As the scientific community celebrates the 150th anniversary of the publication of “The Origin of Species,” Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book describing the theory of evolution, a Pew Research Center study has found that only 32 percent of the American public thinks Darwin got it right. The study also shows that in the same year of the 40th anniversary of the moon landing, only 27 percent of the public feels that the nation’s greatest achievements have come from science. These findings are evidence of a dangerous disconnect between science and everyday people. It is clear that people need to pay closer attention to what science is telling us about the world, because now, more than ever, science and technology are at the heart of pressing social issues.
The Pew Research Center’s July 9 poll, conducted in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, surveyed scientists and the public on several issues regarding science and it’s relationship to society. But scientists have a dim view of the public’s understanding of science, with an overwhelming 85 percent of scientists agreeing that the general public doesn’t know much about science.
Looking at only two crucial issues, it’s not hard to see why. Among the scientists polled, 87 percent think evolution is true and 84 percent agree that human activity is the cause of global warming, whereas the corresponding numbers among the public are 32 and 49, respectively.
Surveys like the Pew study are useful in alerting us to differences in opinion between scientists and the public, especially on scientific issues. It’s crucial that these divides be bridged to improve the quality of debate on social issues. This necessity can be demonstrated with the example of stem-cell research. In the poll, only half the public answered correctly when asked what stem cells were. Yet 42 percent of those polled supported a ban on federal funding for stem-cell research. It’s not a stretch to suppose that many of the opponents of stem-cell research don’t understand the issue. If this is the case with new science, it seems impossible to imagine collective action being taken to address important issues like climate change.
It’s also clear whom scientists blame for the public’s scientific misunderstandings: news media. Seventy-six percent of scientists polled believe it’s bad that the media doesn’t discriminate between good and bad science and often oversimplifies scientific findings in news reports. This shortcoming is exacerbated by the “breaking news” paradigm of news networks, where typically dignified scientific news is sensationalized, like the rush of panic over Swine flu, and America’s scientific prowess is perpetually portrayed as being under threat. As a result, only 17 percent of the public believes that U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world, as opposed to 49 percent in the scientific community.
But there is some hope. More than 75 percent of scientists polled were upbeat about their profession and thought that this was a good time for science. Most of them were positive about the Obama administration and welcomed the increase in federal funding for research. But hope means little without change. Scientists need to become more involved in public debate on issues related to scientific knowledge, and the media should end its superficial reporting of scientific breakthroughs so that the public can catch up with the real scientific world.
Raghu Kainkaryam is a graduate student.

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