US Reputation for Scientific Achievement Flagging

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.

2 Comments

  • PZ Myers had two such cases he posted about today. The first being a case where a woman studying rape cases concluded that men that chased a lot of women where more likely to commit rape, which got "turned into" an article in the British Telegraph, stating that the study implied that women that dress provocatively where more likely to be victims. The second was a case where the "editor" of a journal cut an 800 word article to 360 words, and in the process "changed" key details about the lack of similarity between human ears and fish "lateral lines", which could destroy the young journalist’s reputation with the person he interviewed, who specifically told him they where *not* similar. Another person, who works as a science journalist, relates a tale in the comments about how something similar took place, and the person he interviewed nearly had him black listed, until he cleared up the issue. I.e., the editor nearly destroyed his career by making the changes, then publishing, without bothering to check that they hadn’t changed critical details. Who knows how many people may now be flipping hamburgers, who went into journalism, because the editors and other people that run papers and journals have less competence than even the journalists, and ended someone’s career this way.

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/one_rotten_apple.php

    http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2009/07/a_tale_from_the_trenches_of_sc.php

    And, that isn’t even mentioning papers, journals, and news agencies, whose reporters and editors are *specifically paid* to distort things to fit their ideological positions.

    Scientists do have some issues with communicating clearly, but when they get interviewed by people that already know what they "want" the story to say, or don’t have, nor want to take, the time to understand what is being said, you get bad journalism. And, if you then happen to be working for a paper/journal/magazine that won’t double check with the journalist, never mind the scientist, before going to print, to make sure the article is accurate… How the heck is the public supposed to have a clue what is really going on?

    Scientists are doing their job, which is doing science, not writing journal articles, or making sure that the people that do don’t screw up and make false claims about what they are doing. You can’t expect them to stop doing a 6 month study, to spend a week fixing what some halfwit mangled in an article. What you can expect, and the public should demand, is that journalists, editors and the people running their news sources, report the most accurate information they have, and double check it first, even if that means missing some stupid deadline, instead of worrying about getting it in print immediately, or looking for some grand, entertaining, and completely ass backwards, narrative. We are not publishing fracking Science Fiction here, we are publishing Science. And the later requires accuracy ***first***, not as an after thought.

  • U.S. government is partially to blame too. I remember well the republicans telling people that Global Warming was a lie, not many years ago.

    Bush administration was such a disaster in so many ways…

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