One of my favorite Charles Darwin quotes is from The Descent of Man: “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge.” Sadly, it appears that lately there are a lot of confident people out there when it comes to knowing what’s real in this universe and what’s not. And science and scientists have taken a bit of a beating. With media darlings like “Climategate” and mismanaged flu outbreaks on one side, and the rise of religious extremism on the other, I’m sometimes frightened that science is being edged out, marginalized by all those folks who seem much more certain than I of the ways of the world. Is it true? Are we really getting medieval on ourselves?
Sometimes, perhaps just for comfort’s sake, I find it’s a good idea to check in with the base and make sure we’re all pretty much on the same page. To that, Scientific American just posted what seem like some encouraging numbers from a web survey that “suggests that the scientifically literate public still trusts its experts.”
To conduct the survey, SA joined forces with its “sister publication,” Nature, to poll online readers and got a huge response – more than 21,000 people. The publications acknowledge it was “a supportive and science-literate crowd,” with nearly 20 percent identifying themselves as PhDs. Nevertheless, the survey points to some interesting trends and some wide variations of viewpoints within the community.
Happily, these variations are not apparent regarding the big question of “Who do you believe about stuff?” When asked how much scientists were trusted “to provide accurate information about important issues in society” versus others groups, such as politicians, religious leaders and friends and family, scientists came out way ahead (four out of five stars as opposed to religious leaders getting only about one and a half stars). What’s interesting, though, is that respondents trust scientists on certain subjects like evolution (that’s for you, Charles) and the origin of the universe, but much less so on issues like flu pandemics, depression drugs, pesticides, genetically modified crops and vitamin supplements. It’s almost as if respondents sniffed out the potential for profits and the possibility of scientists being, how shall we say, less than straightforward.
Another interesting line of questions regards one of our fave topics, climate change denial, particularly among us gringos. “Numerous polls show a decline in the percentage of Americans who believe humans affect climate,” says SA, “but our survey suggests the nation is not among the worst deniers.”
Turns out we’re happily behind France, Japan and Australia on this dubious list. But there’s good news here too as “among those respondents who have changed their opinions in the past year, three times more said they are more certain than less certain that humans are changing the climate.”
One heartening, and particularly timely area of inquiry, indicates that respondents still feel, despite the global econominic situation, that putting cash into science is a good ROI (return on investment) strategy. In fact, 72 percent of respondents think that “investment in basic science is one of the best ways to stimulate jobs and the economy.”
The survey looks into a number of other interesting areas as well, including science and politics, “techno fears” and “suspicion over the flu.” The SA post also has some nifty graphics for you at-a-glance folks.
I do realize that SA is asking the choir (albeit one with a diverse voice) for answers here, but sometimes, when the din of dumb gets loud enough, it helps to turn around, face the home crowd and ask, “You still with us?” A resounding “Yes!” is nice to hear.
Image: Jordan Cole