Whenever controversies arise that pit scientists against segments of the U.S. public—the evolution debate, say, or the fight over emissions regulations—a predictable dance seems to unfold. On the one hand, the nonscientists appear almost entirely impervious to scientific data that undermine their opinions, and they are prone to argue back with technical claims of dubious merit. In response, the scientists shake their heads and lament that if only the public weren’t so ignorant, these kinds of misunderstandings wouldn’t occur. But what if the fault actually lies with both sides?
We’ve been aware for a long time that Americans don’t know much about science. Surveys that measure the public’s views on evolution, climate change, and even the idea that the earth revolves around the sun yield a huge gap between what science tells us and what the public believes.
But that’s not the whole story. The American Academy of Arts and Sciences convened a series of workshops on this topic over the past year and a half, and many of the participating scientists and other experts concluded that, as much as the public misunderstands science, scientists misunderstand the public. In particular, they often fail to realize that a more-scientifically informed public is not necessarily a public that will more frequently side with scientists.
Take climate change. The battle over global warming has raged for more than a decade, with experts still stunned by the willingness of their political opponents to distort scientific conclusions. Scientists conclude, not illogically, that they’re dealing with a problem of misinformation or downright ignorance.
Yet a closer look complicates that picture. For one thing, it’s political outlook, not education, that seems
to motivate one’s belief on this subject. According to polling by the Pew Research Center, Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change than those who have less education. These better-educated Republicans probably aren’t ignorant; a more likely explanation is that they are politically driven consumers of climate science information. Among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite—more education leads to greater acceptance of the consensus climate science.
In other words, it appears that politics comes first on such a contested subject, and better information is no cure-all—people are likely to simply strain it through an ideological sieve. In fact, more education probably makes a global-warming skeptic more persuasive and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.
The moral of this controversy is that experts who want Americans to take science into account when they form opinions need to do far more than just lay out the facts or “set the record straight.” What science says is important, but in controversial areas, it’s only the beginning. It’s critical that experts and policy makers better understand what motivates public concern in the first place; they mustn’t be deceived by the fact that people often appear to be arguing about scientific facts. Rather than simply crusade against ignorance, the defenders of science should also work closely with social scientists and specialists in public opinion to determine how to defuse controversies by addressing their fundamental causes.
They might find a few pleasant surprises in the process. For one thing, the public doesn’t seem to disdain scientists, as scientists often suppose. A 2009 study by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that Americans tend to have positive views of the scientific community; it’s scientists who are wary of the media and the public. ❧
Chris Mooney is co-author, with Sheril Kirshenbaum, of Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future. Basic Books, 2009.