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The New York Times

Survey Shows Gap Between Scientists and the Public

Cornelia Dean

Danish glacier expert Andreas Peter Ahlstroem stands in front of the Ilulissat glacier, some 7/10 kilometers away on July 3, 2009. Greenland's Ilulissat glacier, which has become a symbol of climate change, lost 94 square kilometres (60 square miles) of surface area between 2001 and 2005 due to global warming, according to a US study published last year. According to a recent survey, almost all scientists believe that humans are behind climate change, while only about half of the public agree.(AFP/File/Slim Allagui)

When it comes to climate change, the teaching of evolution and the state of the nation's research enterprise, there is a large gap between what scientists think and the views of ordinary Americans, a new survey has found.

On the whole, scientists believe American research leads the world. But only 17 percent of the public agrees, and the proportion who name scientific advances as among the United States' most important achievements has fallen to 27 percent from nearly 50 percent in 1999, the survey found.

And while almost all of the scientists surveyed accept that human beings evolved by natural processes and that human activity, chiefly the burning of fossil fuels, is causing global warming, general public is far less sure.

Almost a third of ordinary Americans say human beings have existed in their current form since the beginning of time, a view held by only 2 percent of the scientists. Only about half of the public agrees that people are behind climate change, and 11 percent does not believe there is any warming at all.

According to the survey, about a third of Americans think there is lively scientific debate on both topics; in fact, there is no credible scientific challenge to the theory of evolution and there is little doubt that human activity is altering the chemistry of the atmosphere in ways that threaten global climate.

The survey, by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world's largest scientific organization, involved about 2,000 members of the public and 2,500 scientists drawn from the rolls of the science advancement association, which includes teachers, administrators and others involved in science as well as researchers.

The survey, made public Thursday, is available at

It found that at least two-thirds of Americans hold scientists and engineers in high regard, but the feeling is hardly mutual.

The report said 85 percent of science association members surveyed said public ignorance of science was a major problem. And by large margins they deride as only "fair" or "poor" the coverage of science by newspapers and television.

Only 3 percent of the scientists said they "often" spoke to reporters.

In a telephone news conference announcing the survey, Alan I. Leshner, chief executive of the science association, said scientists must find new ways to engage with the public.

"One cannot just exhort ‘we all agree you should agree with us,' " Mr. Leshner said. "It's a much more interactive process that's involved. It's time consuming and can be tedious. But it's very important."


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