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Surprising Science

We Love Science, We Love it Not

The Pew Research Center has just released its new polling data on the state of science, and attitudes toward science in America are just as disheartening as you might imagine.

First, the good news. Americans still think highly of science in the abstract: dogged nerds in lab coats out to improve the world. Scientists impress the public more than just about everyone aside from schoolteachers and members of the military. Even people whose religious beliefs clash with science say that scientists are valuable. In addition, a clear majority of both Democrats and Republicans still believe that it pays off in the end when government invests in basic science, which is nice to see since 84 percent of scientists in the poll cited government as their top benefactor.

However, respondents in the general public were less impressed with the nuts and bolts of science than with the idea of science. Half of American scientists say that U.S. achievements in science are the world’s best; only 17 percent of the public agrees.

Pew President Andrew Kohut’s once reassured Big Think that concern for the environment has drastically increased among Americans, but still only 49 percent of the public accepted humans as the cause of climate change compared with 84 percent of scientists. The chasm widened on the theory of evolution by natural selection: 87 percent of scientists versus 32 percent of the public.  

While it’s nice to be loved, the vast majority of scientists said they’re worried about the public’s lack of scientific knowledge. Despite the country being more educated than ever, less than half of respondents knew that atoms are bigger than electrons. What’s really depressing is that many of these numbers aren’t changing or are going in the wrong direction.

And there’s no quick fix. While the scientists polled were angry at the media for poor science coverage (or none at all), the American Academy for the Advancement of Science said in its commentary on the poll that a better media and education system are important, but not enough. Scientists also need to work much harder to engage with the public if they want to bridge the divide.


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