Most surveys of the US public indicate that scientists are popular, trusted figures. The same, however, cannot be said about some of their conclusions, as topics like climate change and evolution remain controversial with many segments of the population. A recent Pew survey gives an indication of why: even though the scientific community’s opinion is largely unified on these topics, the public thinks that there is significant dispute among the researchers. A study published by the Journal of Risk Research attempts to explain why this might be the case.
The people behind the new study start by asking a pretty obvious question: “Why do members of the public disagree—sharply and persistently—about facts on which expert scientists largely agree?” (Elsewhere, they refer to the “intense political contestation over empirical issues on which technical experts largely agree.”) In this regard, the numbers from the Pew survey are pretty informative. Ninety-seven percent of the members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science accept the evidence for evolution, but at least 40 percent of the public thinks that major differences remain in scientific opinion on this topic. Clearly, the scientific community isn’t succeeding in making the public aware of its opinion.
According to the new study, this isn’t necessarily the fault of the scientists, though. The authors favor a model, called the cultural cognition of risk, which “refers to the tendency of individuals to form risk perceptions that are congenial to their values.” This wouldn’t apply directly to evolution, but would to climate change: if your cultural values make you less likely to accept the policy implications of our current scientific understanding, then you’ll be less likely to accept the science.