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Scientists Agree: Americans Don’t Know Much About Science

A new Pew study suggests the gap between scientists and the general public on issues from evolution to education is wide.

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Americans’ purported cluelessness about science has led to wide gaps in how the general public views the world compared to how scientists perceive it, according to a new study released Thursday by the Pew Research Center.

Some 98 percent of scientists polled rated the general public’s lack of science knowledge as a problem, with 84 percent of them calling it a major issue.

Scientists poll dummies graphic

One result: Regulations on land use, the environment and food safety aren’t generally influenced by the best science, according to a recent poll of 3,748 scientists conducted by the Pew Research Center in cooperation with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The spread between what scientists think and what the general public thinks about a dozen science-related issues varied, but there were some noticeable gaps.

  • There was a 51 percentage point difference in views about whether genetically modified food is safe to eat. Some 88 percent of scientists were for it while less than 40 percent of the public agreed.
  • Sixty-eight percent of scientists think it’s safe to eat foods grown with pesticides compared with 28 percent of the public.
  • Almost all of the scientists believe in evolution. Just 65 percent of the general public feels the same way, according to Pew polling.

(See all of the categories below.)

Scientists may think Americans are a bunch of dummies about science, but the public generally respects scientists. Almost 80 percent of those polled said science has made life better; 54 percent said U.S. scientific achievements are the best in the world.

There was one notable — if sad — area on which everyone polled appears to agree: Americans need to improve the science, math and technology education available to students across the country.

Only about a third of the general public considers U.S. elementary and high school education about STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) to be above average, compared to the rest of the world. The scientists were even more pessimistic, with just 16 percent of them putting STEM education in the above-average category.

The study is based on two polls. Pew polled 2,002 adults last summer and did an online survey of 3,748 scientists last fall. The margin of error for the public poll was plus or minus 3.1 percentage points while the scientists’ survey was 1.7 percentage points.

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