July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 1: Public Views of Science and Scientists

Americans believe overwhelmingly that science has benefited society and has helped make life easier for most people. More than eight-in-ten (84%) say that science’s impact on society has been mostly positive, with relatively small variations across most segments of the public. And when those who say science has a positive impact are asked to expand on their thinking, more than half provide examples tied to advances in health care and medicine.

Partisans largely agree on the beneficial effects of science, with 88% of Republicans, 84% of independents and 83% of Democrats saying the impact is mostly positive. There are differences – though not large – tied to race, education and income.

Close to nine-in-ten non-Hispanic whites (87%) say the impact of science is mostly positive, compared with 76% of African Americans and 75% of Hispanics. Meanwhile, more than nine-in-ten college graduates (92%) say the impact is mostly positive, compared with 77% of those with a high school diploma or less education.

When asked for specific examples, roughly half (52%) of those who say science has had a mostly positive impact on society cite developments tied to medicine. The largest share of that group (32% of the total) names medical and health care in general, 24% cite disease research, cures or vaccines and 4% cite advances in the use of stem cells. Among the more frequent non-medical answers, 8% name space exploration and 7% cite the environment and initiatives to stop global warming as ways science has had a positive effect on our society. Another 7% cite advances in communications and computer technology and 6% cite technology in general.

Because the share of people saying science has had a mostly negative effect is so small, the responses to the question asking for specific examples are too few for quantitative analysis. Among the most common responses cite concerns that science goes against one’s religion, concerns about the environment and the validity of global warming and concerns about vaccines and stem cell research.

More than eight-in-ten (83%) say that science has made life easier for most people, while one-in-ten (10%) say it has made life more difficult. Again, the percentages are lopsided across most demographic groups with large majorities saying that science has made life easier.

The public also holds largely positive views of science’s impact on health care, food and the environment, though the share saying they see a positive impact on health care (85%) is higher than the share for the other two (both 66%). At the same time, more than six-in-ten say they worry at least some (27% a lot, 36% some) whether new medicines and medical treatments have been carefully tested before they are made available to the public.

Scientists Highly Regarded

Seven-in-ten Americans (70%) say scientists contribute a lot to the well-being of society, a share topped only by evaluations of the work done by members of the military (84%) and teachers (77%). Perceptions of scientists are virtually the same as those of medical doctors and just above those of engineers.

The share saying that scientists contribute a lot to the well-being of society is high across the board, but college graduates are more likely to say this (80%) than those with some college (70%) or a high school diploma or less education (64%). Close to eight-in-ten (78%) of those earning $75,000 or more say scientists contribute a lot, compared with 63% of those earning less than $30,000.

The partisan differences, meanwhile, are slight. About three-quarters of Democrats (74%) say scientists contribute a lot, compared with 66% of Republicans and 69% of independents. Three quarters (75%) of those who say humans have evolved– either through natural processes or guided by a supreme being – say scientists contribute a lot, compared with 63% of those who say humans have not evolved.

Relatively Few See U.S. Scientific Achievements as Best in World

Fewer than two-in-ten Americans (17%) say that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world when compared with other industrialized nations. Almost half (47%) say the achievements are above average. A quarter (26%) rate them as average, while 5% see them as below average.

By comparison, more than four-in-ten Americans say the nation’s military is the best in the world. More than two-in-ten (22%) say the nation’s standard of living is the best and 19% say the same about the American political system. Only 15% say the nation’s health care is the best in the world, while 12% say the same about the U.S. economy.

Public attitudes about the ranking of U.S. scientific achievements differ significantly from those of scientists, who are much more likely to characterize achievements in the United States as the best in the world (See Section 2).

Affluent and College Grads More Likely to Say U.S. Best in Science

Impressions of how U.S. scientific achievements compare to other industrialized nations differ based on income, education and gender. For example, a quarter of those with household incomes of $75,000 a year or more say scientific achievements in the United States are the best in the world, compared with 14% of those earning less than $30,000. At the same time, people earning less than $30,000 are nearly twice as likely as those earning at least $75,000 to rank U.S. scientific achievements as average or below average (38% vs. 20%).

A quarter of college graduates (24%) rank U.S. accomplishments as the best in the world, compared with 14% of those with some college and 16% of those with a high school diploma or less. Men are also more likely than women to rate U.S. scientific accomplishments as best in the world (22% vs. 13%). Meanwhile, Republicans (22%) are slightly more likely than Democrats (16%) or independents (16%) to say the same.

People who follow news about scientific developments are more likely than those who do not to rank the achievements of the U.S. as the best in the world. Close to a quarter (23%) of high consumers of science media see U.S. scientific achievements as the best in the world, compared with 13% of those who say they do not regularly watch or read any science channels, magazines or websites.

Only 12% of those ages 18-29 say U.S. achievements are the best in the world. That share rises to 18% for those 30-49, 20% for those 50-64 and 21% for those 65 and older.

Digging Deeper into Science’s Impact

More than eight-in-ten Americans (85%) say the effect of science on the quality of health care has been mostly positive, while 10% say it has been mostly negative. When it comes to how science has affected the environment and food, most still offer favorable assessments, though there is less consensus. Two-thirds (66%) say science has had a mostly positive effect on both the quality of food and on the quality of the environment. Nearly a quarter (24% for food, 23% for the environment) say the impact in each of these areas has been mostly negative.

A closer look at impressions of science’s impact on food shows mostly small variations across subgroups. Men are slightly more likely than women to see a positive impact on food (71% vs. 62%). And there is a similar difference between those with at least some college experience (70%) and those with a high school diploma or less education (63%).

But there is a larger divide between white and black Americans. Seven-in-ten whites say the impact of science on food has been mostly positive, while just over half of African Americans (51%) agree. Hispanics fall in between (62%). About two-in-ten whites (21%) see the impact as mostly negative, compared with close to four-in-ten blacks (38%) and 26% of Hispanics. These racial and ethnic differences exist when it comes to science’s effect on health care as well as the overall effect on society in general.

Concerns about Medical Testing

Though science’s effect on health care is overwhelmingly seen as positive, many Americans express concerns about whether the newest medicines and medical treatments have been carefully tested before being made available to the public. About six-in-ten (62%) say they worry a lot (27%) or some (36%) about whether the medicines or treatments receive sufficient testing. Close to four-in-ten (37%) say they do not worry much (22%) or at all (15%).

A larger share of women (66%) than men (58%) say they worry at least some about medical testing. African Americans (70%) and Hispanics (73%) also are more likely than whites (59%) to say they worry at least some about sufficient testing of medicines or treatments.

Scientific and Technological Advances

Most Americans say they see more good than harm from major scientific and technological advances in specific areas such as space exploration, human genetics, development of the internet and nuclear energy. About three-quarters (74%) say that space exploration has done more good for society than harm (17%).

Similar shares say the same about research into human genetics (72% more good vs. 19% more harm) and development of the internet (70% more good vs. 22% more harm). Research on nuclear energy is also seen in a largely positive light with close to two-thirds (65%) saying it has done more good than harm; 27% say it has done more harm than good.

Science and Religion in Conflict?

More than half of the public (55%) says that science and religion are “often in conflict.” Close to four-in-ten (38%) take the opposite view that science and religion are “mostly compatible.” Yet the balance is reversed when people are asked about science’s compatibility with their own religious beliefs. Only 36% say science sometimes conflicts with their own religious beliefs and six-in-ten (61%) say it does not.

Highly observant Americans are among the most likely to see conflicts between science and their own religious beliefs. But less religiously observant people are more likely to see broader conflicts between science and religion in general. Among those who attend religious services at least weekly, 46% say they see a conflict between science and their religious beliefs (52% do not). Among those who seldom or never attend services, just 21% see a conflict. Yet 60% of those who seldom or never attend services believe science and religion are “often in conflict,” compared with 48% of Americans who attend religious services weekly or more often.

More than half of Catholics and Protestants (53% each) say that science and religion are often in conflict. About the same proportion of white evangelical Protestants (48%) say this, but white evangelicals are more likely than those in other religious groups to say that science conflicts with their own religious beliefs.

When those who say science conflicts with their own beliefs are asked to describe the ways in which these conflicts arise, 41% refer specifically to evolution, creationism, Darwinism and debates about the origin of life. Another 15% cite differences over the beginning of life, primarily concerns about abortion (12%) but also cloning and birth control.

Among the other areas where people say science conflicts with their own religious beliefs are concerns about the use of stem cells (9%), denial of God (4%), issues surrounding the use of medicines and blood transfusions (3%) and conflicts with the Bible (2%).

While evolution is cited as the most common conflict between science and people’s own religious beliefs, many people who reject evolution nevertheless do not see science and religion as often in conflict. Overall, 31% of Americans say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Of those who hold this view, roughly half (48%) say that science sometimes conflicts with their religious beliefs, but about the same number (49%) say it does not. By comparison, among the 32% of Americans who say humans evolved through natural selection, just 24% say they see a conflict between science and their religious beliefs while 74% do not.

Democrats are more likely to say science and religious beliefs often conflict (62%) than are Republicans or independents (52%). When it comes to whether science conflicts with one’s own religious beliefs, Republicans are more likely to say “yes” (45%), compared with Democrats (33%) or independents (34%).

Science in the Pulpit

About four-in-ten (42%) of those who attend religious services at least once a month say the clergy at their place of worship have spoken about science or scientific findings; more than half (56%) say the topic has not been raised.

Among all Protestants who attend services regularly, 46% say the clergy occasionally speak about science. That includes 48% of white evangelicals, 44% of white mainline Protestants and 40% of black Protestants. A smaller share of Catholics (35%) say science has been raised at church.

Of those who say their clergy occasionally speak about science or scientific findings, three-in-ten (30%) say the clergy at their church are usually supportive of science, while 11% say they are critical of science. A majority (52%) say the clergy’s references to science are neither positive nor negative.

Cite this publication: “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (July 9, 2009) http://www.people-press.org/2009/07/09/public-praises-science-scientists-fault-public-media/, accessed on July 22, 2014.