Pew did a survey on the Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society that is of modest interest. Turns out civilians love whitecoats.
Science holds an esteemed place among citizens and professionals. Americans recognize the accomplishments of scientists in key fields and, despite considerable dispute about the role of government in other realms, there is broad public support for government investment in scientific research.
Love scientists they might, but civilians don’t always agree with them. The featured picture shows a set of questions and the percent agreement of American Association for the Advancement of Science scientists and civilians, and the agreement “gap” or discrepancy.
Take the discrepancy between “Safe to eat genetically modified foods”: 88% of scientists say yes, 37% of the public say no. Scientists would, ceteris paribus, know more than civilians about genetics and should be trusted. So should they be believed when they say it’s “Safe to eat foods grown with pesticides”, which has a gap of 40%. Scientists also know more about (the non-stellarly worded) “Humans have evolved over time”, which has a gap of 33%.
In one way, scientists are one up on civilians about “Childhood vaccines such as MMR should be required”, an 18% gap. But now wholly. Scientists can say what would happen given such-and-such a percentage of kids were not vaccinated for disease X, but the consequences of the things that happen are not scientific but moral questions. Should all kids be forced by the government to be injected with Gardasil, a vaccination which does carry the risk of side effects, or should they rather be taught to keep their pants on? Not a scientific question.
Ordinarily, you’d expect scientists to have superior knowledge about whether “Climate change is mostly due to human activity”. Mostly?! But that field is ruled more by politics than physics, so the civilians have an edge. Civilians are right to say that we cannot make this claim with anything approaching confidence, but most civilians, except to emphasize the politics, can’t articulate why. This is not a good situation.
Another knowledge imbalance comes with “Favor building more nuclear power plants”, a 20% gap. Who better than a physicist to describe energy output? These same folks can also tell you what would happen in a meltdown—and how exceedingly unlikely such a thing is. But not all scientists are trustworthy. Remember when our Surgeon General advised Americans to take iodized salt after Fukushima? I was in San Francisco at the time and saw a run on containers of Morton’s. Many rolled gently down Stockton as crowds of worried mothers plunged into the huge stack of boxes.
“Growing world population will be a major problem”, a 23% gap, is trickier. Most of the growth will be in people not dying as soon as they used to. This will be a problem in societies like Japan where, we have read, the sale of adult diapers now exceeds baby nappies. What to do about this is only marginally a scientific question. (Eliminate porn, perhaps? The Japanese aren’t having sex.)
The statement itself is ambiguous. One interpretation is that people can increase without number. They cannot. If, in any area, food is scarce, people will not reproduce. Human reproduction is self-limiting. Localized famines can occur, of course, but there can’t be new people (in any area) when there is not enough food. It is because of the increase in cheap food and energy that population has increased.
The survey goes on about other things. The most curious is this. 84% of scientists think it’s a major problem that the “Public doesn’t know much about science”. And the reason for this, the majority of them say, is “Not enough K-12 STEM” and “Lack of public interest in science news.” One follows from the other. Who has interest in subjects which they don’t understand?
More education is always the call. At the risk of sounding elitist…the heck with the risk. Elitist is what we should be. Any body of advanced knowledge—and science is only one of these—is elitist by definition. Scientific truths are not easily won. It takes not only effort, which more attention to education can cure, but also ability, which it won’t. There’s a very good reason only a tiny fraction of people end up as scientists. It’s the same reason, in nature, why most people aren’t in the NBA. It isn’t easy and not everybody is capable.
Interestingly, 34% of civilians say “Private investment is enough” to fund science, an increase from 2009’s survey. Then 48% of scientists say this is a “Bad time” for scientist, also an increase; more than a doubling. Why? Because 83% say “Federal funding” is harder to find. Ah. So the expansion-team syndrome has struck. There are too many scientists, which necessarily drains more money and also produces a greater proportion of lousy work.
Why must scientists always go begging to government? What makes government beneficent and disinterested? Nothing.
Proof? Read the linked article and consider this survey finding. Some 58% of scientists say that science “Always/Most of time” best guides government regulation in “New drug and medical treatment.” They’re less sanguine about how science influences “Land us” and “Clean air and water” regulations. The secret is out. Science—good or bad—is increasingly relied on by government for the express purpose of regulating. As in The Science Has Spoken.