There is much to digest in the recent poll by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science [Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media: Overview].
One of the most remarkable findings isn't new: the American public claims to have a great deal of respect for scientists while, at the same time, a substantial percentage rejects evolution and the scientific conclusions on climate change and vaccinations.
It's hard to reconcile these findings. If most people respect scientists then why do they disagree with the science?
Everyone is going to focus on different aspects of this poll. Matt Nisbet has already weighed in with his interpretation [Pew Survey of Scientists & the Public: Implications for Public Engagement and Communication]. His first conclusion is something that he has claimed many times.
1. In the U.S., scientists and their organizations enjoy almost unrivaled respect, admiration, and cultural authority. Americans overwhelmingly trust scientists, support scientific funding, and believe in the promise of research and technology. Among institutions, only the military enjoys greater admiration and deference.It's a strange kind of "authority" that we scientists enjoy when only 32% of the general public believe that humans evolved due to natural processes. Among scientists, 87% hold this view. If that's what you call "trust" then I'd hate to see what "distrust" looks like!
Here are some highlights from the report [Public Praises Science; Scientists Fault Public, Media].
More than half of the public (55%) says that science and religion are “often in conflict.” Close to four-in-ten (38%) take the opposite view that science and religion are “mostly compatible.” Yet the balance is reversed when people are asked about science’s compatibility with their own religious beliefs. Only 36% say science sometimes conflicts with their own religious beliefs and six-in-ten (61%) say it does not.
Highly observant Americans are among the most likely to see conflicts between science and their own religious beliefs. But less religiously observant people are more likely to see broader conflicts between science and religion in general. Among those who attend religious services at least weekly, 46% say they see a conflict between science and their religious beliefs (52% do not). Among those who seldom or never attend services, just 21% see a conflict. Yet 60% of those who seldom or never attend services believe science and religion are “often in conflict,” compared with 48% of Americans who attend religious services weekly or more often.
Religious belief among scientists varies somewhat by sex, age and scientific specialty. Younger scientists are substantially more likely than their older counterparts to say they believe in God. In addition, more chemists than those in other specialties say they believe in God. More men (44%) than women (36%) say they believe neither in God nor a higher power; belief in God is comparable for men and women scientists, but more women than men profess belief in a different supreme being or higher power.This result confirms some other studies showing that younger scientists are more religious than older scientists. Some people see this as the beginning of a trend leading to scientists becoming more religious.
I suppose that's possible in America but it's also possible that the longer you are a scientist, the more likely you are to abandon your religious beliefs.
When asked about the importance of various factors that motivated them to pursue careers in science, an overwhelming share of scientists (86%) say an interest in solving intellectually challenging problems was very important. This view is widely shared across scientific specialties.
Substantially smaller percentages of scientists say the desire to work for the public good (41%) and the desire to make an important discovery (30%) were very important reasons for choosing science as a career. However, large majorities do cite these factors as at least somewhat important (81% work for public good, 74% make important discovery).
Few scientists say that the desire for a financially rewarding career was a very important part of their decision to become a scientist (4%). However, a third (33%) say this was at least somewhat important in their choice of career.
As might be expected, far more scientists working in industry than those working in other sectors view a desire for a financially rewarding career as very or somewhat important. About half of industry scientists (51%) say this, compared with only about three-in-ten of those working for government (31%), academia (29%) and for non-profits (29%).
More generally, a far larger share of those in the applied sciences (43%) attribute their career choice at least in part to a desire for a financially rewarding career, compared with 25% of those in basic sciences. Among scientific specialties, those in chemistry (40%) are more likely than those in other fields to say financial rewards were a consideration in their career choice.