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In a community where science is both bread and butter, both vocation and avocation, topics like the role and standing of science and scientists in society receive relatively little attention.
Los Alamos scientists are presumably busy working on the nation’s problems, although they themselves most often complain anecdotally that they are working on the bureaucracy’s paperwork. Many continue to find time and resources here and there to chip away at the plentiful mysteries of the natural order. A few have entrepreneurial ambitions that call for a whole other set of skills on top of those demanded in a normal day.
As perhaps at no other time since World War II, the country and the world has high hopes for science to solve enormous problems and for technology to make up ground that has been lost economically and environmentally on every side.
Maybe there is not enough time for peering into the mirror or belly-button staring when you’re involved in heavy theoretical formulations or trying to engineer a difficult component for an experiment.
Fortunately, a number of important questions have been answered, if not settled, in a very timely survey that recently captured scientists’ views of themselves.
Last month, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released a poll based on direct telephone calls with more than 2,500 members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A companion survey that quizzed another 1,000 members of the general public added interesting facets to the perspective by contrast and comparison.
The survey sweepingly concludes that Americans have a high regard for scientists. But they have more doubts about the nation’s scientific prowess than in the past. They are nearly split between spending more for science (39 percent) and keeping funding the same (40 percent).
Scientists on the other hand view negatively the public’s lack of knowledge and unrealistic expectations. The lack of scientific knowledge is cited by 85 percent of the scientists as a major problem for science.
In fact, the public does a little better on a simple science quiz than might be expected. Fully 91 percent answer correctly that aspirin is recommended to prevent heart attacks and 65 percent know that carbon dioxide is a gas linked to rising temperatures. Fewer than half the people polled knew that electrons were smaller than atoms.
Scientists and the public differ widely on issues like evolution and global warming.
While younger people (30-49) have not shown themselves to be well informed on current events and politics, they do better than the 65-and-older contingent when it comes to answering the questions on the quiz.
Politically speaking, Republicans know more about science and 37 percent of them are in the “high-knowledge” group, compared to 27 percent of Democrats, although these numbers even out when other demographic factors are taken into account, like income, age and education.
According to the survey, scientists are more likely to call themselves Democrats and have a higher regard for government than business compared to the public at large.
Scientists say the news media is to blame for the public’s general scientific ignorance, especially television news, which 83 percent of scientists say is only fair to poor. Newspaper coverage is deemed slightly better, but still rated fair or poor by 63 percent of the scientists in the poll.
In a July 26 article in the Boston Globe, Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum comment on the survey, responding that scientists should shoulder more responsibility for the public’s lack of understanding. The authors of a new book, “Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future,” Mooney and Kirshenbaum say the survey doesn’t get to a deeper deficit in public consciousness, which scientists must help provide.
“We would describe it as a deep and abiding awareness of the importance of the scientific endeavor to their lives and the national future,” they write. “This means that Americans would be more likely to see – much in the way that scientists currently see – how science centered development and controversies will shape the coming decades and guide countless critical political decisions in areas ranging from energy policy to the ethics of various types of biomedical research.”
A community defined and branded by science and with a deep tradition of public service has a particular obligation to join the fray, keeping in mind what’s going on in the rest of the world without losing focus on the tasks at hand.