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Public opinion on biomedical research: The interplay of partisanship and beliefs about science

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Depending on the subject, political leaders, the scientific community and the public at large can be in sync or at loggerheads — and sometimes both. In an analysis of nearly 12,000 peer-reviewed studies on climate change, more than 97% of those that took a position found that humans were driving global warming. Yet public opinion on the question remains mixed, often driven by political polarization. Research has shown that science has become increasingly driven by politics in the United States: In 1974, conservatives showed the highest level of trust in science of any ideological group, but this trust fell steadily the next quarter-century, and by 2010 was the lowest of all political groups.

Teasing out the sources of such shifts and splits is challenging. A 2013 study in Public Opinion Quarterly found that interest groups can have very different attitudes from the public at large, and that if policymakers are guided by those groups, they “might actually come down on the wrong side of an issue in most cases.” Research in Psychological Science measured subjects’ opinions on a range of issues — including Social Security, taxes and carbon cap-and-trade — and found that simply asking them to explain complex systems causes them to moderate extreme positions.

Political scientist Dietram A. Scheufele has explored the role of “framing” in how the public understands and reacts to scientific issues, be it in the media, Congress or online comment threads — one person’s “rescue package” is another’s “bailout”; one side talks about “gun control” while another prefers “gun safety”; abortion activists dutifully line up in “pro-life” or “anti-choice” camps. A 2012 metastudy showed that such mental models can perpetuate misinformation, even when it’s corrected. The theory of “cultural cognition,” explored by Yale’s Daniel Kahan, suggests that individuals will interpret evidence, no matter how well supported by science, in ways that reinforce their connections to those with whom they share a worldview.

A 2014 study published in PLoS ONE, Understanding Public Opinion in Debates over Biomedical Research: Looking beyond Political Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society,” looks specifically at Americans’ support for embryonic stem cell research and the relative influence of political partisanship and individuals’ core attitudes toward science. The scholars — Matthew Nisbet of American University and Ezra M. Markowitz of Columbia University —  base their work on a nationally representative survey of 8,105 people collected between 2002 and 2010. Factors analyzed included respondents’ partisan identity, race, religion, self-rated scientific knowledge and attitude toward abortion.

The study found that respondents tended to fall in one of four broad groups:

  • “Scientific optimists” made up 35.9% of the respondents. They had the highest levels of education and income and believed “strongly in the link between science and social progress.” While trending slightly Democratic, their partisan identity is almost perfectly split between the left and right. Overall they were the most moderate in their political outlook and almost all supported abortion rights. Of this group, 74% either favored or strongly favored embryonic stem cell research.
  • Individuals described as “scientific pessimists” constituted 23.3% of those surveyed. They tended to be less educated and have lower incomes than “scientific optimists”; they tended to be more female and from minority backgrounds. They too were split along party lines, but were often ideologically moderate or conservative. They “have reservations about the moral boundaries that might be crossed by scientists and are more likely to oppose advances in biomedical research.” Only 40% favor stem-cell research.
  • About a quarter of those surveyed (24.6%) were considered “conflicted.” Their backgrounds were similar to pessimists, but they tended to be older than other groups. “Though they are ambivalent about the impacts of science on society, they appear open to accepting the arguments of scientists and advocates who emphasize the benefits of research.”
  • Finally, the “disengaged” appear to lack a clearly formed understanding of the impacts of science and technology on society. They were found to be most susceptible to partisan cues when forming, holding or changing opinions on scientific issues.

Overall, political partisanship affected respondents’ opinions on stem-cell research, but other factors played key roles.

  • Attitudes toward embryonic stem cell research were most influenced by individuals’ core beliefs about science and society. Its effect outweighed factors such as partisanship, political ideology, religion and an individual’s views on abortion. As opposed to simplistic partisan divides, core beliefs about science and society are “likely to be more stable over time, less volatile, and have greater predictive power in assessing public opinion and in pro-actively addressing sources of contention or controversy.”
  • Generalized attitudes toward science and society can be activated in specific ways through the framing of issues by the media, public-policy elites and an individual’s community. This suggests that “profiling and segmenting the public in more precise and valid ways than partisanship and ideology will allow these institutions to tailor and make more effective their communication activities. These activities should include contextualizing information in a manner that is personally relevant and understandable.”
  • The influence of political partisanship was strongest among those with higher education levels. “In an era of extreme polarization, this finding is reflective of the heavy investment across issues by U.S. political leaders and activists in making sure that the public is aware of the diverging policy positions of the two major political parties and their candidates…. Better-educated Democrats and Republicans, who are typically more attuned to these message strategies, over time tend to align their own opinions accordingly.”
  • Among those considered “scientific pessimists” — nearly 25% of U.S. adults — the best educated are likely to be the most opposed to biomedical research and most receptive to partisan opponents of such research. Consequently, outreach efforts “need to draw upon audience research in designing initiatives that directly address the nature of these moral and ethical concerns and in doing so partner with opinion-leaders who are trusted by this segment and others.”
  • While there are strong reservations internationally to private companies conducting embryonic stem cell research, “it is likely that when these issues become the subject of news attention and political debate [in the United States], reservations about privatization and control are likely to transcend partisan differences.”

“The findings from our principle components analysis indicate that unique segments of the public differ substantially in how they perceive the social implications of science and technology and that these groups are not easily defined by their political partisanship,” the authors conclude.

Keywords: ethics, biotechnology, technology, science, cognition, @leightonwalter, @journoresource

    Writer: | Last updated: February 21, 2014

    Citation: Nisbet, Matthew; Markowitz, Ezra M. "Understanding Public Opinion in Debates over Biomedical Research: Looking beyond Political Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society," PLoS ONE, February 2014. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088473.

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    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "Cloning Is Used to Create Embryonic Stem Cells."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues?

    Read the full study titled Understanding Public Opinion in Debates over Biomedical Research: Looking beyond Political Partisanship to Focus on Beliefs about Science and Society.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?