Public vs Scientists: Views Diverge Widely on Important Issues

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Screen Shot 2014-03-17 at 3.11.19 PMA survey by the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), asked members of the public, on the one hand, and scientists associated with AAAS on the other, about a range of scientific and health issues often in the news.

While finding that the public and professional scientists agree about the general importance of scientific research, they diverged sharply over some issues.

Surveys of non-scientists were conducted by telephone by trained interviewers. Approximately 2,000 public participants were drawn from all 50 states and the District of Columbia. Scientists (about 3,750) were randomly chosen from members of AAAS, and they completed their surveys online. All participants were at least 18 years of age.

The survey revealed some large discrepancies between the opinions of individuals without scientific expertise vs. those of scientists. For example, only 37 percent of the former thought that genetically modified foods are safe to eat, while 88 percent of scientists held that opinion quite a gap. Another divergence of opinion was revealed with respect to pesticide use, with only 28 percent of public respondents agreeing that it is safe to consume foods grown with pesticides, while 68 percent of scientists said such foods are safe.

Some health-related queries found more agreement: for example, 68 percent of the public thought that childhood vaccines such as MMR should be mandatory, while 86 percent of scientists agreed.

ACSH s Dr. Ruth Kava commented, "I find some of these results quite disturbing. The finding that so few of the public feel that GM foods are safe suggests to me that the fear-mongers are managing, in spite of the clear evidence to the contrary, to convince consumers that they should avoid these foods. Also the fear of pesticides points to the gullibility of the public when they are exposed to repeated warnings about the supposed danger posed by such safe chemicals."

ACSH s Dr. Josh Bloom places much of the blame on the media. He says, "Time and time again we have written about the same theme that headlines are not only routinely sensationalist, but often contradict the conclusion of the study. Since people barely have time to even read headlines, let alone whole articles, this is what will stick. It is not the least bit surprising that there are such discrepancies. I'm surprised it isn t more." 

You can learn more about the safety of GM foods and pesticides from the ACSH publication Food and You, and our publication on pesticides, available here.