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The Public vs. Scientists: What Polling Shows About the Divide

A new poll compares the public’s answers to those of a sample of scientists connected with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
(dpa) - A scientist, immerged in fluorescent blue, light extracts DNA samples (red) with a cannula for further genetic analysis and research in the laboratory at the centre for genetic engineering in Munich, Germany (undated filer). Photo by: Michael Rosenfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP ImagesMichael Rosenfeld / Michael Rosenfeld/picture-allian

The refrain from political figures who get asked about global warming, evolution and other politically-stratified scientific debates has become so commonplace that it’s fodder for comedy shows: “Well, I’m not a scientist.”

And it turns out, perhaps unsurprisingly, that the scientific community gives pretty different answers than the public at large when both are polled on some of the big headline-making issues.

The Pew Research Center, in collaboration with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, compared the public’s answers to those of a representative sample of scientists connected with the AAAS.

And they found some pretty stark differences between the two groups.

For example, 98 percent of the scientists surveyed said that they believe humans have evolved over time. Just 65 percent of regular citizens agreed.

On the question of whether climate change is mostly due to human activity, the American public is equally split, with 50 percent answering in the affirmative. But the vast majority of the scientists -- 87 percent -- said the same.

The largest gap between the public and the cadre of scientists was on the question of whether it’s safe to eat genetically modified foods. Eight-eight percent of scientists and just 37 percent of the public said yes.

On another debate lighting up headlines this week – over childhood vaccines like one for Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR)– 68 percent of the public and 86 percent of scientists said they should be required.

The scientists were also less likely than the public at large to support fracking or favor more offshore drilling.

The survey of scientists was conducted online with a random sample of 3748 U.S.-based members of the AAAS. The general public survey was conducted by phone with a national sample of adults.

- Carrie Dann