Friday, January 30, 2015


ABC News reports on a survey that reveals that the American public is skeptical of many things scientists are assured of and assured of many things scientists are skeptical of.

For example,
Scientists are far less worried about genetically modified food, pesticide use and nuclear power than is the general public....Scientists were more certain that global warming is caused by man, evolution is real, overpopulation is a danger and mandatory vaccination against childhood diseases is needed.

In eight of 13 science-oriented issues, there was a 20-percentage-point or higher gap separating the opinions of the public and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), according to survey work by the Pew Research Center. The gaps didn't correlate to any liberal-conservative split; the scientists at times take more traditionally conservative views and at times more liberal.

In the most dramatic split, 88 percent of the scientists surveyed said it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, while only 37 percent of the public say it is safe and 57 percent say it is unsafe. And 68 percent of scientists said it is safe to eat foods grown with pesticides, compared with only 28 percent of the general public.

Ninety-eight percent of scientists say humans evolved over time, compared with 65 percent of the public. The gap wasn't quite as large for vaccines, with 86 percent of the scientists favoring mandatory childhood shots while 68 percent of the public did. Eighty-seven percent of scientists said global warming is mostly due to human activity, while only half of the public did.

What to do about climate change is another issue. Nearly two-thirds of scientists favored building more nuclear power plants, but only 45 percent of the public did. But more of the public favored offshore drilling for oil and fracking than scientists did. More than four out of five scientists thought the growing world population will be a major problem, but just less than three out of five members of the public did.
All of this is interesting and asking why the gaps exist might be instructive. I was struck, in this regard, by something the article attributed to the CEO of the AAAS, Alan Leshner. Leshner is concerned about the disparity between how the public and scientists look at these issues and remarked that, "Science is about facts; science is not about values. Policies are made on facts and values and we want to make sure that the accurate, non-distorted facts are brought in to any kind of discussion."

Well, ideally this may be true, but we don't live in an ideal world. Scientists bring suitcases full of assumptions and values to their observations of the data and the conclusions they draw are often skewed, even if only subliminally, by those values. Philosophers of science refer to this as the "theory-ladenness of observation." The ideal of a completely objective scientist doesn't exist and probably never did. Scientists have metaphysical commitments and political and economic agendas that all bear on how they interpret the data they uncover and even what they count as data.

For example, if a scientist has a prior commitment to metaphysical naturalism then he will insist that man has evolved from other primates, not so much because of the evidence for such a transition is so striking, but because if naturalism is true then that's the only plausible explanation there can be.

This is the reason for the gaps, I think. Laypeople recognize that scientists often have agendas and philosophical commitments at odds with their own, and thus they're skeptical of the ability of the scientist to set those agendas and commitments aside and be objective. Their skepticism is probably often warranted.