Research Center released a cool study yesterday on public attitudes toward science & on differences between public & scientists (or at least AAAS members; it’s worth noting that AAAS membership isn’t limited to scientists per se).

It was a follow up to Pew’s classic 2009 study of the same — & it makes just as huge and valuable a contribution to scholarly understanding as that one, in my view.

Lots of people have said lots of things already & will say even more. But here are a few thoughts:

1. Pew does great work in measuring US public attitudes toward science & scientists.  They ask questions that it is sensible to believe measure general public regard for the enterprise of science, and keep track over time.

When one adds their findings to those collected by the National Science Foundation and the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, which conducts General Social Survey, source of most of the NSF’s annual “Science Indicator” measures, one can really form a good view of how the US public feels about science.

People should ignore all the bogus studies that administer strange questions to M turk workers — there are tons of those & they always report really weird, sensational findings.

2.  This report, like the 2009 one, shows that Americans basically love science.  By overwhelming margins, they report admiration for scientists and positive appraisals of what scientists do.  This is consistent with what the NSF Science Indicators, which are released every year, show too.

3.  Still, there is almost this weird reluctance in the Center’s press release and commentary to accept or clearly articulate this conclusion!

It’s common wisdom that public disputes over science stem from a “creeping anti-science” sensibility in American society.

Scholars who actually study public attitudes toward science, however, know that that view is unsupported by any convincing, valid data.  Indeed, the Pew and NSF Indicator reports show that there is overwhelming trust— across all demographic, political, and other types of cultural groups (religious & nonreligious, e.g.).

The 2009 Report helped to try to correct the “common wisdom” in this regard.

But the 2015 Report seems committed to avoiding any confrontation with this view. Instead, by employing a strategy of silence, inapt juxtaposition, and emphasis of irrelevant data, the Center commentary seems committed to consoling those who hold this fundamentally mistaken understanding of the sources of public conflict over science.

mmmmmmm… science ….

It’s almost as if Pew feels disappointed to pop the balloon of self-reinforcing popular misunderstanding on this issue with the needle of its own data.

4. Consider the “gap” between scientists & public on evolution.

Yes, it’s there.

But it is well established that public opinion responses to the question “do you believe in human evolution” have zero connection to what people know about either evolutionary science or science in general.

It’s also perfectly clear that this “gap” in public and scientific understandings has nothing to do with public respect for scientists.

The 2009 Pew Report made that clear, actually, reporting data showing that those who said they “disbelieved in” evolution as well as those who said they “did” both had highly positive views of science’s contribution to society.

The Report and Alan Leshner’s commentary for the 2009 Report both emphasized that there was no meaningful differences in that regard between people who said science sometimes conflicts w/ their religious views & those who said it doesn’t.

Nothing at all has changed–nothing. But is there anything comparable in this yr’s report? Nope!

Leshner himself did write a very thoughtful commentary in Science.

He’s still championing respect for and respectful dialogue with diverse memers of the public: good for him; he’s a real science-of-science-communication honey badger!

But even he seemed to think that getting his message across required indulging the “creeping anti-science” meme, warning that “the public’s perceptions of scientific expertise and trustworthiness” risk being “compromised whenever information confronts people’s personal, personal, or religious views”– conclusions that actually seem completely contrary to the data presented in both 2009 and 2015.

5. Same w/ the “gap” on climate change.

It’s clear that climate change opinions don’t measure either science comprehension, knowledge of climate science in particular, or respect for or attitudes toward science.

In 2009, Pew wanted people to see, too, that public conflict over climate change did not originate in any disagreement about the value of science or trustworthiness of scientists. It emphasized that both climate-change “believing” & “disblieving” members of the public had the same positive views in this regard.

Not so in the 2015 report, where the “gap” on climate change is repeatedly used to qualify the finding that the public has high regard for science. (Interesting that only 87% of AAAS members indicated they “believe in” AGW; I’m sure they understand the evidence for AGW and even use the evidence “at work.”)

What makes this all the more strange is that the 2015 Report recognizes that the public’s disagreement over AGW mirrors a public disagreement over what scientific consensus is on this issue (a phenomenon that can be attributed to ideologically biased assessments of evidence on both issues).

In other words accepters and nonacepters alike believe “science is on their side” — much the way that nations at war believe that God is….

For sure, the debate is alarming and contrary to enlightened democratic decisionmaking.

But if anyone thinks the source of the debate is lack of science comprehension on the part of the public or lack of public confidence and trust in science, they are themselves ignoring all the best evidence we have on these issues!

Pew’s job is to help remedy this widespread form of science-of-science-communication illiteracy.

6. The data reported on public attitudes on GM foods is super disappointing.

Social scientists know that surveying the public on issues that it has never heard of generates absolutely meaningless results.

GM food risks are in that category.


American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GM foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.

Before introducing the idea of GM foods, the survey participants were asked simply ”What information would you like to see on food labels that is not already on there?” In response, most said that no additional information was needed on food labels. Only 7% of respondents raised GM food labeling on their own. . . .

Only about a quarter (26%) of Americans realize that current regulations do not require GM products to be labeled.

Hallman, W., Cuite, C. & Morin, X. Public Perceptions of Labeling Genetically Modified Foods. Rutgers School of Environ. Sci. Working Paper 2013-2001.

Americans don’t fear GM foods; they eat them.

No meaningful inferences whatsoever can be drawn from the “gap” in attitudes between members of public & scientists on this issue.

Very un-Pew-like to play to common misunderstandings about this by treating the “gap” between public and scientists on GM as supporting any meaningful inferences about anything.

6.  Also very out of character is Pew’s calling attention to minute changes in the overwhelming levels of support for science reflected in particular items:

I’m sure they were just trying to throw a bone to all those who “just know” — b/c it’s so obvious– that we are living in the “age of denial.” But if the latter seize on these changes as meaningful, they’ll only be making fools of themselves.

For perspective, here are comparable data, collected over time, from NSF Indicators (click on them for larger displays).

That anyone can see in these sort of data evidence for a “creeping anti-science” sensibility in the general US population or any segment of it is astonishing — something that itself merits investigation by public opinion researchers, like the excellent ones who work for Pew!

But the bottom line is, the job of those researchers isn’t to feed these sorts of persistent public misimpressions; it’s to correct them!

* * *

How would I grade the Pew Study, then?

“A” for scholarly content.”

“C -” for contribution to informed public understanding.

Overall: “B.”

Leave a Comment