Why Don’t Scientists and The General Public Agree ?


Fig 1.                                                        Study From Pew Research Center     (Click on Image for Website)

Perceived risk is defined as a subjective judgement about the amount of risk associated with a decision. When our brains make a choice between two or more options it assigns values to each of the options and weighs these values to make a choice. In a decision where there is risk involved the value the brain is calculating is the amount of risk associated with each option. This calculation of risk is known as risk perception.  When the potential consequences of a choice are great people tend to be averse to risk when the potential consequence is personal gain. For example if someone is gambling and they have already won a substantial amount of money, say $1000 and they have the option to double their winnings by betting all of their money on the outcome of a dice roll they will likely not bet on the dice. When the consequence is personal loss people actually seek out risk. If our gambler from earlier had lost $1000 already and he had the opportunity to win all of his money back by rolling the dice and the consequence of losing was another $500 of losses then he would likely roll the dice. When the risk level is high people become more emotionally and physically involved in the decision. The number one factor that affects the level of risk perceived is the amount of information we have about the situation at our disposal.

Cros National climate

Fig 2.                                                                  Study of 47 countries by Pew Research Center

Not only does this principle apply to the avid gambler but to any decision we make where risk is involved; from buying new carpet to stealing a car. Risk perception is also involved how concerned we are about controversial issues facing society like climate change and the use of genetically modified crops. In a study by Pew Research Center (Fig 1.) if was found that there is a huge disparity between the opinions of scientists and the general public on whether or not climate change is caused by human activity. This difference is due to the difference in the way the scientists and the general public perceive risk. In this case the amount of knowledge about climate change between these two groups is quite different. Scientists are much more aware of the situation and have made their decision based on the overwhelming amount of evidence that humans are causing this change. The general public has much less information about climate change and the information they do have is from the media. Most of them know what the potential consequences of climate change but then why do a large number of them disagree with scientists. The answer has more to do with their lifestyle than what they hear on CNN. The way we live in america is the primary cause of climate change. Its this lifestyle that people do not want to give up. It is this wish to continue living this way that changes the risk perception of the general public. Their options are, either admit that their lifestyle is the cause and make changes to reduce their carbon footprint, or ignore the facts and continue living the same way. Therefore it is not the risk of sea level rise and mass extinction that affect their choice but rather the risk of a reduced quality of life associated with fixing the problem. Furthermore in other countries where the affects of climate change are already forcing people out of their homes there is much more concern for climate change as shown by a survey of 47 countries (fig 2). Unlike us in the states people in countries like Bangladesh have a front row view of the devastation and therefore are very concerned.

In the Pew study (Fig 1.) there is and even larger difference between the opinions of the general public and scientists on the safeness of Genetically Modified Crops. There is a whopping 51% point gap between the two groups. As before the biggest difference between the groups is the amount of information at their disposal. Scientist have a much better understanding of how plants are modified and the risks associated with these techniques. A biology professor from fort lewis college stated “There isn’t scientific evidence that GMOs are harmful to human health. On the other hand, there is evidence that some genetic modifications are harmful to the environment and to ecosystems. For example, Round-Up resistant crops (soybeans, corn…) may have shared pollen with their weedy relatives, making some crop weeds resistant to the herbicide as well, which then leads to farmers needing to apply more, new, stronger herbicides to their crops to fight weeds.” The opinions of most scientists is that since there is no scientific evidence that suggests the crops aren’t safe, there is no issue in using them as food. The general public on the other hand is very concerned about the safety of these foods because of their lack of knowledge about them. We don’t actually know what the long term affects of GMOs on the human body are and this lack of information is incredibly unsettling. The fact that GMOs are in almost everything you purchase at the grocery store makes them seem even more threatening. The risk the public perceives about GM crops is quite large, this risk is what had made so many people concerned about their use.