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On Science and Scientists

on July 18, 2009
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Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: “Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media” What do Americans think of science? What do they think of scientists? What do scientists think of science? A Pew Research Center study suggests answers.

The study, which amalgamates the results of three surveys, reveals both surprising and unsurprising results on public and professional attitudes toward science in general, scientists, science in the U.S., and more. Among the highlights:

While 87 percent of scientists think that “humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes,” only 32 percent of the public does.

  • The U.S. public overwhelmingly agrees (84 percent) that science has had a “mostly positive” effect on society. Only 6 percent considered science to have had a “mostly negative” effect. Correspondingly, 70 percent believe scientists contribute “a lot” to society’s well-being. Slightly less (60 percent) believe government funding of scientific research is “essential.”
  • The public has a much more negative view of U.S. success in science than scientists do themselves. Only 17 percent of the public consider U.S. scientific achievements the “best in the world,” compared to 49 percent of scientists. And 31 percent of the public considers U.S. scientific achievements to be average or below average, compared to only 6 percent of scientists. Also, the percentage of the public who consider science/medicine/technology to be the country’s greatest achievement in the last 50 years has fallen from 47 percent in 1999 to 27 percent.
  • Scientists’ political views are not reflective of the public’s. The majority of scientists self-identified as Democrat and liberal, while only 6 and 9 percent consider themselves Republican and conservative, respectively. That’s at odds with the public perception: 64 percent of the public consider scientists as a whole neither liberal nor conservative in particular. Furthermore, among the general public, those self-identifying as Republicans scored better than those self-identifying as Democrats on the science knowledge test attached to the survey.
  • Scientists’ religious views are not reflective of the public’s. While 83 percent of the public believe in God, only 33 percent of scientists do. Only 17 percent of the public consider themselves atheist, agnostic, or “nothing in particular,” compared to 48 percent of scientists. Fascinating is that among scientists, those who are younger are “substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God” (42 percent for scientists 18 to 34 years old; the fraction steadily drops to just 28 percent for those 65 years and older). Also fascinating is that chemists are distinctly more likely than those in any other scientific specialty to believe in God (41 percent, about ten percentage points higher than in all other fields surveyed).

The origins controversy was addressed in the surveys as well (no surprise). While 87 percent of scientists think that “humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes,” only 32 percent of the public does. (Another 10 percent of scientists believe humans and other living things evolved over time “guided by a supreme being,” while 22 percent of the public agrees with that statement.) Similar divides exist between the professional and the public perspectives on global warming and embryonic stem cell research, though the study does not note that the latter has more to do with moral values than it does with scientific fact.

One flaw in the study centered on a survey question that asked the public to side with either the view that humans and other living things have “evolved over time” (due to either natural processes or divine guidance) or that they have “existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” Presumably this was an uninformed attempt to neatly separate evolutionists from creationists. Yet we, a creation ministry, should note that we might have answered yes to the former and no to the latter! If one defines “evolution” as simply changes in the genotypic or phenotypic characteristics of a population over time (that occurs, for example, through the observed process of natural selection), we agree. On the other hand, very few, if any, modern creation scientists believe the creatures of today are identical to the created beings. Thus, we are especially skeptical of the accuracy of that question’s results.

Nonetheless, the study concluded that both creationists and evolutionists (as well as those on the two sides of other debates) generally view science positively. On that point, we agree; Answers in Genesis is filled with and supported by individuals who love sound, observationally rooted science, which helps us understand our world better and develop new technology. Since we consider Darwinian evolution to be pseudoscience, it does not tarnish our conception or admiration of good science.

Religion and science need not be at odds. Rather, each contains metaphysical elements that cause the two to interact with each other. Many professional scientists (but not all) have metaphysical commitments (in the areas of religion and science) that compel them to accept evolution by natural processes as the sole origin of all biodiversity. We disagree with those commitments, and we disagree that evolution accounts for the origin and history of life.


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