Why Scientists and Regular People Disagree

I ran into this interesting chart today, describing a Pew poll comparing the opinions of scientists with those of the general public on "science issues." Here's the graphic (click image or find bigger original here) and AP/Huffpost's summary:


Seth Borenstein: "The American public and U.S. scientists are light-years apart on science issues. And 98 percent of surveyed scientists say it's a problem that we don't know what they're talking about. Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public, according to matching polls of both the general public and the country's largest general science organization. Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed. In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal." [AP/HuffPost]

So what should we make of this data? There are certainly some like evolution and climate where I read the scientists' position and think, "yes! thank you!" Other opinions like offshore drilling I'm less excited about. But am I cherry-picking? Is there some type of implied obligation in the way the information is presented, to either take it or reject it in total?

I'm not sure if it's intentional, but I think the presentation does nudge the reader in that direction. But looking more closely at the different statements (and trying to imagine the questions that led to these answers), it seems to me there are two basic types of issues jumbled together here. First, there are statements of fact. "Humans have evolved over time." "Climate change is mostly due to human activity." Then there are statements that advocate taking (or not taking) a particular action. "Favor use of animals in research." "Favor more offshore drilling."

And not for nothing, the factual statements tend to be the ones I agree with the scientists on, and the action statements tend to be the ones I disagree with (although there are some I agree with). I think that's because it makes sense to me that when you ask a scientific question of fact (did we evolve), science -- and scientists -- are the source of the best answers. But on the other hand, when you're asking a social question like should we build more nuclear power plants, the answer doesn't rely solely on science. The costs and benefits, even the safety of a nuclear program depend not only on scientific data, but on economic and social factors that may be outside the competence of the scientists polled. For example, it may be possible to make a nuclear plant 100% safe, and we might still fail to do so through cost-cutting, shoddy oversight, terrorism, or any number of other factors not present in the scientist's assumptions about the future when she gave her opinion.

So the "what should we do" questions not only involve assumptions about the future, but these assumptions are much more ambiguous and political than simple scientific facts. Also, I chose nuclear power because the answer
I'd give might vary with the wording of the question. Generating electricity by burning coal kills many more people annually than nuclear. The potential for nuclear disaster may be higher, but the actual disaster that is coal is a fact we've chosen to sweep under the rug. So I'm not sure how my opinion on that issue would be recorded -- it would depend on the way the question was asked.

Postscript: There are also several statements I just set aside. "Safe to eat genetically modified food" is one of these. I think the question fails to encompass the whole issue. I suspect most GMOs are more or less safe to eat (relative to Big Macs at least, if not raw kale). But I object to GMOs for a host of other reasons including promotion of single-source monoculture, patenting of genomes, etc. So the question as it was apparently asked really doesn't do justice to the issue.