July 9, 2009

Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media

Section 5: Evolution, Climate Change and Other Issues

Two issues on which there is widespread agreement among scientists – evolution and climate change – divide the general public. Not only do many Americans diverge from the dominant scientific positions in their own attitudes and beliefs, but many also believe that the scientific community itself is divided over these issues. While education levels matter – college graduates are more likely than those with less education to agree with the scientists – education is not the largest factor. Public views on evolution are, not surprisingly, strongly linked to religion, while public views on climate change are strongly linked to party and ideology.

The Origin and Development of Life

A majority of the public (61%) says that human and other living things have evolved over time, though when probed only about a third (32%) say this evolution is “due to natural processes such as natural selection” while 22% say “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.” Another 31% reject evolution and say that “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

Nearly all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time – 87% say evolution is due to natural processes, such as natural selection. The dominant position among scientists – that living things have evolved due to natural processes – is shared by only about third (32%) of the public.

Views on evolution vary substantially within the general public, particularly by religion and attendance at religious services. A majority (57%) of white evangelical Protestants hold the view that humans have existed in their present form since the beginning of time. Most Catholics and white mainline Protestants say humans have evolved, though they are divided about whether this is a result of natural processes or whether evolution was guided by a supreme being. Among the religiously unaffiliated, by contrast, 60% say humans have evolved due to natural processes.

About half (51%) of those who say they seldom or never attend religious services say that life evolved due to natural processes, compared with 36% of those who attend services at least yearly, and just 14% of those who attend weekly or more frequently.

Younger respondents are more likely to say humans evolved through natural selection. Four-in-ten of those younger than 30 (40%) say humans have evolved as a result of natural processes such as natural selection, compared with 35% of those ages 30 to 49, 30% of those 50 to 64, and just 23% of those 65 and older. Among those 65 and older, far more (35%) say that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time than hold the view that humans evolved due to natural processes (23%).

There also are large educational differences in views of evolution. While 45% of college graduates say humans evolved as a result of natural selection, fewer of those with some college (31%) and those with no more than a high school education (26%) say the same. However, even college graduates are far less likely than scientists to say that life has evolved due to natural processes.

Wide Divide over Climate Change

A large majority (85%) of Americans says that the earth is warming, but they are more divided on the cause of climate change than are scientists. About half of the general public (49%) says the earth is getting warmer “mostly because of human activity, such as burning fossil fuels,” while 36% say warming is occurring “mostly because of natural changes in the atmosphere.” About one-in-ten (11%) say “there is no solid evidence that the earth is getting warmer.”

By contrast, 84% of scientists say the earth is warming because of human activity. Scientists also are far more likely than the public to regard global warming as a very serious problem: 70% express this view, compared with 47% of the public. Public attitudes about whether global warming represents a serious problem have changed little in recent years.

The strongest correlate of opinion on climate change is partisan affiliation. Two-thirds of Republicans (67%) say either that the earth is getting warmer mostly because of natural changes in the atmosphere (43%) or that there is no solid evidence the earth is getting warmer (24%). By contrast, most Democrats (64%) say the earth is getting warmer mostly because of human activity. Nearly half of independents (49%) say human activity is causing the earth to warm, while 47% say either that the earth is getting warmer due to natural atmospheric changes (38%) or that there is no solid evidence that the earth is warming (9%).

The divide is even larger when party and ideology are both taken into consideration. Just 21% of conservative Republicans say the earth is warming due to human activity, compared with nearly three-quarters (74%) of liberal Democrats.

There also are significant differences in views about climate change by education. More than half of college graduates (58%) say climate change is occurring and caused by human activity while those with no more than a high school education are more divided in their opinions; 45% say the earth is warming because of human activity and 40% say it is due to natural changes in the atmosphere.

Do Scientists Agree?

Despite the overwhelming agreement among scientists about evolution and climate change, substantial minorities of Americans think there is no scientific consensus on these issues. While a 60% majority of the public says that scientists generally agree that humans have evolved over time, nearly three-in-ten (28%) say that scientists do not generally agree.

A comparable majority (56%) says that scientists generally agree that the earth is warming because of human activity. However, more than a third (35%) says that scientists do not generally agree.

In both cases, people’s perceptions of a scientific consensus are strongly correlated with their own views on the issue. Fully 79% of those who say life has evolved due to natural selection say there is a scientific consensus on this issue. Fewer than half (43%) of those who say life was created in its current form see such a consensus.

This pattern is even more pronounced when it comes to views about whether there is a scientific consensus over climate change. About three-quarters of people (76%) who say human activity is driving global warming think that most scientists agree on this point. Fewer than half (41%) of those who say warming is mostly due to atmospheric changes think there is a scientific consensus on the issue. Among the small share of the public (11%) that says there is no solid evidence of global warming, just 22% say there is scientific agreement that human activity is causing global warming, while 68% think there is no agreement among scientists on the issue.

Other Issues

The attitudes of the public and scientists also sharply diverge on several policy issues related to science and technology. The public is far less supportive than scientists of using animals in scientific research; about half (52%) of the general public favors this compared with 93% of scientists. The divide is nearly as large over federal funding for embryonic stem cell research; 58% of the general public supports this compared with 93% of scientists.

About half (51%) of the general public favors building additional nuclear power plants compared with 70% of scientists. There is a smaller difference between scientists and the general public when it comes to children’s vaccinations. Large majorities of both the public (69%) and scientists (82%) say that all children should be required to be vaccinated.

Animal Testing

Among the public, there is a striking gender gap in opinions about using laboratory animals in scientific research. Most men (62%) favor the use of animals in research while just over half of women (52%) oppose this.

There also are sizable age, education and partisan differences in the public’s views of using animals in research. A majority of those younger than 30 (58%) oppose the use of animals for research while majorities in older age groups favor using animals in research. College graduates (59%) are more likely than those with some college (49%) or no more than a high school education (49%) to favor using animals in research. And while 62% of Republicans favor this, smaller shares of independents (51%) and Democrats (48%) agree.

As the high level of support among scientists would suggest (93% favor), there is very little variation in opinion among different types of scientists about the use of animals in research. There also is very little difference among men and women scientists: 94% of men and 89% of women favor using animals in scientific research.

Stem Cell Research

A majority of Americans (58%) favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, while 35% are opposed. A far greater share of scientists (93%) than the public supports federal funding for embryonic stem cell research.

There are particularly large partisan and religious differences in the public’s views. Nearly twice as many Democrats (71%) as Republicans (38%) favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. On this issue, the opinions of independents (61% favor) are much closer to those of Democrats than Republicans. Within the parties there are also ideological divisions. Moderate and liberal Republicans are as likely to favor (47%) as oppose (46%) federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, while conservative Republicans oppose it by a 61% to 34% margin. Liberal Democrats are far more supportive of federal funding for this research than moderates and conservatives within the party (82% vs. 65%).

Majorities of Catholics (60%), white mainline Protestants (59%), black Protestants (54%) and the religiously unaffiliated (74%) favor federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. Just over half of white evangelical Protestants (52%) oppose it. And while the balance of opinion among those who attend religious services regularly (weekly or more) is in opposition to funding embryonic stem cell research (51% oppose, 42% favor), a large majority of those who attend less frequently favors funding this research.

Nuclear Power

About half (51%) of Americans favor building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity, while 42% oppose this. Among the general public, a greater percentage of men (60%) than of women (43%) favor building additional nuclear power plants. More college graduates (59%) favor building nuclear power plants than do those with a high school education or less (46%). And larger shares of Republicans (62%) than independents (52%) or Democrats (45%) support expanding the use of nuclear power to generate electricity.

When it comes to nuclear power, the views of scientists are closer to those of Republicans than Democrats nationwide. Seven-in-ten scientists favor building more nuclear power plants to generate electricity, while 27% are opposed. Among scientists, majorities in every specialty favor building more nuclear power plants, but support is particularly widespread among physicists and astronomers (88% favor). As with the public, far more men (76%) than women (55%) support the expansion of nuclear power.

Requiring Child Vaccinations

A large majority (69%) of the general public says that all children should be required to be vaccinated against childhood diseases, such as measles, mumps, rubella and polio. Only 28% say that parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children. Among scientists, 82% support required vaccination, while 17% would leave the decision to parents.

There is very little variation in the general public’s views by gender, party, or religious affiliation. There also is no difference in opinions between parents and non-parents about requiring all children to be vaccinated among. However, slightly more people with some college education or a college degree say that parents should be able to decide not to vaccinate their children.