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Our growing disagreement with science

Talk to anyone concerned about American education, and the discussion will soon turn to the need for stronger emphasis on what are referred to as STEM courses: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. America's position as a world leader in technology is threatened, the conventional wisdom holds, because too few American students are pursuing careers in those fields.

That's certainly cause for concern. But what is even more troubling is the apparent lack of understanding — or willingness to understand — of even the most basic science among many Americans, and a growing distrust of scientific conclusions reached after decades of research and experimentation.

The result is widespread disagreement between scientists and the public at large over a wide range of public issues. A story in Friday's Mail Tribune highlighted the divide.

The Pew Research Center surveyed matching groups of scientists and the general public. On eight of 13 science-related issues, the divergence of opinions between the two groups was 20 percentage points or more.

Those issues included whether it is safe to eat genetically modified organisms — 88 percent of scientists said yes, 57 percent of the public said no. On climate change, 87 percent of scientists said global warming is human-caused, 50 percent of the public did. On evolution, 98 percent of scientists said humans evolved over time, while 65 percent of the public agreed.

There was a time when science and scientists were held in high esteem — when developing the polio vaccine and sending humans to the moon were celebrated achievements. Now, otherwise educated adults question the need for vaccines and criticize space exploration as a waste of money.

A striking finding of the Pew surveys was that political leanings did not explain the disagreement between scientists and the public. Those on the right deny evolution and climate change; those on the left distrust GMOs and vaccinations. The common denominator, to use a mathematical term, is people's increasing ability to dismiss scientific data in favor of their own preconceived notions of what is true.

A contributing factor may be the explosion of information — and misinformation — available on the Internet. Pick any unscientific belief, and there are dozens, even hundreds, of websites that will reinforce it.

So it's easy to find support for your own belief system, whether it's that GMOs are harmful or climate change is a hoax. We look down our noses at others who ignore science in order to make the facts fit their viewpoints. Maybe we all should instead look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we're doing the same thing.