Public beliefs about science and tech across the world

Photo by Amanda Dalbjörn on Unsplash

From scientific meetings to corporate boardrooms, many societal leaders are deeply concerned about what they perceive as a loss of public faith in technological innovation and the scientific enterprise. Rising tensions over issues such as automation, gene editing, and the transition away from fossil fuels are rooted in broader conflicts related to globalization, modernization, inequality, institutional authority, democratic freedom, and respect for traditional values.

To better understand these dynamics, in a new research paper co-authored with Erik Nisbet and published by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, we analyzed the 2010-2014 World Values Survey, evaluating public beliefs about science, technology, and society across fifty-four countries and 81,000 survey respondents.

In our study, we assessed country-level and individual-level factors predicting survey measures related to optimism about the ability of science and technology to improve society (“scientific optimism”) and those related to reservations about the impact of science and technology on traditional values and the speed of change (“scientific reservations”).

These two mental models, as previous research suggests, serve as cognitive shortcuts for quickly evaluating the social implications of specific science and technology-related issues and for estimating the trustworthiness of experts and their institutions as sources of information.

To measure scientific optimism, respondents to the World Values Survey were asked to agree or disagree with statements such as “Science and technology are making our lives healthier, easier, and more comfortable” and “Because of science and technology, there will be more opportunities for the next generation.”

To assess scientific reservations, respondents were asked to agree or disagree with statements including “We depend too much on science and not enough on faith” and “It is not important for me to know about science in my life.”

To predict survey respondent scores on scientific optimism and scientific reservations, our statistical models allowed us to control for country-level factors such as the degree of economic development, democratic development, scientific development, and the cultural history of a country, while also examining individual-level factors such as those related to socioeconomic status, personal beliefs and values, religiosity, and forms of institutional trust.

Our findings are consistent with those from a recent report conducted by Gallup and commissioned by the Wellcome Trust UK which employed slightly different survey measures to map trends in science attitudes across countries.

But our analysis goes beyond describing public opinion trends to dig more deeply into why nations, cultures, and individuals differ in their beliefs about science, technology, and society. We also discuss the relevance of our findings to strategies aimed at addressing rising public anxiety in an era of startling advances and disruptive innovations.

The post-industrial paradox

Each of the fifty-tour countries we evaluated in the World Values Survey rated relatively highly on scientific optimism, with the combined mean score for respondents from each country ranging from 6.0 to 8.8 on a ten-point scale. In comparison, scores were relatively lower in terms of scientific reservations.

Per country, sample means ranged from 4.0 to 6.5 on a ten-point scale with a higher score meaning greater reservations. On both scientific optimism and reservations, the United States ranked about mid-tier among the fifty-four countries. Importantly, however, the U.S. mean score of 7.2 on optimism was considerably higher than the mean score of 5.0 on reservations.

In our statistical models, after controlling for a variety of factors, people living in less-developed countries were generally more optimistic about science and technology, expressing fewer reservations. People living in economically advanced countries, in contrast, were generally less optimistic and more likely to express stronger reservations.

Our findings can be explained by past theorizing on the “post-industrial paradox”: In contrast to less-developed countries, citizens in more-advanced economies may no longer idealize science and technology as necessary to economic growth and human security.

Populations living in more advanced economies are still likely to expect benefits from science and technology, but they may also be more sensitized to the moral trade-offs or risks posed by technological breakthroughs and scientific discoveries.

Cultural context matters

Seventeen of the nineteen countries that scored highest in terms of scientific optimism were post-Soviet/former Eastern Bloc or Muslim-majority countries, and most of these same countries score at the bottom scale on scientific reservations, a trend that remained significant when controlling for a variety of factors in our statistical models.

We interpret these findings as consistent with a long-standing emphasis in former Communist countries on science and technology as a vehicle for progress and the admiration that Muslim publics have expressed when asked in polls about Western science, medicine, and technology.

Interestingly, even when controlling for economic modernization, people living in countries with greater scientific and technological output as measured in terms of scientific publications, patents, and citations tend to be more optimistic about science and technology and to hold fewer reservations.

In this case, however, it remains unclear whether a national culture of scientific optimism that expresses fewer social reservations drives scientific ambition and productivity or whether national ambition and productivity boosts public optimism and limits the expression of reservations.

Turning to individual-level factors, religious individuals living in more-advanced countries with greater political freedom were more willing to express their reservations about science and technology than their similarly devout counterparts living in countries that lack such freedoms. Several related processes may account for these findings.

First, as people living in more-advanced countries achieve greater personal and societal security, they appear to be no longer willing to overlook the potential risks, economic costs, or moral trade-offs associated with scientific advances and innovations.

To the extent that individuals living in more-advanced countries also enjoy greater political freedom, they can also express these reservations about emerging issues, such as gene editing, without fear of political sanction.

In contrast, those living in less-developed countries may not only view science and technology in terms of social progress and enhanced security but also as a source of national pride and global competitiveness.

To the extent that they live in a country with fewer political freedoms, even if they did hold reservations, they may not be willing to express them for fear of reprisal.

Liberal values and authority

Across countries, those individuals who share classical liberal values oriented toward free enterprise, free inquiry, and the pursuit of knowledge, networks, and information, and who have thrived in a globalized market economy also tended to be among the most optimistic about science and technology and to express fewer reservations.

There were, however, important caveats and contingencies to these relationships based on the country-context in which an individual lived.

Specifically, the least educated residing in the richest countries tended to express much higher levels of scientific reservations than the least educated living in poorer countries. For wealthier optimists, scientific advances and innovations are likely to enhance their careers, fuel gains in their stock portfolios, and provide benefits that they can afford.

But many other members of the public are justifiably concerned that advances such as automation or gene editing may displace their jobs, remain beyond their ability to afford, and/or conflict with cherished values.

In wealthier countries, such as the United States and those of Western Europe, individuals expressing greater skepticism of traditional forms of authority, such as the family, nation, and state, were less optimistic and held stronger reservations about science and technology than their counterparts in poorer countries.

In advanced economies, those skeptical of traditional forms of authority may be more prone to view the close association between scientific research, technological innovation, militarization, and surveillance as operating in the service of elite control rather than economic growth and progress, as their counterparts in developing countries might still primarily view science.

No communication fix

On the topic of morally fraught issues that challenge traditional values, major investments in public dialogue across advanced economies are needed. But to lead a national and global conversation about such powerful scientific advances, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts but also from journalists and philanthropists.

Informed public discussion about scientific advances and innovations is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. New initiatives to understand public attitudes, improve public dialogue, and report on the complexities of these emerging technologies will not be possible without financial support from government and philanthropists.

There is no clear “communication fix” for the deep-seated reservations that many individuals have about science and technology. Apart from traditional values, these reservations are also rooted in widening levels of inequality and the role that innovation plays as a main driver of such disparities.

Publicly financed scientific research has generated vast wealth for professionals at the top of the knowledge economy, just as those same innovations have eliminated millions of jobs among people at the bottom, transforming entire industries and regions.

Scientists and engineers, therefore, have both a strategic and an ethical imperative to help society cope with the negative effects of globalization and automation, forces that their advances and innovations have helped set in motion.

We need broader strategic thinking about the handful of policy goals and investments that scientists and engineers can join with others in pursuing that would help alleviate inequality and the threats posed to the scientific enterprise if such policies are not pursued.

The ability of scientific expertise to be leveraged on behalf of public solutions to problems such as climate change is limited by waning public trust in government and almost every other major institution, including the news media, business, the legal system, universities, elites generally, and even capitalism itself.

As with economic inequality, there is no communication fix for this widespread erosion in trust. Rather, the scientific community must join with the leaders of other sectors of society to pursue strategies for restoring the health of our civic culture.

Related posts:

Divided Expectations: Why we need a new dialogue about science, inequality, and society

The gene editing conversation: Public dialogue will require major investments

In 2014 biochemist Jennifer Doudna of the University of California at Berkeley awoke from a nightmare that would shift the focus of her world-class scientific career. Two years earlier, with her colleague Emmanuelle Charpentier, now director of the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens in Berlin, Doudna had achieved one of the most stunning breakthroughs in the history of biology, becoming the first to use a process called CRISPR-Cas9 to alter the genetic makeup of living organisms. Their “gene-editing” tool would allow scientists to efficiently insert or delete specific bits of DNA with unprecedented precision.

But as applications related to modifying human genes were soon reported in the scientific literature, Doudna began to worry. In the dream, a colleague asked if she would help teach someone how to use CRISPR (Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindrome Repeats). She followed him into a room to be greeted by Adolph Hitler wearing a pig face. The nightmare reinforced her belief that public discussion of the technology was far behind the breakneck pace of its emerging applications. She feared a public backlash that would prevent beneficial forms of gene-editing research from moving forward.

A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of American Scientist magazine

Doudna organized a workshop among scientists, ethicists, and other experts; they published a 2015 paper in Science urging an international summit on the ethics of gene-editing and a voluntary pause in scientific research that would alter the genetic makeup of humans. In a TED talk that year, she called for a global conversation about gene editing so scientists and the public could consider the full range of social and ethical implications. Her 2017 book, A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution, coauthored with her former student Samuel Sternberg, follows up on these efforts.

In their book, Doudna and Sternberg systematically review the vast number of applications across the life sciences that CRISPR-Cas9 may enable. With livestock, gene editing can be used to produce leaner meat, to make livestock more resistant to infection, to remove allergens from eggs and milk, to reduce the use of antibiotics, and to achieve other outcomes that benefit human nutrition and animal welfare. In medicine, gene editing is being used to engineer mosquitoes so they no longer spread viruses such as malaria or Zika, and mice so they no longer transmit Lyme disease to ticks, thereby reducing infection rates among humans. In other applications, the gene editing of goats, chickens, and rabbits may allow pharmaceuticals to be manufactured more quickly, at higher yields, and at lower cost than by way of traditional laboratory methods. In the future, gene-edited pigs may even be a major source for lifesaving organ transplants, providing tissues that are less likely to be rejected by human patients.

In a process called somatic gene editing, scientists are exploring ways to treat diseases caused by a single mutated gene such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle cell disease. The patient’s cells in the affected tissues would be either edited within the body or edited outside and returned to the patient. In both cases, the corrections would not be passed on to offspring. But in terms of human applications, the most widely debated research involves so-called germline gene editing. This process would alter sperm, eggs, and early stage embryos to protect a child against inheritable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and forms of cancer. But such techniques could also potentially be used to select for specific physical traits or to boost human performance by way of denser bones and greater endurance, creating so-called designer babies. In each application, as a human matured, the altered DNA would be copied into every cell, and passed on to their progeny.

Not surprisingly, public opinion surveys reveal widespread public reservations about the technology and a firm belief that scientists should consult the public before applying gene-editing techniques to humans. Given the many important considerations that gene editing raises, in 2017 the U.S. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recommended that scientists invest in ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing, and that more research be conducted to better understand how to facilitate such a process.

But to lead a national and global conversation about gene editing, scientists will need help not only from their colleagues in the humanities, social sciences, and creative arts, but also from journalists and philanthropists. Informed public discussion about gene editing is not possible without high-quality, sustained reporting from journalists with deep knowledge of the subject. And new initiatives designed to understand public attitudes, to facilitate public dialogue, and to report on the complexities of gene editing will not be possible without financial support from philanthropists and their foundations.

A skeptical public

Given that discussion of human gene editing still remains primarily confined to scientific meetings and to elite gatherings such as TED conferences, it is not surprising that a 2016 Pew Research Center survey showed that 42 percent of Americans have heard “nothing at all” about the topic, compared with 48 percent “a little” and 9 percent “a lot.” But polls also show that Americans hold fairly consistent opinions and judgments about gene editing, even as they possess very little information about the complex subject. To do so, individuals actively draw on their religious and cultural values, familiar narratives from popular culture, and similarities to past debates.

For example, in the same Pew survey, when asked about the moral acceptability of gene-editing techniques intended to give healthy babies a reduced risk of disease, only 28 percent of Americans consider the application acceptable, compared with 30 percent who say it is unacceptable and 40 percent who are not sure. Notably, among the one-third of Americans who can be classified as highly religious, only 15 percent consider such applications morally acceptable (see figure above). When asked separately if such an application meddled with nature and crossed a line that should not be crossed, 64 percent of highly religious Americans agreed with the statement.

For many religious Americans, gene editing is likely closely associated with past debates over embryonic stem cell research and fetal tissue research. In these controversies, Christian leaders mobilized opposition to government funding by framing research as a violation of religious teachings. From a traditional Christian perspective, human life begins at conception and is created in God’s image. Embryos are considered to be divinely created human beings. When scientists destroy or alter human embryos, they take on the role of God, violating divine will. Therefore, traditional Christians believe that embryo research is morally wrong and that if it is funded by the government using tax revenues, such funding makes all Americans complicit in destroying human life. In the Pew survey, for example, among those who said gene editing was morally unacceptable, more than one-third of responses made reference to changing God’s plan or violating his will.

But as various survey findings indicate, it is not just strongly religious Americans who have moral reservations about gene editing. Even among nonreligious Americans, 17 percent say that gene editing to give babies a much reduced risk of disease is morally unacceptable, and 37 percent say they are unsure. In a follow-up question, more than one-quarter of nonreligious respondents say they oppose gene editing to improve the health of a baby because it would be meddling with nature and cross a line that should not be crossed. When asked more specifically if saving a baby’s life required testing on human embryos or altering the genetic makeup of the whole population, about half of all Americans say that such scenarios would make the application less acceptable to them (see figure above). A 2016 survey conducted by Harvard University’s Chan School of Public Health finds even stronger levels of reservations. In this case, when asked about changing the genes of unborn babies to reduce their risk of developing certain serious diseases, 65 percent of Americans said that such an application should be illegal. More than 80 percent said the same when asked about gene editing to improve intelligence or physical traits.

What explains the reservations voiced by both religious and nonreligious Americans? Bioethicists have used the term Yuck Factor to describe a “visceral repugnance” and “emotional opposition” felt by the public when they first hear about human genetic engineering. This repugnance, wrote University of Chicago ethicist Leon Kass in an oft-cited 1997 article in the New Republic, is an “emotional feeling of deep wisdom,” that leads an individual to “intuit and feel, immediately without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.” The Yuck Factor likely has its origins in Kantian and Christian philosophies of human dignity that permeate Western culture. These traditions, as political theorist Francis Fukuyama of Stanford University described in his 2002 book Our Post Human Future, emphasize that human life has a higher moral place than the rest of the natural world. Therefore, according to these philosophies, even at its earliest stages of development, human life should always be treated with a sacred respect.

Such teachings have shaped Western culture to the extent that their principles are passed on even to those who have never set foot in a church. The Yuck Factor is therefore a relatively intuitive response, a reaction formed below the level of conscious deliberation on the part of an individual, often in the absence of substantive information. When asked about emerging gene-editing techniques that would involve altering human embryos or engineering desired traits, most individuals probably have difficulty articulating why they might believe it to be morally questionable; they just know it when they feel it.

Journalism matters

Although scientists hold a responsibility to engage the public about the social implications of gene editing, informed public dialogue ultimately depends heavily on journalists and their news organizations. Quality science reporting is essential to understanding how and why gene-editing research is being conducted, including the connections between new advances and ongoing debates over funding, governance, regulation, ethics, accessibility, uncertainty, and patent rights. Even in today’s dramatically altered media landscape, coverage in print and online, at both traditional and new media outlets, still drives discussion of complex issues such as gene editing. These news organizations provide the information, frames of reference, and narratives that scientists, journalists, funders, policy makers, and societal leaders frequently draw upon to set policy, make decisions, or communicate with various segments of the public who trust their advice.

Yet for the past two decades, the news media have faced crippling economic and technological disruptions that have forced cutbacks in the amount of reporting on complex science topics such as gene editing. As University of Wisconsin-Madison communication scholar Dietram Scheufele has documented, due to layoffs there are also far fewer veteran journalists on staff who can draw on decades of experience to provide their readers critical context. Industry practices within journalism have also changed. In a business model dependent on Facebook and Google to generate traffic and advertising revenue, former New Republic editor Franklin Foer warns that journalists are being told by their editors to actively seek out trending topics that are likely to catch on or go viral, rather than to rely on their news judgment to decide what are the most important stories to tell readers. As a consequence, coverage of gene editing loses out to the latest sensational cultural event or breaking political scandal. When gene editing is covered, headlines and story angles may exaggerate the technology’s promise and peril in an effort to win scarce reader attention.

Now is the time, therefore, for scientists and philanthropists to help journalists and news organizations to correct for these pressures and biases. They can do so by sponsoring workshops where a diversity of experts and stakeholders gather to discuss with journalists and editors the scientific, ethical, and legal implications of gene editing, making it easier for journalists to cover gene editing accurately and on a regular basis. Philanthropists, universities, and research institutions can also provide fellowships and other sources of financial support that enable journalists to spend the weeks and months required to substantively report on the subject.

But journalists are not the only professionals who are needed to write compellingly about the scientific and social implications of gene editing. Scientists, ethicists, and social scientists can also contribute commentaries and articles to the popular press, offering independent insights and context. In one initiative to help facilitate such articles, the Kavli Foundation is partnering with the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science and a number of science magazines and online publications (including American Scientist) to train scientists to apply the techniques and standards of journalism in writing about complex topics such as gene editing.

Investing in dialogue

Yet even as quality journalism provides the main architecture around which informed debate about gene editing will take place, the scientific community, along with universities, philanthropies, and research institutions, must also help create opportunities for direct public participation in dialogue and deliberation. Such an effort starts with the sponsorship of carefully conducted social-science research that assesses public discourse about gene editing, the sources of information and arguments that are shaping debate, and the factors that are influencing public attitudes. In turn, this research should inform the design and evaluation of a variety of dialogue-based communication initiatives organized by scientific organizations, government agencies, and universities.

Over the past decades, across Europe and North America, efforts to promote dialogue-based science communication have taken various forms, but as the University of Calgary’s Edna Einsiedel notes, each format shares a few common principles. First, in these initiatives, communication is defined as an iterative back-and-forth process between various segments of the public, experts, and decision-makers. Such approaches assume that there is no single “correct” way to talk about and understand the social implications of a complex subject such as gene editing. Second, rather than being top-down and controlled by scientists and their partners, societal leaders and the public are invited to be active participants in defining what is discussed, sharing their own knowledge and perspectives. Third, there is no single “public” with which to communicate or engage, but rather multiple “publics” exist. These include but are not limited to church leaders and congregations, racial or ethnic groups, parents and patient advocates, and political identity groups such as liberals or conservatives.

Among the most important types of organized dialogue initiatives are smaller, more intimate events that bring together scientists with other societal leaders to facilitate the sharing of perspectives, and the forging of relationships. In one leading example, the Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion (DoSER) at the American Association for the Advancement of Science has organized workshops that convene scientists and clergy to discuss topics of mutual concern and possible disagreement such as embryonic stem cell research. To inform the discussion, focus groups were conducted in advance of the events, and the meetings were professionally facilitated. Scientists and clergy participating in the meetings indicated that the sessions helped break down stereotypes about each other, facilitating learning and mutual respect. In a related initiative, DoSER has worked with seminary schools and synagogues to develop curricula and resources that aid clergy in leading more constructive conversations about complex scientific topics with their congregations.

As these examples suggest, it is important to remember that religion is more than just a belief system that shapes how people understand gene editing. Churches are communication contexts where discussions can at times be framed in strongly moral terms by congregational leaders, reinforced by conversations that churchgoers have with others, and shaped by information provided directly when at church. For these reasons, on a topic such as gene editing, churches often serve as powerful networks of civic recruitment where congregants receive requests to voice their opinion to elected officials. During the debate over embryonic stem cell research, for example, among the strongest predictors of whether individuals had become involved politically on the issue was whether they had discussed or received information about the topic at church. In sum, when it comes to public dialogue about gene editing, scientists can either cede communication at churches to religious leaders or become active partners in facilitating and enriching church-based discussions.

Yet to promote broader public engagement across both religious and nonreligious segments of the public, the scientific community can also benefit by partnering with experts specializing in the humanities, philosophy, and the creative arts. Scholars in the humanities and philosophy draw on literature, religious traditions, and ethical frameworks to help the public consider what is good, what is right, and what is of value about a complex topic such as gene editing. Writers, artists, filmmakers, and other creative professionals are among society’s most inspiring storytellers about complex issues, and they are able to communicate about gene editing in imaginative, compelling, and novel ways. Integrated into public dialogue initiatives, their work can motivate different forms of learning, sponsor critical reflection and deliberation, and produce thought-provoking visions of the future.

In a past example that serves as a prototype for such initiatives, faculty at the University of Alberta in Canada hosted workshops in 2008 that facilitated discussions about the social implications of human genetic engineering among visual artists, scientists, bioethicists, and social scientists. Informed by their conversations together, the artists were commissioned to produce visual works reflecting on the themes discussed, while the other participants were asked to write short essays. The project culminated in the exhibit “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art,” which toured North America. As part of the exhibit tour, forums were held at museum venues, generating local news coverage of the themes expressed. The essays along with the artistic works were published as part of a book and catalog sold at art museums, bookstores, and online.

Sean Caulfield & Roy Mills, University of Alberta; End Point, from “Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society, and Art” exhibition at the Glenbow Museum, Calgary, Alberta, November 2008–January 2009.

Apart from artistic exhibits, classic works of literature and films can also serve a similar function in stimulating public dialogue. For example, the 1997 film Gattaca is often used in college classrooms to stimulate student discussion of the social implications of human engineering. Research suggests that rather than alarming audiences, science fiction TV and film portrayals may help familiarize viewers with the moral dimensions of human genetic engineering, thereby helping them overcome their intuitive Yuck Factor reservations. This year, in recognition of the 200-year anniversary of the publication of Frankenstein, faculty at Arizona State University have published an annotated version of the novel that also features essays from scientists and scholars in the humanities and social sciences. With support from the National Science Foundation, the university is also coordinating nationwide events and activities at science museums and centers, which include exhibits, an online multimedia game, and at-home activities for use by parents. Each is carefully designed to foster discussion about the social and ethical dimensions of gene editing and other technological innovations.

For many, such broad-based initiatives may be beyond their ability to organize or to fund. Major investments in public dialogue and in supporting high-quality journalism about gene editing will take coordinated action from leaders of the scientific community and their peers across fields including the news media and philanthropy. But scientists and others should not overlook the contributions to public dialogue they can make starting right now. University scientists, by way of their classrooms and new degree programs, can partner with their peers in the social sciences and humanities to equip students with the knowledge and skills they need to think critically about the future of gene editing and similar advances. At Cornell University, for example, one model to emulate is the undergraduate major in Biology and Society. Among the most popular on campus, the major enables students to group foundational training in the biological sciences with coursework in science communication, the social sciences, and the humanities.

Within their local communities, individual scientists can also actively encourage discussions about gene editing by way of informal conversations and by volunteering to give presentations to community groups, connecting with others by way of shared interests, values, and identities. Ultimately, for Jennifer Doudna, her goal is to motivate the next generation of scientists to engage much more actively and directly with the public, applying the principle of “discussion without dictation” on how gene editing should be used. All scientists, regardless of discipline, she argues in her recent book, must be prepared to participate in conversations with the public about the far-reaching consequences of gene editing and similarly powerful technologies.


Nisbet, M. (2018). The Gene-Editing Conversation. American Scientist, 106(1), 15-19.


Caulfield, S., C. Gillespie, and T. Caulfield (eds.). 2011. Perceptions of Promise: Biotechnology, Society and Art. Edmonton, Canada: University of Alberta Press.

Doudna, J., and S. H. Sternberg. 2017. A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin.

Einsiedel, E. F. 2014. Publics and their participation in science and technology. In M. Bucchi and B. Trench (eds.). Routledge Handbook of Public Communication of Science and Technology. New York, NY: Routledge.

Foer, F. 2017. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech. New York, NY: Penguin.

Fukuyama, F. 2003. Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Funk, C., B. Kennedy, and E. P. Sciupac. 2016. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to “Enhance” Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center. Published online June 26, updated November 2.

Kass, L. 1997. The wisdom of repugnance. The New Republic, June 2, pp. 17-26.

National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.

Nisbet, M. C. 2005. The competition for worldviews: Values, information, and public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research 17:90-112.

Nisbet, M., and E. M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2):e88473.

Scheufele, D.A. 2013. Communicating science in social settings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 110(Supplement 3):14040-14047.

Scheufele, D. A., et al. 2017. U.S. attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357:553-554.
Shapshay, S. (ed.). 2009. Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Divided expectations: Why we need a new dialogue about science, inequality, and society

If you are reading this column, you have likely benefited from the scientific and technological advances that have transformed the world’s economy. For well-educated professionals who form the core audience for popular science magazines, these innovations have created new wealth and career opportunities. Yet paradoxically, the very success of the science and engineering sector has also created the conditions that have led so many others to distrust experts and the professional class. The same advances that have enriched those at the top of the global knowledge economy have also eliminated millions of jobs among those at the bottom, transforming entire industries and geographic regions, generating public resentment, and seeding political polarization.

When we think about the roots of antagonism toward scientific expertise in the United States, we too often focus on either partisan or religious differences. Yet analyses I have conducted with several colleagues of large-scale national public opinion surveys show that disparities related to income, education, and race play an even more important role in how Americans view the relationship between science and society, with these reservations transcending traditional left-right ideological differences.

A version of this article appeared in the Jan/Feb 2018 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

When asked generally about the societal impact of scientific advances and technological innovations, those members of the U.S. public who express the strongest optimism tend to be white, hold a college degree or higher, and rank among the top quartile in terms of income. These individuals can justifiably expect that their careers will benefit from scientific innovations and that they will be able to afford new technologies and medical treatments. In contrast, individuals who express the strongest reservations about science and technology tend to hold a high school degree or less, earn less than $50,000 annually, and are more likely to be non-white. These individuals may be justifiably concerned about how they will compete in an innovation-based economy, afford access to new technologies or medical advances, and how such advances may reinforce patterns of discrimination and other social disparities (Nisbet and Markowitz 2014).

Perhaps in no area is the potential for public anxiety based on socio-
economic disparities clearer than in relation to driverless cars, automation, and artificial intelligence (AI). These innovations are promoted as boosting the economy, contributing to public safety and environmental protection, and enhancing consumer convenience. They are also likely to eliminate the jobs of millions of truck drivers, taxi operators, retail workers, and professionals. Tech companies risk further public backlash as they seek to fast track the adoption of driverless cars and AI applications, spending millions to avoid regulation (Lloyd 2017).

In a recent Pew survey, when asked to consider a future in which robots and computers can do many human jobs, more than twice as many Americans (72 percent) expressed worry than enthusiasm (33 percent) and a similar proportion expected that economic inequality would become much worse as a result of such advances. Concerns about the negative impact of workplace innovations were strongest among those lacking a four-year college degree (Pew Research Center 2017a).

Americans also express strong reservations about the impact on social inequality of biomedical innovations related to human enhancement. Strong majorities say they are “very” or “somewhat” worried about gene editing, brain chips, and synthetic blood and that these technologies would become available before they were fully understood. Much of their anxiety relates to anticipated disparities: more than 70 percent fear these innovations would exacerbate the divide between “haves” and “have-nots,” because they would only be available to the wealthy (Pew Research Center 2017b).

A Different Conversation

Noting broad-based public concern about the use of gene editing for human enhancement, a 2017 report from the U.S. National Academies of Sciences recommended that scientists and policymakers should facilitate ongoing input from the public regarding the benefits and risks of human genome editing and that more research was needed on how to effectively facilitate such a process (National Academies 2017). Studies also show broad-based belief among Americans that scientists should consult the public before pursuing gene editing applications (Scheufele et al. 2017).

Yet if scientists, engineers, university leaders, and CEOs are to address growing concerns about gene editing and other technological innovations, they will need to turn to novel approaches for engaging segments of the public from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Traditional science communication efforts that focus on informally educating the public by way of TV documentaries, popular science books and magazines, and science museums tend to engage the best-educated and highest-earning Americans who on average are the heaviest consumers of these resources, a group that tends to be already enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and optimistic about technological innovations.

A recent Pew survey (2017c), for example, finds that only about 17 percent of Americans are active news consumers, defined as those who seek out and consume science news at least a few times a week. This group tends to be on average better educated, higher wage earners, and predominantly white. In turn, attention to science news along with socio-economic status are the strongest predictors of whether an individual engages in other informal science education activities, such as attending a museum, taking up a science-related hobby, or participating in a citizen science project.

Such disparities in attention present major barriers to addressing public reservations and misconceptions. Consider past communication and outreach efforts related to nanotechnology. Between 2004 and 2007, as hundreds of nanotechnology-related products and applications were introduced into the U.S. marketplace, knowledge of nanotechnology increased substantially among the best educated but declined among the least educated. These disparities in knowledge occurred even as news coverage of nanotech increased and government agencies, science museums, and universities invested considerable resources in informal education and outreach activities.

This “knowledge gap” effect has been tracked by researchers across issues for several decades. As an emerging scientific issue such as nanotech, gene editing, or artificial intelligence gains news attention and is the subject of outreach at museums and other venues, those individuals who hold higher socio-economic status are likely to acquire knowledge at a faster rate than their lower status counterparts, so that the difference in knowledge between these segments will tend to increase rather than decrease.

The reason for these disparities is that better educated individuals tend to absorb new information more efficiently and can rely on their equally well-educated friends and family members to discuss and follow up on concepts they do not understand. As higher wage earners, they also possess the financial means and time to take advantage of high quality sources of news coverage and to attend science museums and similar cultural institutions. In 2012, 40 percent of Americans in the top quartile of wage earners said they had visited a natural history museum or a science center during the past year compared to less than 20 percent among those in the bottom quartile. The knowledge gap effect has even been observed relative to media outreach strategies such as Discovery Channel and National Geographic Channel programs that are intended to engage broader audiences who otherwise may never consume science-related information (Corley and Scheufele 2010; Nisbet et al. 2015).

Despite its popularity as a tool among scientists and their allies, social media are no panacea, and initiatives that invest heavily in social media outreach at the expense of other strategies may only reinforce disparities and divisions. According to Pew (2017c), a substantial proportion of social media users say that they incidentally bump into science news stories that they otherwise would not have sought out. But about twice as many social media users also say they mostly distrust rather than trust the science posts they encounter. This sentiment is in line with a growing skepticism of social media generally, and is confounded by the tendency for social media to facilitate the spread of misinformation, to foster incivility, and to inflame group based differences rather than transcend them.

Given public concerns about the role that scientific innovations will play in contributing to rising inequality, scientists and their partners must start to directly address these reservations. Traditional approaches to science communication will not be enough—nor will social media efforts—no matter how clever or well resourced. It is time to focus on novel methods for promoting a more fruitful dialogue about science and society, bringing scientists and people of diverse backgrounds together to spend time talking to each other, contributing to mutual appreciation and understanding, and forging new relationships and insights.


Nisbet, M.C. (2018). Divided Expectations: Why We Need a New Dialogue About Science, Inequality and Society. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine, Jan/Feb. 


  • Corley, E.A. and D.A. Scheufele. 2010. Outreach gone wrong? When we talk nano to the public, we are leaving behind key audiences. The Scientist 24(1): 22.
  • Lloyd, L. 2017. A march won’t make the public respect science. (April 14).
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Human Genome Editing: Science, Ethics, and Governance. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and M. Ellithorpe. 2015. Ignorance or bias? Evaluating the ideological and informational drivers of communication gaps about climate change. Public Understanding of Science 24(3): 285–301.
  • Nisbet, M., and E.M. Markowitz. 2014. Understanding public opinion in debates over biomedical research: Looking beyond political partisanship to focus on beliefs about science and society. PloS One 9(2): e88473.
  • Pew Research Center. 2017a. Automation in Everyday Life. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • ———. 2017b. U.S. Public Wary of Biomedical Technologies to ‘Enhance’ Human Abilities. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • ———. 2017c. Science News and Information Today. Washington, DC: Pew Research Center.
  • Scheufele, D.A., M.A, Xenos, E.L. Howell, et al. 2017. US attitudes on human genome editing. Science 357(6351): 553–554.

Evolution in the college classroom: Facilitating conversations about science and religion

Sept. 1, 2017 — For most American college students, their first serious encounter with the theory of evolution may come as part of an introductory biology course. As surprising as this might sound, the unfortunate reality is that in many high schools across the country evolution is often avoided or covered superficially as part of a crammed science curriculum, taught by teachers who are under-qualified and poorly supported (Friedrichsen et al. 2016).

The lack of prior familiarity with evolution presents a particular challenge to religious students who are likely to have questions about how to reconcile what they are learning in the college classroom with their own faith. Surveys indicate that more than half of all students enrolled in introductory biology courses believe in God and consider themselves religious. If their questions about science and faith go unaddressed as part of their coursework, research suggests that learning is likely to be inhibited. Even though a religious student may successfully complete exams and assignments that test their knowledge of evolutionary science, their scores may not reflect a deeper acceptance of what they learned. These students may leave a course still doubting whether evolution is the best (and only) scientific explanation for the diversity of life on Earth (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

A version of this article appeared in the Sept/Oct 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Because of their experience in introductory biology courses, many religious students may also be turned off from pursuing a career in science. Studies indicate that students are more likely to choose a science career if they feel a sense of belonging as part of their coursework. Yet for many religious students, prevailing cultural cues tell them that science and religion are in conflict and that religious people lack competence or ability in science. Research shows that these false stereotypes, which are sometimes voiced by their instructors and peers, can harm the performance of religious students on science exams, further eroding their interest in science (Rios et al. 2015).

Much of student uncertainty about evolution may be caused by a lack of awareness of church teaching or doctrine on the matter. Most major religious traditions, including the Roman Catholic church, the Mormon church, and mainline Protestant churches, have either a neutral or explicitly affirmative stance on evolution, acknowledging the consistency with church doctrine (National Academy of Sciences 2008). In other religious traditions such as evangelicalism, high-profile scientists such as Francis Collins (2006) have broken ranks with church doctrine to discuss openly how they reconcile science with their evangelical faith. For conservative Christian students, research indicates that having such a role model is a key contributor to their acceptance of evolution (Manwaring et al. 2015).

Unfortunately, most faculty members in the life sciences are not prepared to adequately address the questions that religious students hold about the connections between science and faith. Surveys show that the great majority of life science faculty are nonreligious, and that many equate religious belief with fundamentalism, assuming that faith by definition is in conflict with science. Moreover, when asked, most do not see religion as a topic appropriate for a science course. Even those instructors who want to facilitate more thoughtful classroom conversations about science and religion often lack the confidence and training to do so effectively, and they therefore avoid the topic (Barnes and Brownwell 2016).

For these reasons, in recent years, researchers have begun to test approaches embedded in introductory biology courses for facilitating more constructive conversations about science and religion that promote student acceptance of evolution. The findings point to promising models for instructors to adopt and offer insight on strategies for encouraging more constructive public dialogue about science and religion more generally.

Getting beyond conflict

In a study conducted at Arizona State University, instructors led ninety-five students enrolled in an introductory biology course through a two-week module focused on science, evolution, and religion. In addition to chapters from their textbook on natural selection and speciation, students were also required to read Science, Evolution, and Creationism, a booklet published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences (2008).

The National Academy booklet was intended for use by scientists, teachers, parents, and school board members who wanted to engage in more constructive conversations with others who remain uncertain about evolution and its place in the public school curriculum. To guide their efforts, the National Academy commissioned focus groups and a national survey to gauge the public’s understanding of the processes, nature, and limits of science. The authoring committee also wanted to test various frames of reference that explained why alternatives to evolution were inappropriate for science class (Labov and Pope 2008; Nisbet and Scheufele 2009).

The committee had expected that a convincing storyline for the public would be a traditional emphasis on past legal decisions and the doctrine of church-state separation. Yet the data revealed that audiences were not persuaded by this framing of the issue. Instead, somewhat surprisingly, the research pointed to the effectiveness of defining evolutionary science in terms of social progress, explaining its role as a building block for advances in medicine and agriculture. The research also underscored the effectiveness of reassuring the public that evolution and religious faith can be fully compatible.

In light of this feedback, the National Academy committee decided to structure the final version of the report around these main points of emphasis. “The evidence for evolution can be fully compatible with religious faith,” states the report. “Science and religion are different ways of understanding the world. Needlessly placing them in opposition reduces the potential of each to contribute to a better future.”

In the Arizona State experiment, drawing on themes from the booklet, instructors emphasized that “scientists study natural causes within the natural world, whereas religious ideas address questions of morality, purpose, and the existence of a higher power.” If religious beliefs were limited to questions of purpose, ethics, and the existence of God, then they were not in conflict with evolution.

To evaluate the impact of the module, surveys were administered to the class before and after the module was completed. In contrast to the more than 50 percent of students at the start of the module who said they perceived religion and evolution as in conflict, only 26 percent said the same at the end, indicating that the module had reduced by nearly half the number of students holding a “conflict” outlook. More specifically, eleven out of the thirty-two students who said they perceived conflict at the start of the course shifted their outlook. Among those who were unsure at the start, eight out of fifteen indicated that evolution and religion were compatible after completing the module. Interestingly, there was no observable change in student scores on measures of religiosity (Barnes et al. 2017).

In a second study conducted at Brigham Young University, researchers focused specifically on how Mormon students—if informed of the Mormon church’s official neutral position on evolution—may be more likely to subsequently accept evolutionary theory. In this case, the Mormon Church maintains strict belief in God as the creator, but in its statements it does not confirm or deny the potential for theistic evolution, leaving room for Mormons to adopt a scientific interpretation. The experiment involved more than 1,500 nonmajors enrolled in introductory biology courses. In the test condition, as part of the semester, students participated in at least one lecture and discussion of a “BYU Evolution Packet” that discussed the official Mormon church stance on human origins. After reading the packet, during the class discussion, students were encouraged to ask questions and make comments. The control condition had access to the BYU Evolution Packet, but no time was spent as part of the course in discussing the packet (Manwaring et al. 2015).

For both the experimental and control conditions, overall student acceptance of evolution increased across the semester, and this greater level of acceptance remained five to seven months after completion of the course. But in the experimental condition that included the lecture on official Mormon teachings, gains in acceptance of evolution were significantly higher than in the control condition. As the researchers note, at the outset of the course, those students who held more misconceptions about the Mormon church’s stance on evolution were some of the least likely to accept the theory of evolution. Their analysis indicates that the booklet and single lecture on the topic corrected many of these misconceptions among the participating students, which in turn led to the higher gains in student acceptance of evolution in comparison to the control condition (Manwaring et al. 2015).


For most college students, the introductory courses they take during their first few college years may be the only thoughtful discussions of science and religion that they can draw on for the rest of their adult lives. If these students leave a science course lacking a strong motivation for further information on the topic, they can easily avoid the many available popular science books, articles, and films. When they do incidentally come across coverage in the news media, evolution is most likely to be framed in terms of controversy and irreconcilable conflict with religion (Mooney and Nisbet 2005).

We tend to think about general science education at the college level as a vehicle for imparting knowledge about the physical world, particularly in terms of basic science literacy. But general education science courses should also serve a core civic purpose, imparting critical understanding of the complex relationship between science and society, modeling for students’ thoughtful ways to negotiate differences. The first few studies formally evaluating approaches to discussing evolution and religion are models to build on. More research is needed to expand the evidence-base specific to evolution and to evaluate approaches for effectively discussing other challenging topics such as climate change or gene editing.


Nisbet, M.C. (2017, Sept/Oct). Evolution in College Classrooms: Facilitating Conversations about Science and Religion. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine.


  • Barnes, M.E., and S.E. Brownell. 2016. Practices and perspectives of college instructors on addressing religious beliefs when teaching evolution. CBE-Life Sciences Education 15(2).
  • Barnes, M.E., J. Elser, and S.E. Brownell. 2017. Two-week evolution module reduces perceived conflict between evolution and religion for religious and non-religious students. American Biology Teacher 79(2): 104–111.
  • Collins, F.S. 2006. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  • Friedrichsen, P.J., N. Linke, and E. Barnett. 2016. Biology teachers’ professional development needs for teaching evolution. Science Educator 25(1).
  • Labov, J.B., and B.K. Pope. 2008. Understanding our audiences: The design and evolution of science, evolution, and creationism. CBE-Life Sciences Education7(1): 20–24.
  • Manwaring, K.F., J.L. Jensen, R.A. Gill, et al. 2015. Influencing highly religious undergraduate perceptions of evolution: Mormons as a case study. Evolution: Education and Outreach 8(1): 23.
  • Mooney, C., and M.C. Nisbet. 2005. Undoing Darwin. Columbia Journalism Review 44(3): 30–39.
  • National Academy of Sciences. 2008. Science, Evolution, and Creationism. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. Available online at
  • Nisbet, M.C., and D.A. Scheufele. 2009. What’s next for science communication? Promising directions and lingering distractions. American Journal of Botany96(10): 1767–1778.
  • Rios, K., Z.H. Cheng, R.R. Totton, et al. 2015. Negative stereotypes cause Christians to underperform in and disidentify with science. Social Psychological and Personality Science 6(8): 959–967.

Preface to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication

July 19, 2017 — Because of the complexity and urgency of climate change, efforts to understand the problem’s social, cultural, and political dimensions must stretch beyond the environmental sciences and economics to be truly multi-disciplinary. To this end, over the past two decades, a growing community of scholars have focused on the factors that influence public understanding, perceptions, and behaviors relative to climate change; the nature of journalistic, media, and cultural portrayals and their effects; and the role that public communication, outreach and advocacy play in shaping societal decisions. This research has taken place across disciplines, countries and continents, generating broad-based interest and discussion.

A version of this article appears as the Preface to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication.

There have also been well resourced and highly visible efforts to apply this research to the communication activities of experts, professionals, and advocates as they work to influence societal decisions related to climate change. Most notably, research in this area has been a central focus of the global environmental movement and climate science community, the public engagement with science movement in the UK and Europe, the science of science communication movement in the U.S., the climate change communication movements in Australia and Canada, and the still nascent climate change communication efforts in India and China, to name a few leading examples.

Until now, however, there has not existed a leading scholarly outlet where the broad range of climate change communication, media and public opinion research is reviewed, synthesized, and critiqued; or translated in relation to other disciplines and professions. To address this gap, the Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication is a curated series of 115 original peer-reviewed articles published in print and digital format, and by way of the web-based Oxford Research Encyclopedia (ORE) Climate Science. The collected articles comprehensively review research on climate change communication, advocacy, media and cultural portrayals, and their relationship to societal decisions, public knowledge, perceptions, and behavior. Co-authored by more than 250 experts representing more than a dozen disciplines and twenty countries, the commissioned articles reflect five main areas of scholarship and research. These include:

Communication and Social Change

Collectively, the articles in this volume reveal a deep knowledge base about the barriers to public engagement with climate change, and the social and political obstacles to effectively managing the many risks involved. Scholars across countries have examined how values, social identity, mental models, discourses, social ties, culture, media, interest groups, economic conditions, geography, and weather shape individual judgments and collective decisions. They have also tracked the evolution of climate change as a social problem in relation to specific media systems and political arenas, describing the factors that drive the framing of debate. Yet not surprisingly, given the complexities involved, even after more than twenty years of research, easy answers on how to mobilize the political will needed to meaningfully address the problem are not readily apparent.

In regards to such solutions, researchers tend to conform to one of four different camps of thinking that map to slightly differing theories of social change. A first school of thought, comprised mostly of social psychologists, communication researchers, and decision scientists, views the challenge as a matter of persuasion: How can climate change be reframed in a way that resonates with the identities, priorities, and interests of different publics and be communicated about by trusted opinion-leaders? Through such strategies, public opinion will eventually pass a certain threshold of perceived urgency and importance, creating the political conditions for national and international policymakers to take aggressive action. A second group, comprised mostly of political scientists and sociologists, views the issue as a matter of power-based politics, requiring strategies and tactics that mobilize social movements and interest groups that pressure elected officials and industry leaders to ratchet up their efforts to address the problem.

A third group, comprised of more humanistic and critical scholars, views the issue as one of dialogue and deliberation: the challenge is to facilitate the opportunities for different publics to learn about, debate, and participate in collective decisions about climate change, and to co-produce knowledge about risks and solutions alongside the expert community. By building a stronger, more democratic public sphere at the local and national levels, the issue will eventually be better managed. Finally, a fourth group of scholars approach their research far less instrumentally. For them, the social dimensions of climate change are the ultimate puzzle worthy of study and inquiry. Their research is not intended to inform communication campaigns or political strategy. Rather their goal is to understand what climate change tells us about human psychology, society, culture, politics, or media systems. As scholars, they serve in an interrogatory role, exploring questions but not offering advice on how society can move forward to solve the pressing problems involved.

For many readers of the Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication, one of these schools of thought is likely to be the principal lens by which they approach the collected articles, guiding their choices about what to pay attention to and what to accept as valid. I encourage readers, however, to engage in a more flexible and critical reading of the volume, seeking to engage with the multiple assumptions and perspectives offered by the more than 250 co-authors. Their conclusions frequently counter conventional assumptions and narratives about the roots of societal inaction on climate change and effective directions forward. By considering these differing perspectives, as readers we can come to hold our own assumptions and biases more lightly, and it is only as a product of such critical self-reflection that new insights are likely to emerge.


Nisbet, M.C. (2018). Preface. In M.C. Nisbet (Ed), Ho, S., Markowitz, E., O’Neill, S., Schafer, M., Thaker, J.T. (Assoc. Editors). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Climate Change Communication. New York: Oxford University Press.


The March for Science: Partisan protests put public trust in scientists at risk

May 1, 2017– On April 22, thousands of scientists and their supporters gathered in Washington, D.C., and at more than 600 other locations across the world to participate in the March for Science. Pegged to Earth Day, protesters voiced their opposition to proposed federal cuts to funding for scientific research and the planned rollback of environmental rules and public health regulations. They raised alarm over the appointment of political officials dismissive of climate change and of President Donald J. Trump’s false claims about vaccines and global warming.

Previous Democratic administrations have made questionable decisions on science policy, but regardless of where you stand politically, the actions so far of the Trump administration should be deeply disturbing to anyone who cares about the future of the scientific enterprise, much less the planet. Yet it is unlikely that the March for Science will have much of an impact on federal policy over the next few years. Instead, in the long run, the March for Science may have only deepened partisan differences, while jeopardizing trust in the impartiality and credibility of scientists.

Blind to mistakes

“When you become scientifically literate, I claim, you become an environmentalist,” Bill Nye, an honorary cochair of the March for Science told the Washington Post (Gibson 2017). Many signs carried by protesters echoed that assumption, emphasizing themes like “Make America Smart Again,” “Science is the cure for bullshit,” and “Knowing stuff is good.”

Another March for Science sign quoted astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson admirably stating that “I dream of a future where the truth is what shapes people’s politics, rather than politics shaping what people think is true.” Yet as risk communication expert David Ropeik (2017) countered, decades of social science research suggests that human cognition and decisions rarely if ever work in that way.

A version of this article appeared in the May/June 2017 issue of Skeptical Inquirer magazine.

Humans are not robots. A deficit in science literacy is not why political leaders and the public disagree over climate change, vaccines, or government funding. By fundamentally misdiagnosing the causes of political conflict today, March for Science advocates may be undermining their own cause. Numerous studies show it is often the best educated and most scientifically literate who are prone to biased reasoning and false beliefs about contentious science issues. The reason for this surprising paradox is that individuals with higher science literacy tend to be more adept at recognizing arguments congenial to their partisan identity, are more attuned to what others like them think, are more likely to react to these cues in ideologically consistent ways, and tend to be more personally skilled at offering arguments to support their preexisting positions (National Academies 2017; Nisbet 2016).

For example, studies find that better educated conservatives who score higher on measures of basic science literacy are more likely to doubt the human causes of climate change. Their beliefs about climate science conform to their sense that actions to address climate change would mean more government regulation, which conservatives tend to oppose (Kahan 2015). Similarly, better educated liberals engage in biased processing of expert advice when forming opinions about the risks of natural gas fracking, genetically modified food, and nuclear energy. In this case, liberal fears are rooted in a generalized suspicion of technologies identified with large corporations (Nisbet et al. 2015).

The same relationship holds in relation to support for government funding of science. Liberals and conservatives who score low on science literacy tend to hold equivalent levels of support for science funding. But analysis shows that as science literacy increases, conservatives grow more opposed to funding while liberals grow more supportive, a shift in line with their differing beliefs about the role of government in society (Gauchat 2015).In sum, our beliefs about contentious science issues reflect who we are socially and politically. The better educated and more literate we are, the more adept we are at recognizing the connection between a political issue and our group identity and interests (Kahan 2015).

Similar factors influence policy decisions. As the late sociologist Dorothy Nelkin (1978) observed nearly forty years ago, political disputes such as those over climate change, vaccination, and scientific funding are fundamentally controversies over political control: Who gets to decide the priority that these issues should take over others, or the actions and costs taken to address problems? Which values, interpretations, groups, and worldviews matter and which should be given greatest weight?

For these reasons, much of the rationale behind the March for Science is not only off target, but the event itself and similar future activities may only intensify political deadlock rather than overcome it.

Staying credible

Although the March for Science was framed as nonpartisan, the messaging leading up to and during the event was anything but helpful. Early on, reflecting contemporary debates on college campuses, organizers were besieged by concerns over issues related to inclusion and identity. Some criticized the organizers for not paying enough attention to these topics, which prompted the posting online of a diversity statement. In response, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker tweeted: “Scientists’ March on Washington plan compromises its goals with anti-science PC/identity politics/hard-left rhetoric” (Sheridan and Facher 2017).

Twitter remained a source of controversy for organizers. A few days before the event, the official March for Science account declared that the U.S. bombing of an ISIS compound in Afghanistan was an example of how “science is weaponized against marginalized people.” The Tweet was later deleted, earning ridicule from right-wing bloggers (Kelly 2017).

On the day of the march, across cities, some participants donned pink “brain caps,” a reference to the pink “pussy caps” worn at the January 2017 Women’s March. In a similar tribute, T-shirts and signs declared “Keep your tiny hands off my science.” Many signs played on the official Hillary Clinton campaign theme “I’m with her,” with an arrow pointing to planet Earth instead. Some signs mocked Trump by employing allusions to science, referencing him as an “absolute zero” and “black hole.” Other cheeky slogans included “Less invasions, more equations,” and “I’ve seen smarter cabinets at IKEA” (Politi 2017).

In these cases, the March for Science constitutes a potentially hazardous misfire. By choosing public protest as a main strategy, and by voicing messages that have an obvious partisan and ideological slant, the March for Science made it that much easier for Americans to lean on their group identities in forming opinions about contentious issues.

A much discussed recent study published in Environmental Communi­cation, a journal where I serve as editor-in-chief, suggests that scientists may have more discretion to advocate on behalf of policy positions than they assumed, without hurting their credibility (Kotcher et al. 2017). Yet the preliminary study did not test what happens to the perceived credibility of scientists when those policy positions are argued in the context of clear partisan messages communicated by way of protests such as the March for Science.

Since the 1970s, public confidence in almost every major institution has plummeted. Yet confidence in the leadership of the scientific community has remained strong (Funk and Kennedy 2017). As a consequence, scientists in society today enjoy almost unrivaled communication capital. The challenge they face following the March for Science is how to use this capital wisely and effectively.


Nisbet, M.C. (2017, July/August). The March for Science: Partisan Protests Put at Risk Public Trust in Scientists. Skeptical Inquirer Magazine. 


  • Funk, C., and B. Kennedy. 2017. Public confidence in scientists has remained stable for decades. Pew Research Center (April 6).
  • Gauchat, G. 2015. The political context of science in the United States: Public acceptance of evidence-based policy and science funding. Social Forces 2: 723–746.
  • Gibson, C. 2017. The March for Science was a moment made for Nye. The Washington Post (April 23).
  • Kahan, D. 2015. Climate science communication and the measurement problem. Political Psychology 36(S1): 1–43.
  • Kelly, J. 2017. March for science: Sympathy for our Enemies. National Review (April 1).
  • Kotcher, J.E., T.A. Myers, E.K. Vraga, et al. 2017. Does engagement in advocacy hurt the credibility of scientists? Results from a randomized national survey experiment. Environmental Communication 11(3): 415–429.
  • National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine. 2017. Communicating Sci­ence Effectively: A Research Agenda. Wash­ington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  • Nelkin, D. 1978. Controversy: Politics of Technical Decisions. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publicans.
  • Nisbet, M.C. 2016. The science literacy paradox: Why really smart people often have the most biased opinions. Skeptical Inquirer 40(5): 21–23.
  • Nisbet, E.C., K.E. Cooper, and R.K. Garrett. 2015. The partisan brain: How dissonant science messages lead conservatives and liberals to (dis) trust science. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 658(1): 36–66.
  • Politi, D. 2017. Here are some of the best signs from the March for Science. (April 22).
  • Ropeik, D. 2017. Why the March for Science failed as demonstrated by its own protest signs. (April 24).
  • Sheridan, K., and L. Facher. 2017. Science march on Washington, billed as historic, plagued by organizational turmoil. (March 22).