30 Jan 2015

Science and public: worlds apart

10:15 am on 30 January 2015

Climate change, evolution, animal testing and genetic modification are as controversial as science can be, but new research shows that what scientists believe, and what the public believe, are worlds apart.

The Pew Research Centre surveyed 6000 scientists and Americans about 13 controversial topics, and found their opinions, on all but one topic, were strikingly different.

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Photo: 123RF

They asked scientists questions on subjects such as climate change, genetic modification, population growth, pesticides, fracking, offshore oil drilling and evolution.

The only topic on which there was close agreement, was that the International Space Station was a good investment.

The findings:

  • 88 percent of scientists would eat genetically modified food, compared with 37 percent of the American public.
  • 89 percent of scientists believe in using animals in research, compared with 47 percent of the public.
  • 87 percent of scientists believe in human-induced climate change compared with 50 percent of the public.
  • 98 percent of scientists believe humans have evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of Americans.

Scientist Alison Campbell, from Waikato University's teaching and learning department, said education was not the reason for this disparity but rather socialisation.

"If people have a personal belief position which juxtaposes with what science is saying, it's difficult to bridge that gap. There's new research which shows that throwing facts at people, won't have an impact but solidifies distrust in what scientists are saying. "

Scientists believe that if similar research was done in New Zealand, the results would be near identical, except for views on evolution.

Just 65 percent of Americans believe in the theory of evolution and recent research by Victoria University psychologist Marc Wilson found that 80 percent of New Zealanders do.

"The effect of education on people's beliefs about evolution and climate change is about half that of political views. Your politics are a much better indicator of your beliefs on climate change and evolution in New Zealand than how many years you had in formal education."

Research by the New Zealand government last year found that the population thought highly of science, but too much conflicting information made it hard for them to know what to believe.

That was mirrored in the Pew Research, with the public thinking scientists had fundamental differences between themselves about climate change and the big bang theory.

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