U.S. science, medicine and technology were under the microscope in the latest survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and one finding that’s generating headlines is that only 17 percent of the public participants held the belief that American scientific achievements are the best in the world.
However, the people who write those headlines and do the reporting on science, medicine and technology — the media — also got low grades from the scientists who were surveyed. Their view was that newspapers and television news oversimplify science coverage and don’t do enough to separate sound science research from that which is not.
That particular insight comes at a time when many major media organizations at the local and national level are cutting back on science, health and technology reporting, laying off or offering buyouts to experienced science journalists.
Those cutbacks don’t bode well for a clear-headed examination of science issues that are getting more mainstream news attention, such as climate change or stem-cell research, suggested the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which bills itself as the country’s largest general scientific society.
“That’s, of course, of tremendous concern to us, because the science journalism community has done a wonderful job in helping convey to the public not only the importance of science and the content of science, but also the excitement of science,” Alan Leshner, PhD, told TechNewsWorld. “I think that’s really scary.”
Media Impact on Public/Science Opinion
The AAAS took part in the Pew survey with a sample of 2,533 members answering questions; 2,001 members of the public responded to the survey, conducted between April and June.
The Pew Center neither takes positions on its findings nor suggests solutions to any problems discussed in the surveys, said Scott Keeter, director of survey research. Yet he does see some linkage between the results and the media; for example, an overwhelming 85 percent of the scientists surveyed expressed the belief that the public has a lack of basic scientific knowledge, which can pose a problem for science overall.
“Clearly, the combination of facts that the public is not particularly knowledgeable about science and that scientists feel that coverage by the media is partly responsible suggests that there is a bridge to be built there,” Keeter told TechNewsWorld.
Forty-nine percent of the scientists also held the view that the public has unrealistic expectations about the speed of achievements in science.
“You might also put that back at the feet of the media,” Keeter said. “The public expects solutions to problems too quickly, and that can be triggered by news coverage that suggests recent medical breakthroughs will lead to cures in the short run.”
The media will give plenty of attention to hot-button issues like climate change and local controversies over the teaching of evolution in schools. Reporters covering those particular issues have already done some harm, said Leshner.
“Scientists for a very long time have complained about what’s called ‘the balance issue,’ where journalists feel compelled to present both sides or all sides of an issue,” he noted.
If there’s no scientific disagreement, Leshner continued, reporters find somone to present a contrary political or ideological view. The public may not discriminate between a lay person and a scientist when watching the coverage.
“Stem cells is an issue where there’s a great disconnect between the public and scientific views,” observed Leshner.
Media Not Solely to Blame
If scientists are going to be quick to blame the media for sloppy reporting or faulty public perceptions, “they also need to blame themselves,” Leshner suggested, “because there’s a tremendous need, an obligation, and an opportunity for scientists to reach out to the public, and they need to do it far more than they ever have in the past.”
Other Pew survey findings highlight his point regarding areas of science that have generated headlines and controversy:
- While 84 percent of the scientists surveyed were convinced human activity like burning fossil fuels is causing higher global temperatures, just 49 percent of the public agreed;
- 87 percent of scientists maintained that humans have developed via evolution and natural selection; only 32 percent of the public agreed.
- 93 percent of the scientists favored animal testing in science research; 52 percent of the public agreed;
- 93 percent of scientists surveyed wanted the government to fund embryonic stem-cell research; just 58 percent of the public survey respondents thought federal funds should be used.
Some of the survey’s other findings:
- Only 12 percent of the public viewed space exploration and the 1969 moon landing as the greatest scientific achievement of the past 50 years. In 1999, 18 percent of those surveyed had that opinion.
- 27 percent of the public viewed scientific advancements in general as one of America’s greatest achivements, down from 47 percent 10 years ago;
- 84 percent of the public respondents indicated a “mostly positive” view of scientists;
- 70 percent of the public believed scientists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being;
- No surprise here: More than 80 percent of scientists viewed a lack of funding as a serious impediment to scientific research and progress.