The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Americans are still scientifically illiterate — and scientists still need a PR team


Back in 2009, the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science released a survey that I’ll never forget.

Public Praises Scientists; Scientists Fault Public, Media,” it was entitled. And it was revolutionary, because it went so dramatically against the grain for these kinds of reports.

Usually when Americans gets surveyed about science, we learn that they don’t know a lot about it — and then we proceed to lament how dumb they are. In fact, we did that just last week, when we learned that Americans want to label food containing DNA. (Har har.)

But in 2009, Pew and AAAS dared to treat the problem as two-sided. They surveyed scientists, not just citizens — members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, no less. And they found that, hey, it takes two to tango in the science-society relationship, and scientists might, if anything, be more down on the public than the public actually was on them!

I recall all this now because a long-awaited successor to this classic report has now come out. Same game plan, same structure. Except for one thing — the overall framing seems to have subtly shifted back toward the old “public doesn’t know stuff” presentation. Perhaps not intentionally, but that’s how I suspect the report is going to be interpreted (whether its authors intend it or not).

The reason is the prominence of figures like this, showing just how wrong people are about factual stuff:

So let’s discuss this. You will not be shocked to learn that scientists accept climate change and evolution much more than do average Americans. Or that scientists are more supportive of nuclear power.

You might be a bit more surprised to find that the biggest gap of all exists over GMO safety — I was, it’s stunningly big. But in general, we know this stuff already. We know that people deny a lot of science when they really shouldn’t.

So I feel that with this report now out, it’s actually important to reemphasize a key implication of the old report: namely, that scientists have also traditionally disengaged from the public and sometimes blamed the public over findings like these, while failing to understand the root causes of science resistance — and that what they really need is to engage the public if they ever want the situation to change.

Granted, since 2009, there’s been a great deal of that happening. A public communication wave has swept the world of science. You can’t go to a big scientific meeting without wading through session after session on communication.

That’s to the good. But the observation still really matters — and to show as much, let’s just go through two of the issues above and briefly try to explain why there’s really such a gap between science and the public.

Evolution. Basically, a lot of people are afraid that if they accept the science of evolution, life becomes meaningless, morality collapses, and death becomes just the end. (Yeah, it’s really that big of a deal for them.) To address this fear, scientists need to show how religious believers (like Pope Francis) actually have no problem with the theory of evolution. Some have adopted this wise strategy, but many have instead opted to slam religion, which, obviously, is likely to backfire.
Climate Change. Here, resistance to the science is driven by an ideology and an identity called individualism, which centers on the belief that a fair society is one in which a person succeeds on his or her own merits. What does that have to do with the climate, you ask? Well, nothing obvious — except that libertarian individualists think that the climate issue is a way of clamping down on something they hold in very high regard indeed: the free market. Scientists can try to explain the facts here till they’re blue in the face, but if they don’t disarm the concerns rooted in ideology, they’ll never disarm the resistance.

In both of these cases, if you just call the public dumb, and try to set them straight about the facts, and don’t understand where the resistance actually comes from….well, then, the truth is that you’re not being so perceptive yourself.

The point is, we have a lot of problems at the interface between science and society. But none of them are simple, and when people disagree with scientists, there’s often a lot more going on than mere scientific illiteracy.

In fact, in many cases, scientists’ opponents are deeply ideological and deeply dedicated — and, yes, smart. That’s the real science-society problem, and it’s one that we’re still only beginning to grapple with.

This post is part of our new Energy and Environment coverage. If you like it, please bookmark our pagefollow us on Twittersign up for our online newsletter — and come back often!