When it comes to controversial science, a little knowledge is a problem
For a lot of scientific topics, there’s a big gap between what scientists understand and what the public thinks it knows. For a number of these topics—climate change and evolution are prominent examples—this divide develops along cultural lines, typically religious or political identity.
It would be reassuring to think that the gap is simply a matter of a lack of information. Get the people with doubts about science up to speed, and they’d see things the way that scientists do. Reassuring, but wrong. A variety of studies have indicated that the public’s doubts about most scientific topics have nothing to do with how much they understand that topic. And a new study out this week joins a number of earlier ones in indicating that scientific knowledge makes it easier for those who are culturally inclined to reject a scientific consensus.
What’s the consensus?
The new work was done by two social scientists at Carnegie Mellon University, Caitlin Drummond and Baruch Fishchoff. They relied on a large, regular survey called the General Social Survey, which attempts to capture the public’s perspective on a large variety of issues (they used data from the 2006 and 2010 iterations of the survey). The survey included a number of questions on general education and scientific education, as well as a number of questions that determined basic scientific literacy. In addition, it asked for opinions on a number of scientific issues: acceptance of the evidence for the Big Bang, human evolution, and climate change; thoughts on the safety of GMOs and nanotechnology; and the degree to which the government should fund stem cell research.