New Report Highlights Divide between Scientists and Public

Last year, the late night talk show host and comedian Jimmy Kimmel added some levity to the contentious GMO debate. He went to a Los Angeles farmers market and asked passerby to define GMO. The responses were hilarious and perhaps revealing.

Of course, this was a comedy skit, so make what you will of the ignorance on display. Did the producers cherry pick the most most ridiculous sounding answers? Surely. Were there as many folks who answered correctly that got conveniently edited out? Who knows?

Still, the random responses elicited by Kimmel seem to be in line with recent research. A 2013 paper on American attitudes towards GMOs reported these survey results:

American consumers’ knowledge and awareness of GMO foods are low. More than half (54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.

Now let’s jump to a new Pew poll that is getting widespread media coverage. Here’s one finding.

Well, that’s interesting. According to Pew, 2/3 of Americans doubt that scientists have enough information to judge the safety of GMOs. And yet previous (aforementioned) research suggests that more than half of Americans know zilch about genetically modified foods and a quarter never even heard of them. How is that so many people are clueless about genetically modified foods and yet–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question whether scientists know enough about their health effects?

Indeed, as this article in Nature reports, the Pew poll

seems to reveal large gaps between scientists and the public when it comes to their opinions on a range of hotly debated scientific issues, such as climate change, evolution and the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods.

The gap is widest on the GMO issue. [UPDATE: Read Dan Kahan’s take on this and the whole Pew report]























The Nature piece by Erika Check Hayden includes excellent context on the Pew poll, as does this Atlantic article by Julie Beck and this one at FiveThirtyEight by Christie Aschwanden. Read these before you take the Pew results at face value. Dan Vergano at National Geographic also provides some larger perspective:

Over the last decade, public opinion researchers such as Yale’s Dan Kahan have found that people’s views on many scientific issues, such as climate and evolution, are largely driven by their cultural views. Sociologist Robert Brulle of Drexel University in Philadelphia likewise found that when political leaders change their views on climate change, voters are more likely to be swayed than they are by the voices of scientists.

In an editorial accompanying the publication of the Pew report, Alan Leshner, the CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), writes:

Acceptance of scientific facts is not based solely on comprehension levels. It can be compromised anytime information confronts people’s personal, religious, or political views, and whenever scientific facts provoke fear or make people feel that they have no control over a situation. The only recourse is to have genuine, respectful dialogues with people.

(By the way, if the latest Pew report seems vaguely familiar, yes, we have been down this road before–in 2009.)

Below are links to additional media coverage.

NBC News

Associated Press

PBS Newshour


The New Republic


23 Responses to “New Report Highlights Divide between Scientists and Public”

  1. Lisa Feldkamp says:

    I might be misreading, but doesn’t the Pew Poll say that “those saying don’t know are not shown”, so it wouldn’t really be 67% of all Americans who doubt GMOs health effects. It would only be 67% of those Americans who think that they know something about GMOs, i.e. 67% of the ~21% of Americans who feel informed enough to comment?

  2. kkloor says:

    Hmm, I’ll have to take a closer look at that. I did tweak the sentence slightly so it now reads: “–according to the Pew Survey–67% percent of Americans question what scientists know about their health effects?”

    Not sure that speaks to your question, though.

  3. kkloor says:

    From the Pew overview: “The general public also tends to be skeptical about the scientific understanding of GMO effects. A minority of adults (28%) say they think scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of genetically modified crops while 67% say their view is that scientists do not clearly understand this.”

  4. Lisa Feldkamp says:

    Thank you Keith! I think my question might be more for Pew about what their “those saying don’t know are not shown” caveat means.

  5. bobito says:

    I was reading about the Pew Poll last night, and decided to bounce some of the questions off of my wife. (For context, my wife is more likely to know what any given Kardashian is up to than be up to date on science or news events)

    When I asked her about GMO, she said “I really don’t know much about it, but I don’t like the idea and I wouldn’t want eat anything genetically modified.”

    She was shocked when I told her that probably half the food in our kitchen had some GMO components.

    Now I’m thinking that it was not a good idea to tell her that since a Whole Foods just opened up near us… I’ll just have to make sure our added grocery costs come out of her shoe/handbag budget and not my astronomy hobby!!! 😉

  6. Pdiff says:

    You might be interested in comparisons to this 2014 FoodInsight survey:


    This shows generally good support for farmers and the ag system with the typical divides where you expect them. Full report also dispels some myths about activist “moms”.

    Sorry though, Journalists come in low (after vets) for trusted sources on food. 🙂

  7. RogerSweeny says:

    1) That first guy sounds like “meathead Rob Lowe” from the DirecTV commercials.

    2) There is a big difference between scientists having an opinion about science and scientists having an opinion about policy. Scientists have something important to add when they say, “Fracking doesn’t pollute aquifers” or “Fracking can cause small earthquakes.” But the fact that 39% “Favor increased use of fracking” only tells us that’s where they come out when they have combined scientific facts with their moral and political and social and aesthetic values.

  8. Bill C says:

    If your 21% number is correct then it’s a meaningless result. Where did you get that number?

  9. bobito says:

    The problem with polls is you can just answer, you can’t say why. I surmised that the “39% favor Fracking” response is because Natural Gas is a far cleaner way to produce electricity than coal, thus they support fracking.

    *Edit to add:
    I think the support Nuclear power responses was something like 70%. Obviously they wouldn’t support it if there were a better way to produce clean baseline power.

  10. Lisa Feldkamp says:

    I was going off of the other study that said “(54%) say they know very little or nothing at all about genetically modified foods, and one in four (25%) say they have never heard of them.” That would leave ~21% who felt more knowledgeable. Since Pew had a different sample, they may have had a different result. I’m beginning to think that perhaps Pew meant that they were showing 67% who thought scientists didn’t know enough, 28% who thought scientists did know enough, leaving only ~5% who responded that they didn’t know and who are left out of their visualization.

  11. Buddy199 says:

    Wash, D.C. May 23, 2014 – According to a Gallup/Harris poll released Monday, a full 73 percent of American citizens are incapable of identifying their home country on a map of the United States.

    Shirley Matheson, a part-time Arby’s employee residing in Dayton, Ohio, stated: “I live in the U.S.A., so why the hell would I need to know where America is? Or the United States for that matter?” Added Matheson: “As long as there’s still room on that map for all three of those countries, I’m sure everyone will keep getting along just fine.”


    Hey, somebody’s got make my kid’s burgers.

  12. Buddy199 says:

    Good luck making the argument that her new shoes are less important than a telescope. Not a well thought out plan in hindsight, that.

  13. mem_somerville says:

    My favorite responses so far:

    “Well, clearly if only 98% of AAAS scientists think humans have evolved, it isn’t settled science.”

    And lots of:
    I never said it was that GMOs weren’t safe, I hate all these other things…. with furious backpedaling.

    Of course, there’s lots more question parsing, unlike we ever see on polls that say X% of people want labels.

    It’s fun to watch.

  14. Tom Scharf says:

    I just want to say that just because someone is a “scientist” does not necessarily equate to their view being superior on what is better for society as compared to the average Joe on the street. There are plenty of dopey scientists out there (as any scientist knows) and their political views taint their opinion just like anyone else. They also live and work in an environment that insulates them from many real issues that society must deal with.

    They certainly are better educated on average and have valuable input on science issues that they specifically study. However I could care less what an AAAS molecular biologist’s input on fracking and astronauts are for example. They have no better opinion here than most people.

    Although I have worked in the technical world my entire life, I am sick and tired of the mantle many people wish to place themselves on just because they do “science”. Appeal to self authority is tiresome. This type of poll can be interpreted as “elitist opinion versus the unwashed masses”. I get what the point is here and the results are of interest, but you must differentiate between expert opinion in a scientist’s area and general opinion.

  15. JH says:

    Nor can you ask your own questions.

    The problem with most polls is that they’re designed to produce something the pollsters want.

    This poll is designed to flatter scientists by asking questions that scientists are in a good position to answer. Why not ask a few questions in which scientific expertise is not directly relevant or on which scientists are likely to be misinformed and see how the chips fall:

    1. Would a tax on carbon to prevent climate change be bad for the economy?

    2. Do scientists’ predictions about the future frequently come true?

    3. Are bioengineered carbon-based fuels safer for the environment than natural carbon-based fuels?

    4. Is it more important to prevent every single species from going extinct, or is it more important for people to make a living wage?

    5. Is it more important to spend money on basic research or basic education?

    IMO, one reason we don’t see these questions is because they would show that the judgment of scientists is as fickle and fallible as that of anyone else.

  16. Bill C says:

    I imagine it’s the latter.

  17. mememine says:

    What’s to “believe”?
    It’s been 34 years of science NEVER putting their scientific method aside to say their own; “POSSIBLE THREAT TO THE PLANET” is “PROVEN”.
    If “could be” is good enough for you to condemn your own children to the exaggerated greenhouse gas ovens then who’s really the fear mongering neocon?
    *Occupywallstreet now does not even mention CO2 in its list of demands because of the bank-funded and corporate run carbon trading stock markets ruled by politicians.

    No matter how much you fear mongers hate conservatives its still 34 years of “could be”.

  18. Paul says:

    “one reason we don’t see these questions is because they would show that the judgment of scientists is as fickle and fallible as that of anyone else.” Not so much. Somebody smarter and more educated than you is also likely to make better policy recommendations, all things considered, than Joe the plumber.

  19. kkloor says:

    A typically smart analysis from Dan. I’ve actually had an email exchange with him about it. If I have time in a post later this week, I might return to some of the points he makes there.

  20. Nom de Plume says:

    A glance at the survey immediately shows several problems, and illustrates why the term “scientists believe” essentially means nothing. The AAAS is made up of scientists from all sorts of fields, which means that astronomers answered the same question on bioengineered fuels as agronomists. The problem here isn’t so support for something with “bioengineered” in its title, but energy gained vs energy expended with biofuels. That 78% support throws up a huge red flag.

    The huge elephant in the room is why should we trust the opinion of scientists when asked about things outside their field. The thrust of this discussion is the gap between “scientists” and we the unwashed masses. Yet when it comes to, say, fracking, I have about as much confidence in the opinion of a scientist specializing in bioengineering as I would a mill worker down at the local bar. Poll geologists, and I’ll pay attention.

  21. gazo says:

    I think scientists can not understand their health GMO , because they often forget passionate about taking care of yourself
    Pou gamesPony games

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