By Marcus Glassman, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs
A recent study by the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) surveyed the US public and AAAS-member scientists on their views on a range of science and technology issues, with particularly interesting results on food and agriculture. Overall, the study highlighted major concerns held by both the public and scientific communities on the role of science in our food system, and critically, identified major rifts between the two groups’ views and understandings.
The survey was conducted in two parts: The first portion was a telephone survey conducted in August 2014 among a representative sample of 2,002 American adults selected from the general public. The second portion was an online survey conducted in September-October 2014 among 3,748 scientists; the scientists involved were all members of the AAAS, a scientific membership organization. When applicable, the researchers compared survey results to a similar study conducted in 2009.
The report found a rising trend of mistrust among the general public on science’s role in the food supply—34 percent of respondents consider science to have a negative impact on our food supply, up from 24 percent in 2009. Scientists, also, expressed their doubts: a majority (52 percent) are concerned that the government never or only sometimes uses the best scientific guidelines when establishing food safety regulations. Both the general public and scientists have the greatest doubts concerning the safety of pesticides: Only 28 percent of the public and 68 percent of scientists think foods grown with pesticides are safe to eat, the lowest level of confidence in any biotechnology surveyed in the report for either group.
Nothing, however, in the entire survey—on issues ranging from food and agriculture, to healthcare, to evolution and even fracking—was as controversial as genetically modified (GM) foods. Among scientists polled, 88 percent say GM foods are safe to eat, whereas 57 percent of the general public consider GM foods unsafe to eat. This 51-point spread between the two groups’ opinions was not only the largest gulf between viewpoints observed in the report on any issue, it is also one of the most difficult gulfs to bridge. A full 67 percent of the public feel not only that GM foods are unsafe, but also that scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health consequences of GM foods. Conversely, scientists feel the public’s views are based on misinformation: A full 79 percent of scientists feel the media does a poor job communicating science to the public, often conflating speculation and scientific findings.
This all begs the question: How can we bridge the understanding gap on GM foods when a majority of the public thinks scientists’ views are invalid, and a majority of scientists think the public’s views are based on misinformation? There is no simple solution, but there are some steps that can be taken to move the two sides’ understandings closer together:
Build Trust in Science
Although trust is severely lacking in agricultural science, the public’s views on science as a whole are strong: 79 percent of respondents say that science has made life easier; 79 percent have a positive view on science’s role in healthcare; and over 70 percent believe that public investment in engineering, technology, and basic science pays off in the long run.
Given the strong support for science as a whole, why has agricultural science become singled out? Why is it so uniquely distrusted? Understanding the source of the public’s perception on why agricultural science is unique may be the first step to understanding why it is uniquely distrusted.
Improve Science Literacy in the Media
From media reports sensationalizing minor scientific findings circa “Coffee prevents cancer!” to medical advice from “Dr. Google,” misinformation abounds. Although there is little that can be done to stem the flow of half-truths coming from blogs and the internet, accredited news outlets should take a stronger editorial stance on scientific news. Providing an identified reliable source of credible scientific news is the first step to improving the public’s understanding—and trust—in science.
Address Consumer Concerns
Lastly, the scientific community must understand that the concerns held by the general public are real, and must be treated as such. Supported by data or not, if the public’s views are at odds with the scientific community, addressing the opinion gulf with an “if only you had the facts” approach will solve nothing.
The Chicago Council on Global Affairs highlights critical shifts in American public thinking on US foreign policy through public opinion surveys and research conducted under the Lester Crown Center on US Foreign Policy.
The annual Chicago Council Survey, first conducted in 1974, is a valuable resource for policymakers, academics, media, and the general public. The Council also surveys American leaders in government, business, academia, think tanks, and religious organizations biennially to compare trends in their thinking with overall trends. And collaborating with partner organizations, the survey team periodically conducts parallel surveys of public opinion in other regions of the world to compare with US public opinion.
The Running Numbers blog features regular commentary and analysis from the Council’s public opinion and US foreign policy research team, including a series of flash polls of a select group of foreign policy experts to assess their opinions on critical foreign policy topics driving the news.
Ukrainian citizens are cynical about the effectiveness of aid from Western allies in the ongoing war in Donbass. Meanwhile, regional differences in attitude towards Russia remain prominent.
Democratic primary season is well under way, highlighted by recent debates and battleground fundraising by the large field of presidential hopefuls. As candidates deliver their pitch to voters, party supporters are not in lockstep on every issue.
America’s young and old are split on what to do about climate change, presenting a major hurdle for the country’s youth to attain serious and immediate action.
Opinion in Northern Ireland is polarized amid Brexit negotiations.
The United Kingdom remains split on Brexit as Parliament is suspended amid tumultuous backlash.
How are Americans reacting to the US-China trade war?
Mexicans have a far more negative views of Trump than of the United States or the US-Mexico relationship.
Amid the protests and violence in Hong Kong, a recent survey reveals differences in opinions between younger and older age groups as well as between more and less educated people living in Hong Kong.
Mexican attitudes towards Central American migrants are changing as the dispute between the US and Mexico over how to handle the migration issue continues.
Relations between Japan and South Korea are in freefall, with the two key US allies in Asia engaged in a steadily escalating economic conflict.
The United States has long been the tops arms supplier in the world. Yet public opinion data shows that Americans aren’t fans of U.S. arms sales.
Most Americans believe that respect and admiration for the United States are instrumental in achieving US foreign policy goals. But a new poll finds publics in the Middle East and North Africa continue to view the United States unfavorably.
At the June 25-26 Bahrain Peace to Prosperity Workshop, Jared Kushner presented the first component of a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East. But how does this plan sit with the Palestinian public?
Approval rates for Moon Jae-in are sliding, but his North Korea policy is not one of primary drivers.
In early February 2019, the United States withdrew from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty following President Trump’s October 2018 (and the Obama administration’s July 2014) accusations that Russia was failing to comply with the treaty. Russia withdrew from the treaty the next day.
Findings from a February 2019 Chicago Council on Global Affairs general public survey and a December 2018 Teaching, Research, and International Policy (TRIP) survey of International Relations (IR) scholars around the world illustrate how these different populations perceive the collapse of the INF Treaty.