Politics doesn't always rule

Pew Research Center

Contrary to perceptions, politics doesn't always drive public views on science issues

Ideology is not the dominant factor in shaping what Americans think about most science-related issues, according to a new poll by the Pew Research CenterAlthough a person’s political views are a strong predictor of their attitudes on climate change and a handful of energy issues, their gender, age, religion, race, or education play a larger role on many other controversial topics.

The Washington, D.C.–based think tank surveyed 2002 U.S. adults last summer on 22 issues ranging from global warming and offshore drilling to the safety of genetically modified (GM) foods, the use of animals in research, and the value of the International Space Station. A previous report based on the same survey found striking differences in what scientists and the public think about many topics, including GM foods and animal research.

The new analysis suggests that an oftrepeated claim that Republicans are “antiscience” is simplistic. “Sometimes politics is at the center of the story,” says Cary Funk, the lead author and associate director for science research at Pew, “and sometimes politics has very little to do with the way people think about science issues."

The ideological divide is clearest when it comes to climate change. Almost 80% of respondents identifying themselves as liberal Democrats believe that global temperatures are rising “due to human activity,” compared with only one in 10 conservative Republicans. At the same time, 57% of conservatives say “there is no solid evidence the Earth is getting warmer,” a stance taken by only 10% of liberals. Six of seven liberals Democrats also favor stricter emissions limits on power plants, compared with only one in three conservative Republicans.

Public attitudes toward government support of basic research, a core issue for scientists, also seem to divide along party lines. Some 82% of liberal Democrats said that federal funding “is essential … to ensure scientific progress,” whereas only 43% of conservative Republicans held that view. On the other hand, some 55% of conservatives think “private investment will be enough” to support research, compared with only 16% of liberals.

But ideology takes a back seat on many other issues. Age is a much stronger factor than politics when people are asked whether childhood vaccinations should be compulsory. Some 41% of those under 30, compared with 20% of those over 65, think parents should make the call, whereas conservatives are only slightly more likely than liberals to hold that position.

Gender seems to be key on the use of animals in research: Whereas Americans are roughly split on the issue, 62% of women oppose the practice, compared with only 37% of men. Similarly, although 60% of respondents across the political spectrum support human space exploration, there’s a big gap based on gender—only 42% of women back space exploration versus 66% of men.

Age and gender are both important factors when discussing nuclear power. Although the general population is roughly split, some 56% of those under 30 oppose building more plants, compared with only 39% of those over 65. Likewise, 59% of women oppose expanding nuclear energy, versus only 43% of men.

The poll also casts doubt on many scientists’ belief that people would be more supportive of scientists’ views on controversial issues if they just knew more about the topic. In only three of the 22 topics was a person’s level of education or general scientific knowledge (as judged by answers to six questions) a significant factor in their views. One was animal research, where only 31% of persons with a postgraduate degree oppose the practice, compared with 56% of those with a high school education. (The other two issues where education appears to shape a person’s stance were nuclear power and GM foods—in both cases, more knowledge leads to greater acceptance.)

But many scientists may be unhappy to learn that only 28% of U.S. adults think researchers have a “clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” Respondents with a graduate degree were just as doubtful as those who never attended college. On another issue, 69% of each group favors bioengineering to create a liquid fuel to replace gasoline. And college and high school graduates are equally worried about the planet’s ability to feed a growing population.