Science and Constructed Realities

Americans are, by and large, fans of science. They just don’t know a lot about it.

Recently, the Pew Research Center did a “deep dive” on the attitudes of scientists and the general public, to assess the similarities and differences.

On the one hand, there is high regard and wide support for investments in scientific research: Fully 79% of adults say that science has made life easier for most people, and a majority is positive about science’s impact on the quality of health care, food and the environment. More than half of adults (54%) consider U.S. scientific achievements to be either the best in the world or above average compared with other industrial countries; 92% of AAAS scientists hold similarly praiseworthy views.

When the questions got down into “the weeds,” however, the results were much like surveys about the Constitution (in the words of one report, “Americans Revere Constitution, Have No Idea What’s In It.”)

So we find stark differences between what scientists believe, based upon careful empirical research and the scientific method, and what Americans think scientists believe.

The differences in beliefs about the nature of reality are wide. For example, 88% of scientists think GMO foods are safe; 37% of Americans think they are safe. There are less dramatic, but still substantial, gaps between scientists and the public about the Big Bang, evolution, and climate change.

What is even more interesting, however, is Pew’s finding that Americans who hold beliefs at odds with settled science believe that scientists are “split” on these issues. So Americans who reject the science of climate change tell survey researchers that scientific opinion is divided on the matter. As Pew delicately puts it, “Perceptions of where the scientific community stands on both climate change and evolution tend to be associated with individual views on the issue.”

More evidence–as if we needed it–that we humans see the reality we choose to see.


  1. I keep a copy of the Constitution of the United State and the Amendments on my coffee table and another copy next to my computer – they are getting dog-eared and have numerous underlinings due to my checking news items and on line posts. Not claiming to be an expert but; much of both documents seem to be open to interpretation but basically protective of America and Americans.

    Got involved in a Facebook dispute regarding the faction against vaccinating children against childhood diseases. After posting my own experiences and that of a family member plus Rauld Dahl’s (sp?) loss of his child due to measles and still being accused of ignoring facts “skewed by the CDC”, I did further research. I remember how very ill I was with measles and chicken pox; I almost lost my 11 month old son when his chicken pox progressed to chicken pox encephlytis (again sp?) and my cousin’s 9 year old daughter becoming deaf in one ear due to measles. The anti-vaccination group still believe them to be the cause of autism; contrary to reports the past few years that no connection has been found. The suspected ingredient in the vaccine was Thimerosal; while no connect to autism was found, this was phased out in 1999 due to the controversy. It was primarily used as a preservative because it is cheaper to produce the vaccines in multi-dose vials rather than single-dose. The Institute of Medicine, World Health Organization, Food and Drug Administration and the CDC all reached the same conclusion regarding no connection between vaccinations and autism; autism continues to be on the rise and measles have made a rather strong comeback. I wonder what the percentage is of people still believing autism is caused by vaccinations? Thimerosal was developed in 1927; it was sold by Eli Lilly under the name of Merthiolate – sound familiar to any of you?

    Just last week I researched the drug Terbutaline which my daughter-in-law was prescribed to prevent premature contractions while pregnant with her 2nd child. He was originally misdiagnosed with autism; later diagnosed with Severe Alienation Disorder which is similar. It has since been either discovered – or uncovered – as being caused by Terbutaline taken by pregnant women to prevent premature contractions.

    When we reach a conclusion and set out minds to disregard all other information, on any subject, we are doing ourselves a disservice and possibly causing harm. The measles outbreak is a primary example of ignoring newer medical science findings.

    If people could get beyond the name Al Gore and the fact that he is a Democrat; they should watch his documetary “An Inconvenient Truth”. While I didn’t understand much of the technological data; I now have a much better understanding of Climate Change and Global Warming…clarification of facts was all I needed. These terms are not interchangeable which many people do not understand; causing much of the disbelief of both.

  2. What we need to be aware of is relationship between Profit and Risk. I am old enough to recall the tragic effects of Thalidomide. I sometimes think Big-Ag would like sterilize the earth so that only their seeds will grow. Add in a huge doses of herbicides and pesticides and Nature suffers.

  3. A couple of points that I believe can be made about science.

    It is not common sense. It is not the marketing of solutions disguised as scientific, often called pseudoscience. We all have to decide between learning it from experts or trusting them to deploy it beneficially. Within the expertise of science there are many much deeper more narrow specialties. As an adememic pursuit those who enjoy learning science often like that you either know it or not. You are right or wrong in applying it to problems. It’s black and white. That’s also what people who avoid it don’t like about it. Scientific knowledge is growing at a rate that no individual can keep up with. All of us every day get more ignorant of the total body of science. That body of knowledge has led to our current situation of unsustainable growth of more comfort for more people. It also offers the only way out.

  4. My grandmother’s youngest sister was profoundly deaf for the remainder of her life after contracting measles as a child. I had a childhood playmate who almost died from whooping cough. She missed an entire school year while recovering. Those who fear vaccination have no idea how dangerous these diseases are. Not only do they not protect their own children, they also expose to the disease those who have not had their vaccination yet . The rise in autism has not been linked to vaccination except in the minds of the willfully ignorant. Social media has allowed the proliferation of anecdotal surmise to pass as hard science for those who claim to have “proof” to justify their fear. The diseases are what should be feared, not the vaccination.

  5. It’s real easy to laugh at people who don’t vaccinate their kids because they think they are being lied to about the safety of vaccines. I am a big vaccine believer–my kid had every vaccine whether required or voluntary–but I waited until the HPV vaccine was out for ten years in case something about safety came up. People should be skeptical faced with a for-profit health care system, and after the lies that were told about HRT, the abuses of off-labeling, the cover ups of harmful and deadly side effects we should be skeptical. I absolutely don’t get screening mammograms more than once about every ten years, and don’t take statin drugs even though I have high cholesterol. Don’t blame patients for being so skeptical because the medical profession is much more concerned about the health of their portfolio than that of their patients. Some things should never be for profit, and this is one of those areas. I would also add prisons and schools.

  6. I was vaccinated normally like my siblings but still the only one in the family that had mumps and infertile to boot. Is there a connection? Who would know? It was 1966 when I had the mumps and those health records are long gone. I also had chicken pox and measles and so did my siblings.
    Most of the anti-vaxers are just questioning the age of these vaccinations and I see their point. Some of these children are given multiple vaccinations at once at a very young age. Most of these people aren’t against vaccinations, just the multiple ones given at once. They want them spread out so that there is no chance to not figure out if one caused problems or not. I have a friend whose son died after being vaccinated at a very young age and she is against all of them but who could blame her?

  7. Real science IS confusing enough without special interests confusing it further. What’s safe today can be found unsafe tomorrow and vice versa. No one can keep up with it all – including doctors. I just keep researching and asking my doctors lots of questions. Interestingly, my dentist is the most anxious to find and share health research.

    The internet is a great research device if one depends on reliable sources such as Mayo’s, Johns Hopkins, etc. but it helps to see if the research is provided by someone who has a financial stake in the answer.

  8. The public belief that scientists are split in their views on controversial subjects is actually reality, because we can never be 100% confident of what we know. The degree of split and over what, however, varies. The percentage of people who believe the sun orbits the earth is probably negligible (though to be fair, I’ve never tried to get an actual figure), but there are some scientists who question the fact of evolution and even more who question its mechanisms. Likewise for the role of modern industrial society on climate change and on the risks of climate change itself. Because of the way science works, it is healthy to have these divisions of opinion. Many is the time when a minority opinion (sometimes of one) proves to be correct. The rise in neurodegenerative diseases with age is a good case in point. Once thought to be either a product of a “slow virus”, Stanley Prusiner in the 1980s demonstrated, under great opposition, that diseases like Kuru, bovine spongiform encephalitis, and Creutzfeld-Jacob disease are actually caused by a new form of infection propagated by a misfolded prion protein. And Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s disease and ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) have now been shown to be “prion-like”. My point being that “splits” often lead to revolutionary new understandings that are translatable into practical applications.

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