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It's Complicated: Feb 26, 2018

In a Scientific American Observations column, Pew Research Center Director of Science and Society Research Cary Funk says new data from the American Academies of Arts and Sciences shows that the public's relationship with science is complex and can't be reduced to a single talking point.

For example, Funk says, data from the General Social Survey conducted by the NORC at the University of Chicago shows that general public confidence in scientific leaders has remained stable since the 1970s. However, she adds, "the breadth of the scientific enterprise and the lack of consensus about the boundaries of science often lead to a more complicated portrait of public opinion." She notes that the scientific community should remember that the public is not a monolith, and that factors like age, sex, and education level can all influence opinions on scientific research. 

Further, Funk says, there is no single demographic group that can be termed to be "anti-science," and studies have shown no single factor such as politics, education, age, race/ethnicity, gender, or region consistently predicts who will be more skeptical of scientific consensus.  

For example, Pew Research Center studies show politics can influence a person's view of climate and energy issues, but not their views vaccines and GMO foods, Funk says. 

"The Academies plan to delve into how people encounter science in their daily lives and offer recommendations for science communication and engagement down the road. Until then, Perceptions of Science in America offers a rare synthesis of current understanding about public perceptions of science as well as the gaps in that understanding," she adds. "One thing is already clear from this roadmap. Those wishing to better grasp public thinking about science need to look beyond trust in 'science' writ large to see how people make sense of the science issues and domains which connect with their lives — such as childhood vaccines, genetically modified foods, and climate change — and think beyond one 'public' to the reasons for pockets of support and resistance to scientific evidence among the populace."