Americans Opinions on Science, and Science's opinion of itself.

Republibot 3.0
Republibot 3.0's picture

The Pew Research Center (Which despite its name is not at all religious - it was named after a "Mister Pew"), has isued an interesting survey report on scientists, politics, and religion that shows some interesting details on how people's perspectives of others differ from their perspectives of themselves. Specifically, this time out they take to task various notions about the scientific community and its view of itself and the previous political administration.

We've all heard the claims that the Bush administration suppressed scientific research, and that it did this much more than previous administrations did. To be honest, I don't know if this is true or false, or if it's true but only in selected areas. For instance, I know for a fact that the Bush II administration was very much in favor of space, space research, and pretty much was goofy for anything related to NASA. Clearly they were trying to expand research there, what with all their talk of Orion and missions to Mars. On the other hand, I know they were dead set against stem cell research, so I could see them suppressing research in that quarter. The polling information - as with all polls - is a bit vague on specifics. It doesn't ask "Did the Bush administration try to suppress all science" or "Did they just suppress stuff they didn't like?" but in any event, about 10% of the public heard a lot about this happening, 34% heard vague inklings of it while in line at the hoggly woggyly, and more than half heard nothing about it. Conversely, more than half scientists heard a LOT about this, about a third heard a bit, and surprisingly about a sixth heard nothing.

Not surprising: If there's legislation affecting dentists, people in that profession are more likely to hear about it than used car dealers are, and likewise Scientists are more likely to be aware of threats to their funding than tire-regroovers would be.

The poll went on to discuss the public's opinion of scientists, with the majority having a high opinion of them and feeling it was entirely appropriate for Scientists to use their clout to take part in political debates. Needless to say, scientists themselves were nearly universal in thinking they should be able to do so if they wanted to. What's really interesting, however, is that only 20% of americans perceive scientists as being politically liberal, just under a tithe thing scientists are generally conservative, and nearly two thirds thought that Scientists are politically neutral. Certainly that's the way they're portrayed in film. Conversely, almost 60% of scientists perceive themselves as liberals, and signifficantly less than half consider themselves to be neutral. Only two percent consider themselves conservative.

Indeed whereas roughly a quarter of all Americans are Republicans, and about a third are democrats or independents, only about 6% of scientists are republicans, more than half are democrats, and about a third are independents.

Again, this is not surprising, except in the sense that the public's opinion is so far off the beam. When we're talking about scientists, we're almost universally talking about people who work directly for the government, or for a university, or are in some way at least partially supported by public funds. It makes perfect sense, then, that they'd be liberal since they know which hand feeds them. Likewise, it makes sense that they'd get pissy and vitriolic and scared when a conservative administration starts messing around with their rice bowl.

The report backs this assessment up with some of it's subsequent questions. When asked "When something is run by the government, it is generally inefficient and wasteful," and most americans agreed, whereas most scientists disagreed.

The religious section of the survey was interesting, and I felt a bit unpredictable. When asked if they believed in God or some kind of higher power, 95% of average americans said 'yes', and 51% of scientists agreed with them. Only 41 % were atheists. This suprprised the hell out of me, I'd frankly expected the "Atheist Scientist" to be the standard. Breaking them down by specific groups, americans are on the whole 51% Protestant, 24% Catholic, 2% Jewish, and about 16% atheists, agnostics (Lazy athiests who don't want to get screamed at, basically) and nihilists. By contrast, about 20% of scientists are protestants, about 10% are catholic, about 8% are Jewish, and 48% fall in to the Atheist/Nihilist/Agnostic category. However, only about 17% specifically describe themselves as atheists.

Female scientists were marginally more likely to believe in God than men were overall, though if we substitute a nebulous preternatural "Higher Power" for God, female scientists were considerably more likely to believe in It. Demographically we see an interesting trend in which the younger scientists are more likely to believe, that tapers off a bit by the mid-thirties, somewhat more shaprly by the fifties, and after retirement age, belief in God among scientists plumets to a bit more than 1:4. I was going to make a joke about their funding getting cut when they hit retirement age, so they stop believing in God, but in fact actually it got me to wondering how this gradual drift away from relgious belief in the scientific community mirrors that in the average American community. Are 75 year old metal workers less likely to believe in God than an 18 year old metal worker? Or vice versa? I got to wondering what process causes this drift away from belief in Scientists. Could it just be a gradual learning curve (The likely explanation) or is there something cultural going on?

Finally, Chemists are the most likely to believe in God (But the least likely to believe in a "Higher Power"). Biologists are somewhat less likely to believe in God and somewhat more likely to believe in a Higher Power. Geologists are less likely still to believe in God, yet more likely to believe in a Higher Power, and physicists and astronomers are least likely to believe in either.

This is curious, and I think there's something else going on in this particular breakdown. FOr instance, Geologists are less likely to believe in God - that makes sense as they're poking around in ancient rocks and fossilized dinosaur turds all day, so they're less likely to believe in a God tied to a creation story like Genesis, however they seem at least reasonably open to the concept of a Higher-power or some kind of supernatural entity that governs the universe, provided It allows for a 4.5 billion-year-old earth. Over in Chemistry - which has little to do with the age of the world or the universe or evolution or what have you - vastly more scientists believe in God than in any other venue of science, and they're much less likely to believe in a nebulous ill-defined God than the others. Again, I'd speculate that this is probably because they're less likely to come across anything in their daily experiences to force them to challenge their traditional beliefs with hard evidence to the contrary.

When viewed in that context, it makes perfect sense, and I think we can substitute "A western concept of God, excluding the book of Genesis" for the "Higher Power" in much of these particular data and the answers would look more-or-less the same. Someone who's job depends on repeatedly proving the earth is way older than Bishop Usher would allow is simply not going to believe in a God who's theology hinges on a literal interpreation of Genesis, whereas a scientist who's job hinges on coming up with new paint stripping compounds is less likely to come up against that problem on a daily basis, and hence more likely to believe. But - it's interesting to note for the sake of our conservative religious readers - even a majority of those Scientists who reject anything based on a literal reading of the bible are not opposed to the existence of God, per se.

I think we have to see that as encouraging, don't you?

The entire report is online here and special thanks to GinRummy for pointing it out to me!