What motivates public opinion? The answers aren’t always clear

There aren’t always clear-cut reasons for why scientists and the general public don’t always see eye-to-eye on things like climate change or the safety of childhood vaccines and genetically modified foods, new research suggests.

A report out today from the Pew Research Center explored what motivates public opinion on hot-button policy issues, including whether or not more offshore drilling should be permitted, more government-funded scientific research is beneficial, and if space exploration has been a good idea.

Researchers studied responses from more than 2,000 U.S. adults, as well as a companion survey of members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In their analysis of the general public, Pew researchers wanted to know if age, political ideology, race, gender, religion, education or knowledge of science influenced these opinions.

The answer was there’s no silver bullet, said Lee Rainie, director of Internet, science and technology research at the Pew Research Center.

“There’s a very natural instinct among consumers of reports like this to try to find a single causal explanation to find out why people think the way they do. This data makes it crystal clear that there isn’t a single cause for what’s going on,” Rainie said.

While the study found links between a person’s political views and their opinion about climate change and energy policies, other policy areas are less easy to determine. When it comes to food safety or space research, there aren’t easy answers for what motivates public opinion, the study says.

For example, when it comes to food safety or space research, there aren’t easy answers for what motivates public opinion, the study says.

And regardless of whether or not they understand the science at work, a majority of Americans think that public opinion is important in how policy and science should interact.

Six out of 10 U.S. adults think that public opinion should dictate the direction of public policy when it is applied to science. That includes regulation of carbon emissions to address climate change, genetically modified foods to enhance food supplies and vaccination to improve public health. However, more than one-third of Americans disagree, saying that some scientific issues may be “too complex for the average person to understand,” the report says.

The report builds on a January study from the Pew Research Center that highlighted wide opinion gaps between scientists and the general public on a variety of issues.