Thursday, July 09, 2009

The PEW Poll on Science in America

 
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.




14 comments :

  1. I have been to talks where people discuss creationism, how bad it is, etc, the usual stuff. Then when the Q&A session starts, I ask them the question: "Don't you think that bashing creationists is really just spinning our wheels and what we should address is the general anti-intellectual and anti-science attitude of the public?"

    The answer I get is "Who told you the public has such an attitude, all the polls show that the public highly values science"

    Well, the public may claim that it values science but the truth is that what it values about science is the microwaves and pills science provides and it is mostly ignorant/unwilling to think about the fundamental principles that define science.

    In essence, the public is asked
    to give its opinion about something it knows nothing about and that's how you end up such poll results.

    P.S. The results showing that younger scientists are more religious is absolutely scary. That's what happens when people start going to college in order to get a job and not to get education. I will probably say something heretical but my feeling is that most people who work in science have no business being there.

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  4. "but it's also possible that the longer you are a scientist, the more likely you are to abandon your religious beliefs.

    Maybe true, nut it also may be a closed loop. Or a sphere!

    There's another step beyond abandoning of religious beliefs.

    Religion--->atheism--->Truth

    What I'm saying is that the emergence of life cannot be attributed to random processes. I'm saying that the algorithms that are present in DNA that guide development and growth and the life processes in living organisms did not create themselves by accident, that these algorithms were put there by some entity with insight. Again, all of these phenomena could conceivably occur within the comfortable confines of natural law, although perhaps at a level that is currently beyond our
    understanding.
    I fully agree with the belief that "the laws of nature are finely tuned for life and for intelligence". I also share the belief that "the universe is not a purposeless accident" and that "the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity and purpose that precludes it being merely a brute fact." I also believe that "there must be a deeper level of explanation." I feel that "consciousness is not a trivial and incidental quirk of nature but an absolutely fundamental facet of reality and that humans are built into the universe in a very fundamental way."

    (quoted material from "Mind of God" by Paul Davies)

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  5. I fully agree with the belief that "the laws of nature are finely tuned for life and for intelligence". I also share the belief that "the universe is not a purposeless accident" and that "the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity and purpose that precludes it being merely a brute fact." I also believe that "there must be a deeper level of explanation." I feel that "consciousness is not a trivial and incidental quirk of nature but an absolutely fundamental facet of reality and that humans are built into the universe in a very fundamental way."

    Try to find where the problem with what you say is, it's not hard

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  6. "Try to find where the problem with what you say is, it's not hard."

    Wow! MIT and CalTech...

    I AM impressed!

    I like you already...

    All I could manage was NYU and Hofstra University ;-(

    Check out my website if you have time.
    http://www.charliewagner.net

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  7. Well, anecdotal evidence doesn't really count for much but I'd venture that atheists are quite a minority among graduate students in my department. Overt religiosity is pretty common.

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  8. One thing the poll leaves out is an important question: What is a scientist? I say that this is important because I think that many Americans (particularly creationists) think that engineers and physicians (and pharmacists and, so help me even homeopaths) represent most scientists. While their fields may be informed by science, many of them do not function as scientists but most Americans don't understand the difference. If the poll asked about specific scientists, such as evolutionary biologists or climate scientists or vaccine researchers, the results might have been quite different.

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  9. Larry,

    The high regard that scientists enjoy in the US is possibly because the public mistakes technological advancement for scientific progress. If that were so it is obvious why the same public would harbour wrong beliefs about scientific theories such as evolution or manmade climate change.

    _Truti

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  10. I had a thought last night: Is it possible that the reason that more young scientists are religious stem from the fact that more young scientists tend to be international students - as compared to several decades ago. There was a concern some time back about how fewer and fewer American citizens were enrolling in graduate programs (not part of the American dream I suppose). Also, there have been recent Canadian polls that have shown that you're more likely to be religious if you're a recent immigrant (presumably because of the importance of 'culture' in many countries). Just a thought.

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  11. I have had the same thought, but I don't think that's the case. The biggest group of international students comes from East Asia and the vast majority of those students come from an atheistic background. The second major group are students from India and what you say applies to those, but given that the third major group are students from Eastern Europe (again mostly atheists) I don't think that's sufficient to explain the effect.

    Also, although anecdotal evidence doesn't count, a lot of the religious students I have met were american.

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  12. @Georgi

    What you say may be entirely correct, however, going on anecdotal evidence again, many of the East Asian (e.g., Chinese) students that I've worked with are deeply religious Christians. It's very common to see 'Chinese Christian' associations around our campus. I'd be interested to know if there's a skew towards Christian East Asian immigrants, or whether they tend to become religious whilst here.

    I do agree that these students tend to come from non-religious (though often deeply superstitious) cultures, but my own experience points towards immigrants often being quite religious (including my own family, for instance). At least religious enough to indicate so on a survey.

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  14. It maybe like you say, without hard data we are just speculating.

    You are right that for some reason people from Asia are quite susceptible to conversion into Christian. Again, anecdotal evidence but I have been approached by people inviting me to join their church several times and it has been always Asians (this happens on campus).

    I haven't seen any religious Chinese students myself though, that's why I assume that most of them aren't.

    Bu the phenomenon exists and it is very strange, or maybe not so much, if I recall my personal experience - I come from Eastern Europe and I have personally witnessed how a society that has been actively taught atheism for 45 years very quickly forgets it in a mere decade.

    The reason for that, I think, is that while atheism was an official state policy, teaching people critical thinking skills was not (you don't want to do that if you are an oppressive totalitarian regime, for obvious reasons). And atheism isn't stable without those. I don't think it is much different in China

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