June 16, 2015 | By

Scientists and the Public Struggle to See Eye-To-Eye on Science and Technology

This post is published in collaboration with The Chicago Council's Global Food for Thought blog.

By Marcus Glassman, Research Associate, Global Agriculture & Food, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

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. 

About

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.

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