Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

Last week, I wrote a short post on how someone’s combined views on climate change, nuclear safety and GMOs are a good indicator of their scientific temper and ideological biases. Subsequently, my colleague and fellow blogger Karthik Shashidhar ran a short online survey on the same three questions to solicit responses. Survey participants were given five choices ranging from strongly agree to strongly disagree.

Karthik has analysed the survey results on the RQ blog that I would urge all readers to check out.

Firstly, we will look at the individual responses to each of the three questions:

…this shows that opinion in favour of global warming is fairly strong.

While a majority of the people believe that health risks from nuclear power have been exaggerated, the opinion is not as overwhelming as it is on the global warming front. There still exist a significant number of doubters of safety of nuclear energy.

When it comes to GM crops, however, public opinion is largely divided. As many people agree that GM crops are safe, as do people who believe they are unsafe. [RQ on INI]

The survey was designed to be quick and dirty – participants were largely those who found the survey on Twitter and Facebook and essentially selected themselves into entering the survey. Ergo, there are no claims made here that these responses are representative of any ‘universal’ population.

Taking a venn-diagram approach to analysing the survey responses, I was able to generate the chart below. I divided the 5 options for each questions into two categories: neutral or disagree, versus agree or strongly agree. Therefore, all those who have either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement that 20th century climate change is anthropogenic come under the orange coloured ellipse, and all those who haven’t come outside of it. Note that the ellipses in the venn diagram have been drawn in proportion to the number of respondents who fall under that category.

Scientific Temper

The largest set of respondents (29 percent) are those who, according to my metrics, can be classified as “left wing”, those only agreeing to the climate change question while disagreeing with nuclear or GMO safety. The second largest (23 percent) is a curious set: they do not think that GMOs are safe, but agree both on nuclear safety and climate change. Without commenting on ideological biases, it is possible to look at this set as a people who are “climate change realists” – people who understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence.

Some 19 percent of the respondents are those I would consider as being most sensitive to scientific evidence, but readers can feel free to disagree with me on that. About 10 percent of the respondents are classically right wing – the notion that ‘most environmental fears are overblown’ can explain their stance on all three questions.

About 9% agree that climate change is anthropogenic and that GMOs are safe – but are not convinced about nuclear safety. They form a subset that I find rather curious. In a sense, there is indeed a connection between the two topics. GMOs form an essential tool in retaining and improving agricultural productivity in the face of climate change and uncertainty – not just in creating drought and flood-resistant varieties, but also in converting C3 plants into C4 plants, the latter of which are far superior at tolerating high temperatures and making use of increased carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere. It is difficult to comment, however, that  this knowledge indeed informs their opinions.

The initial hypothesis was that asking for opinions on anthropogenic climate change, nuclear safety and GMO safety would broadly give us three categories of respondents: left wing, right wing and those “biased to evidence”. When tested, it gave us four or five major categories of people, including those who disagree only with nuclear safety, or only with GMO safety.

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5 Responses to Surveying Opinions on Scientific Issues

  1. Amogh August 5, 2013 at 6:17 PM #

    Excellent article. However, on your inference about 19% people being the most scientifically biased : in the context of GM crops, there is a plethora of scientific research which says the GM crops cannot be “conclusively” termed as safe. Hence, unless there is a wider consensus in the scientific community, can we really call the GM crop supporters as scientifically inclined in the absolute sense?

    • Pavan Srinath August 5, 2013 at 6:44 PM #

      Thanks Amogh. I disagree though, but first I’ll rephrase your statement before agreeing with it. There is little evidence that GM foods are dangerous, which has stood the test of scientific/peer review. I’ll point to the recent statement by the AAAS Board of Directors: http://www.aaas.org/news/releases/2012/1025gm_statement.shtml

      and several writings by Mark Lynas that carefully critiques the ‘science by press release’ work in France and elsewhere that tried to scare people about health risks from GM foods using dodgy data: http://www.marklynas.org/genetic-engineering/

      And obviously, all new GM crops are (and should be) extensively field tested before introduction for general use.

  2. Nandita Jayaraj (@nandita_j) August 7, 2013 at 6:23 PM #

    Hi Pavan,

    Fascinating study. I really think you should try to expand on it. But I have one concern. Tell me if I’m making sense.

    It sounds like you’ve assumed that people who think “GMO foods are unsafe” and “NP is unsafe” are more-or-less anti-science, right? But what if they answered so only because they do not trust the government/companies to be responsible enough to, for example, regulate labelling on GMO products (or to avoid incidents like the recent Monsanto mystery GM-wheat leak in Oregon), and not make a mess and mockery out of everyone and themselves like in Kudankulam. That doesn’t necessarily make them anti-science, does it?

    Maybe you should stress a little more to the respondents that you are only talking about whether they support the science. There may be a significant number of people who DO understand that we do not have the option to burn dirty fossil fuels endlessly, and that nuclear power has a role to play in reducing our fossil fuel dependence, but answer “no” to “Do you think NP is safe” because of their distrust of corporates/govt.

    Not sure if I’m articulating my concerns well. If there’s some gap in my understanding do let me know.

    Nandita

    • Pavan Srinath August 7, 2013 at 6:33 PM #

      Thanks Nandita. You raise a valid point.

      I still think that combined opinions on these three topics are an excellent, quick method to gauge someone’s scientific temper. Intuitively, it feels like something that has a low type I error, but like you say, there can be several non-science reasons that can result in a significant type II error.

      The questions were kept as neutral as possible (although a word or two could’ve been skipped) – and just to keep it simple, there were no follow-ups. But like I mentioned on twitter, what may add a lot of value beyond this, is the qualitative probing of individuals belonging to each of the subsets.