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Poll: Scientists and public differ on what’s ‘dangerous’

A new study conducted by the Pew Research Center found a large gap between what the public believes is dangerous and what scientists believe. Pew's Lee Rainie joins William Brangham from Washington with more.

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    A new study conducted by the Pew Research Center found a large gap between what the public believes is dangerous and what scientists believe.

    For more about this, we are joined now from Washington by Lee Rainie. He is the organization's director of Internet, science and technology research.

    Your survey showed some really dramatic gaps between what the general public and scientists believe about things like climate change and vaccines and scientific research.

    Let's talk about some of those gaps, specifically about the foods that we eat.

    You posed the statement that it's — quote — "safe to eat genetically modified foods, or GMOs."

    Thirty-seven percent of the general public says it's safe, whereas 88 percent of scientists said it was.

    On the statement — quote — "It's safe to eat foods grown with pesticides," 28 percent of the public agreed those foods are safe, while 68 percent of scientists said they were.

    How do you explain that — that seeming chasm there?

    LEE RAINIE, Director of Internet, Science and Technology Research, Pew Research Center: One of the striking things that has happened in our culture in the past couple of years is that food, food politics, food policy, food as just a part of social life, has been much more elevated.

    And I think people are perhaps more tuned in to sort of food issues now in a way that they weren't before.

    But it also makes them more sensitive about food issues.

    And so they're skeptical about the safety of genetically modified food.

    They're also not sure that scientists are aware of all the safety dangers that are connected with it.

    On the pesticides question, it was much more a case of people just being wary of things that are going into their bodies and a little less sure that the food they are eating might be as safe as scientists think it is.


    Let's talk about one of the survey questions you asked about the growing population of people on Earth.

    You posed the statement that — quote — "The growing population will be a major problem."

    Fifty-nine percent of the general population felt it will be a problem, while 82 percent of scientists said it would be.

    Some of our viewers might remember Paul Ehrlich back in the late '60s wrote "The Population Bomb," raising concerns about the growing population on Earth.

    Since that time, our population has doubled, and yet it seems that the general population doesn't seem to see this as an issue.


    I think that people are a little less concerned, in part because they — since the time of Ehrlich's book, even since the time a couple of centuries ago that Thomas Malthus was writing about these issues, we have seen large growth in the population, and yet the amount of cataclysm that you might connect with population growth, like famine and things like that, hasn't seemed to be on the rise.

    The other thing that might be going on, from the scientists' perspective here, is that they are worried about what they call wicked problems.

    They see issues like climate change and global warming. And they worry that some of the human contribution to that is making a big problem.

    And yet the public isn't nearly as close to where scientists are on the solution to global warming.


    You asked a question about the value of animal testing. And you said, do you favor the use of animals in research?

    Forty-seven percent of the general public favored it, but 89 percent of scientists approved of it.

    What do you make of that gap?


    I think there's a real values clash that's going on here.

    Women are much less likely than men, for instance, to believe that animals should be involved in scientific research.

    In addition, the people who have higher education degrees, they have a college degree or a graduate degree, are much more likely to support the scientific community in its use of animals and research than people who have a high school diploma.

    So, there are a variety of factors there that sort of tie the people's values, as well as their knowledge about what is going on.


    Lee Rainie from the Pew Research Center, thank you very much for joining us.


    Thanks, William.

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