Do we believe the experts?

The gap between what scientists and the public believe.

The Pew Research Center in Washington, one of the larger think tanks funded by the Pew Foundation, recently surveyed over 2,000 Americans for their beliefs about science. In conjunction with the American Association for the Advancement of Science, they also distributed the same survey to over 3,700 active scientists, in order to compare the beliefs of the American public with those of scientists.

Part of the survey explored how these groups perceive the state of American science, science education and the importance of government investment in science. Not surprisingly, both the public and scientists in America thought that American science was among the best in the world. The rest of the survey asked about scientific topics that are often the subject of public controversy. The survey results, which likely have significant parallels within a Canadian context, are quite interesting.

On several scientific topics, perceptions were very different between scientists and the public. For example, 88 percent of scientists thought that genetically modified (GMO) foods were generally safe to eat, compared to only 37 percent of the public. A suggested explanation for this major gap in perception comes from questions which suggest that the American public does not believe scientists have a clear understanding of the health effects of GMO foods.

There are also large differences in perception about the use of animals in research: 89 percent of scientists versus 47 percent of the public favour the use of animals for research. The role of human activity in causing climate change is accepted by 87 percent of scientists but only by 50 percent of the public. A third difference, given the recent concern about measles, is that scientists are more likely to support mandatory vaccines for children (86 versus 68 percent).

These are just some of the differences in beliefs between scientists and the public on matters that have implications for what we eat, how we do research and how our lifestyle may be impacting our climate. While the actual facts about these matters are of crucial importance and I find myself agreeing with the scientists on most of them, my concern is the difference between the two groups.

No consensus

The existence of such large differences in beliefs makes it very hard to build a consensus around public policy. To use the example of GMO foods, if such foods can yield larger amounts, the food shortage in many areas of the world could potentially be reduced – but only if people are willing to eat GMO food. If scientists are right and such food is safe, then a public unwillingness to consume GMOs is tragic. Or if scientists and the public cannot agree on humans’ impact on climate change, then we will be reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to give our children a healthy planet. One thing these findings suggest is that scientists need to do a better job in communicating their findings to the public.

I wonder to what extent this significant divergence in beliefs between scientists and the public on science topics is also present in beliefs between the pulpit and the pew in our church community on religious matters. Are there topics on which our ministers, on average, hold views that the typical congregation member would disagree with? The education of scientists and ministers gives them insights and tools not available to people who may have very different life histories and education. An expanded appreciation of the history of how God brought the Bible into being may change how it is read. Alternatively, the life experiences of congregations may make them more accepting of the changes they see happening in the world.

If there are differences, do these constrain our conversations and prevent us from being open with each other? Do they limit or restrict the sermons that ministers preach? Do they decrease our trust and love for each other? How can ministers and theological experts share what they have learned more effectively? I don’t know if such differences exist, or whether the differences of belief within congregations and among ministers are equally as significant as those between the two groups. But it might be something we need to explore, perhaps starting with a direct question to your minister.


  • Rudy Eikelboom is a Professor of Psychology, at Wilfrid Laurier University, who has emerged from the dark side of the University after being department chair for 9 years and now teaches behavioural statistics to graduate and undergraduate psychology students. His retirement looms and he is looking forward to doing more writing on the implications of modern science for our Christian faith. Currently, he serves as a pastoral elder at the Waterloo Christian Reformed Church.

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