Science! Today’s Pew Study

In today’s Science! news, a new study “Public and Scientists’ Views on Science and Society” came out, showing, I suppose, just how ignorant and stupid we unwashed masses are, compared to the scientist members of the AAAS.

Now, the report is pages long and includes a bunch of charts and graphs, and then has as an appendix – and HUGE kudos for this! – the actual questions asked and responses given.

Why this is so important: Pew is giving us (most of) what we need to judge what, if anything, their survey tells us. I cannot stress enough how good it is of them to do this, nor how freaking unusual it is – usually, all you get is some press relation droid’s pre-digested version of what went on. Pew seems to trust their methodology and results enough to open the kimono. (A bit. Not quite enough, but good first step.)

However, the total number of pages to plow through is approaching 50, so I’ll have to take a look at this later and give a more detailed response. For now, the questions that popped first into my mind were: what, exactly, were the questions asked, and who, exactly, were the people asked?

We can actually answer that from the study and the questions! Let’s focus on the second one. Here goes:

Scientists SurveyedTwo groups of people were interviewed: Non-scientists with phones – the public –  and members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) – scientists. We’ll focus on the scientists. Now look at the chart to the right:

What you’ll notice is that the biggest single block here is related to medicine: 50% listed “Bio/Medical Science” as their field. Only 38% listed a hard science, math or engineering as their fields. Most concerning is that 13% listed “other” or soft- or pseudo-sciences as their fields: “Social, History, Policy”.

Aside: A plain old MD is no more a scientist than a race car driver is a mechanical engineer. His job is to take care of people by applying technologies other people invented – as admirable and necessary as that is, it doesn’t make one a scientist. So, how many of these guys are real research MDs? Inquiring minds want to know.

First observation: classifying all these people homogeneously as “Scientists” strains credulity. Certainly, I would not expect an MD and a astrophysicist to have the same understanding of any particular issue in science, let alone having the same understanding as a “policy” or “social” “scientist”. At the very least, the results should be broken down by specialty, so that we can see the views of the most qualified scientists – I’d want the Bio/Med guys to tell me about, say, the state of cancer research, but would not care too much about their opinions on, say, global warming.

And so on. Maybe this information is buried in there, someplace. I’ll check it out. [Oops Update: I missed that 35% of those surveyed are age 65+. So never mind the speculation about the 25% unemployed being students – I’ll leave it up as a reminder to myself to read more carefully and a cautionary tale to both my regular readers not to take my views on faith – as if there’s any chance of that!] On a minor note, also notice that 25% of these scientists are unemployed. The most generous interpretation is that they are students – meaning, I suppose, that they are not, strictly speaking, scientists – yet. (This is assuming we count post docs as having a job – I certainly would.) But there they are, representing a quarter of the respondents. Do we really think students, or professional scientists who can’t get a job (see: government funding advocacy issue below) should be included in a study of scientists in general?

Next, take a look at this:

AAAS Application

Here is how you get to be a member of the AAAS. First question: were the scientist selected on the basis of something other than membership in the AAAS? I would certainly hope so, since *anybody* willing to pony up the cash can be a member.

Next, the AAAS isn’t just a mutual admiration society – it’s an advocacy group. So the people in it are not just there to give or get pats on the back – there’s cash involved. That’s why (I peeked ahead) there is a section of questions on the necessity and desirability of government funding for science. Sooo – again, are we really talking representative scientist, here, or is our sample biased towards scientists who are willing to support efforts to keep the government gravy train flowing?

Enough for now. Again, I applaud the inclusion of enough detail to give an educated amateur like myself a fair shot at interpreting the study for myself – such is shockingly rare for these sorts of sociological survey studies, at least insofar as they make it into the press. No survey style study should dare raise its head in public without at least this level of detail.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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