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Why Can't Scientists and the Public Agree?

Feb 02, 2015 05:16 PM EST

(Photo : Pixabay)

The US Senate recently confirmed that climate change is real, finally agreeing with what scientists had been arguing all along. This is just one of many examples that show the disparity between public perception and scientific fact. So why can't scientists and the public agree?

According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, it's simply because scientists and the general public view the world differently - and that's a problem.

"On the whole, as compared to most members of the public, scientists are likely drawing from a larger scientific knowledge base - and thinking more scientifically - about each of these issues," George Mason University communications professor Edward Maibach told The Associated Press (AP). "Therefore, their views appear to be more in line with a completely dispassionate reading of the risks versus the benefits."

Some of these issues include genetically modified foods (GMOs), pesticide use, and nuclear power, all of which concern the general public. However, scientists are far less worried about these matters and more concerned about human-made climate change, the growing human population, and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases.

In fact, in eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the AAAS.

An Irrational Fear of GMOs

One of the biggest controversial topics is GMOs - organisms that have had their genetic makeup manipulated - a hotly debated subject as of late. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reported that the demand for organic products saw a 12 percent hike between 2012 and 2013 in an effort to avoid GMOs. Experts and health officials argue that these products are adequately controlled and pose no threat to consumers, however that hasn't stopped the public from growing increasingly concerned about rumors of their risks. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

"It is frequently claimed that GM foods are not properly tested, or asserted that few independent studies have been published to establish their safety. Another similar claim made is that the food regulatory agencies rely exclusively of corporate information to decide whether GM food and feed are safe... This conventional 'wisdom' is wrong," food safety expert David Tribe explained in a safety assessment.

"Each year we see an increase in parents' self-described knowledge of organic topics. Parents have become more informed about the benefits of organic, and they have also become more aware of the questions surrounding GMOs," Executive Director Laura Batcha, with the Organic Trade Association, said in a statement. "That heightened awareness is being reflected in their buying decisions."

This "fear" of GMOs is reflected in the new survey, which shows that 57 percent of the public believes these products are unsafe. And yet, 88 percent of the scientists surveyed say it is safe to eat GMOs.

In addition, 68 percent of scientists said it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared with only 28 percent of the general public.

Climate Change, Who's to Blame?

Climate change, especially human-caused climate change, is another huge issue up for debate. In a 2011-2012 survey of nearly 7,000 experts in the agricultural sector, researchers from Purdue University found a huge disparity between what scientists and farmers believed. More than half of the scientists agreed that human activities are mainly to blame for worldwide changes in climate, whereas only eight percent of the corn farmers surveyed thought the same.

What's more, only 66 percent of those farmers were certain climate change was a reality, while the majority of those remaining said they couldn't be sure. (Scroll to read on...)

(Photo : Pixabay)

And it seems that this difference in opinion still stands, for the new survey found that 87 percent of scientists said humans are responsible for our warming world, while only half of the public did.

Even with the lack of consensus on the issue, what to do about climate change is still a whole other argument altogether. Nearly two-thirds of scientists favored building more nuclear power plants, but only 45 percent of the public did. But more of the public favored offshore drilling for oil and fracking than scientists did.

"Science is about facts; science is not about values," Alan Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS, told the AP. "Policies are made on facts and values and we want to make sure that the accurate, non-distorted facts are brought in to any kind of discussion."

The main reason scientists and the public don't see eye-to-eye, according to the AAAS, is that everyday people don't have all the facts. And like the common adage goes, knowledge is power.

The survey said 84 percent of the scientists said it is a major problem that "the public does not know very much about science."

"It's not about being smart or dumb," Leshner said. "It's about whether, in fact, you understand the source of the fact and what the facts are."

Aside from having all the facts, differences in beliefs are related to a variety of factors, such as personal experiences, cultural and social influences.

Still, studies that address the polarization of beliefs between our nation's scientists and the public, like Pew's, may help facilitate more discussions. That, in turn, could ultimately lead to a general consensus on important modern-day issues, and point to solutions to the world's problems.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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