Science and Public Opinion

Wendy Kaminer

A majority of Americans profess respect for science, according to a recent Pew Forum report: 84 percent of people surveyed agree that “science’s effect on society” is “mostly positive.” That’s a finding likely to be met with skepticism by many secularists, who blame religion for what they believe is widespread hostility to science. Considering religion’s role in fomenting opposition to the theory of evolution (which some two-thirds of Americans reject), this skepticism is neither unreasonable nor surprising. In fact, according to Pew, people without religious affiliations are “the most likely to perceive a conflict between religion and science,” while “the most religiously observant” are “least likely to perceive this clash.” (You have to wonder if secularists view religion with more hostility than religious people view—or claim to view—science.)

Science and scientists are even “viewed positively by those who differ over evolution, global warming and other contentious issues,” Pew reports. When these “contentious issues” involve the disputed morality of scientific endeavors like stem-cell research, it’s not hard to reconcile contentiousness with respect (we should welcome moral debates about science, given its destructive power). But what’s the worth of the public’s positive view of science if it fails to persuade people to accept fundamental scientific facts—about evolution, say, or global warming—that conflict with their religious beliefs, worldly desires, or resistance to bad news?

It’s not surprising that the public’s reported love for science is unrequited. “While the public holds scientists in high regard, many scientists offer unfavorable, if not critical, assessments of the public’s knowledge and expectations,” the Pew report observes. “Fully 85 percent see the public’s lack of scientific knowledge as a major problem … and nearly half (49 percent) fault the public for having unrealistic expectations about the speed of scientific achievements.”

To measure (or approximate) public knowledge of science, Pew administered a twelve-question quiz. It consists of simple multiple-choice and true/false questions testing basic general knowledge, such as the fact that tsunamis are caused by earthquakes, not warm ocean currents or large schools of fish; that scientists have found water, not platinum, on Mars; and that antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses. (Only 10 percent of the public answered all twelve questions correctly; an additional 10 percent answered eleven questions correctly.) But a quiz like this, focusing on a few random facts, doesn’t test what may matter most—the public’s understanding of scientific inquiry; the importance of experimentation, observation, and logic; and the relationship of evidence to belief. I care less about whether people know that electrons are smaller than atoms than whether they have an inkling of how scientists know.

It’s the failure to appreciate scientific methods and the role science should play in shaping public policy that enables politicians to ignore it. Imagine if drug policy were informed by evidence of the relative harms caused by legal and illegal substances, as well as the relative harms of different regulatory regimes. Hard to imagine, I know, as a recent fracas over science and drug policy in Britain has demonstrated. In the fall of 2009, the home secretary fired the government’s chief drug adviser, psychiatrist and pharmacologist David Nutt, because he objected to the reclassification of marijuana as a dangerous drug like heroin and crack, arguing that marijuana was actually less dangerous than tobacco or alcohol. Prime Minister Gordon Brown supported Professor Nutt’s firing, explaining (almost honestly) that his comments undermined the government’s message. “We have to show we are tough on drug dealing,” Brown noted. Making clear that the show would go on, he also shamelessly equated Nutt’s statement about the relative harms of marijuana and his plea for a rational drug classification and criminalization scheme with a “message to young people that it is OK to experiment with drugs and to move on to hard drugs.”

Generally, this anxiety about not appearing tough on drugs still shapes policy in the United States, but public support for criminalizing marijuana is waning—not because of respect for science, I suspect, but in response to people’s personal experiences: medical use of marijuana is increasingly acceptable not because scientists approve of it, but because sick people have found marijuana helpful in relieving their symptoms. (Medical marijuana is now legal in fourteen states; in Massachusetts, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized by popular vote.)

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t rely on scientific evidence in advocating for rational public policies. I am suggesting that we should do so with realistic expectations about how public opinion is shaped. People may express respect for science in general without being open to persuasion by scientific evidence. Popular opinion about global warming or drug policy changes as weather patterns or the war on drugs begin negatively affecting daily life for at least a large critical mass if not a majority.

The influence of personal experience on public opinion greatly complicates the challenge of changing opinions about evolution: people don’t directly experience or aren’t aware of the costs of believing in creationism or intelligent design and crusading against the teaching of evolution. A decline in science education has little if any discernible, more or less immediate impact on their lives, while, conversely, the decline of religious myths about creation poses an existential crisis. It’s a crisis science alone seems unlikely to resolve.

Wendy Kaminer

Wendy Kaminer is a lawyer and social critic. Her latest book is Worst Instincts: Cowardice, Conformity, and the ACLU (Beacon Press, 2009).


A majority of Americans profess respect for science, according to a recent Pew Forum report: 84 percent of people surveyed agree that “science’s effect on society” is “mostly positive.” That’s a finding likely to be met with skepticism by many secularists, who blame religion for what they believe is widespread hostility to science. Considering religion’s …

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