Tag Archives | scientific reasoning

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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Bias to scientific reason

Issues of scientific complexity occupy a lot of space in public affairs – be it the extraction of shale gas, the effectiveness of alternative medicine or the alleged dangers from cell phone tower radiation. A strong position on many of these issues is often tied to a political ideology rather than a deference to scientific reasoning and evidence.

So what is the easiest way to figure out if someone defers to scientific reason above and beyond ideologies?

I say that you can do it by understanding their positions on three cardinal topics of today: anthropogenic climate change, the safety of nuclear power generation, and the safety of genetically modified foods. Broadly, people leaning towards the left of the political spectrum agree only with the first, and those leaning right agree only with the last two – be it with evidence or not. Ascertaining people’s views on all three is a good barometer of their deference to scientific evidence.

It is important, however, to note the core arguments that define these issues:

The core argument in climate change is that the earth’s surface warmed significantly in the 20th century due to human-linked emissions of greenhouse gases.

The argument with nuclear safety is that health risks from nuclear power generation, both chronic and acute, have been grossly exaggerated and that due to an obsession with nuclear safety for the past 6 decades, nuclear power is now safer than most other sources of energy.

The argument with genetically modified crops is that they are just as safe as other crops, both for growing and for consumption. Additionally, crop modification through targeted molecular biology techniques is in fact less genetically invasive than conventional hybridisation techniques.

All three arguments have overwhelming scientific evidence on their side, and the nature of the scientific debate is very different from the public and political discussions regarding the same.

Together, anyone’s views on all three topics – nuclear safety, GMOs and climate change – can be very illuminating. The discussion is moot, however, if people start questioning evolution.

Addendum. Subsequent to this post, we ran a short survey of opinions on these three issues and analysed the results.

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