The Scientifically Unengaged Drive Biotechnology Debates

This article was originally posted on RealClearScience.

A lot of ink has been spilled over who is responsible for the pervasive anti-scientific and technophobic attitudes held by the public. Conservatives blame liberals, liberals blame conservatives, and atheists blame anybody who believes in God. But a new review by Australian researchers Craig Cormick and Lygia Romanach in Trends in Biotechnology suggests the possibility of a completely different, and even counterintuitive, answer: The scientifically disinterested.

The authors first reported on a previous study on climate change that segmented the population into various groups, such as “Alarmed,” “Cautious,” and “Dismissive.” When classified like this, people’s beliefs on climate policy were much easier to understand, suggesting that the media’s hyperpartisan tendency to label all conservatives or liberals as climate “deniers” or “alarmists,” respectively, is rather missing the point. People differ in their attitudes toward science itself, and gaining a better understanding of those population segments is vital for scientific outreach.

The authors then turned their attention to biotechnology. The study they reported on had segmented the population into four groups, based on their answers to a survey on values:

(1) Concerned and disengaged
(2) Risk averse
(3) Cautiously keen
(4) Science fans

Six of the values questions asked showed striking differences between the groups:

As shown above, the group labeled “concerned and disengaged” was the most likely to be concerned about new technology, believe that science causes more problems than it solves, believe that humans should not tamper with nature, feel that technology advances too quickly for them to understand, and believe that humans depend too much on science and not enough on faith.

The authors conclude that the best approach to scientific outreach would be to tailor messages that resonate within these segments. For example, a person who is risk averse may be receptive to a message in which regulation was stressed.

Perhaps because they wanted to be polite (or perhaps because they disagree), the authors do not draw what seems to be an obvious conclusion: People who are disengaged from science probably know very little about it, which means that some of the people who are most loudly opposed to technological advances (e.g., GMOs) are probably scientifically illiterate.

That leads to one more unsettling conclusion: We are allowing our national science policy debates to be partially dominated by people who know almost nothing about science. And who dominates the rest of the debate? As Dr. Cormick indicated in an e-mail to RealClearScience, those who know a lot about GMOs, but intentionally mislead those who do not.

That’s quite a disadvantage for the scientific experts.

Source: Craig Cormick and Lygia Malzoni Romanach. “Segmentation studies provide insights to better understanding attitudes towards science and technology.” Trends in Biotechnology 32 (3): 114-6 (2014). doi:10.1016/j.tibtech.2013.12.005