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A Survey on Science

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press offers a glimpse into how the public regards the work of scientists, and how scientists themselves see their work.

The survey finds that a strong majority of Americans believe science has had a positive effect on society and makes life easier for most people. Yet when asked to rank scientific advances among the United States’ great achievements, the public appears to be less impressed than it was a decade ago. Just 27 percent of Americans rank scientific breakthroughs in that category, compared to 47 percent in 1999, according to the survey, which was conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The survey sheds light on some of the well-documented gaps in the public’s thinking about scientific topics, compared with the views of scientists. Eighty-four percent of scientists think the earth is getting warmer because of human activity (and there's considerable evidence to back up that claim), but only 49 percent of the public shares that view. Eighty-seven percent of scientists say humans and other things have evolved, whereas just 32 percent of the public believes that. These divides help explain the controversies that break out over the teaching of evolution and climate change in many public school classrooms, despite scientists’ views of those issues' importance.

The survey also suggests, that many scientists are pained by these public misconceptions. Asked about the United States’ greatest scientific failure over the last 20 years, 37 percent of scientists polled cited lack of progress on specific issues (alternative energy, stem cells, the Super Collider and so on) while the second-largest total, 21 percent, cited the failure to communicate with and educate the American public about science.

I should note that many scientists say we ink-stained wretches aren’t helping as much as we might: 76 percent of scientists polled say news reports fail to distinguish between findings that are well-supported by evidence and consensus and those that aren’t. How can scientists better convey information about what they do every day to teachers, parents, and students, and the press? And could their efforts really have an impact on improved science education?

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