Science Playing Limited Role in Stem Cell Debate

A story begins by suggesting that, when forming attitudes about embryonic stem cell research, people are influenced by a number of things. But understanding science plays a negligible role for many people.

“More knowledge is good - everybody is on the same page about that. But will that knowledge necessarily help build support for the science?” says Dietram Scheufele. “The data show that no, it doesn’t. It does for some groups, but definitely not for others.”

Along with Dominique Brossard and Shirley Ho, Scheufele used national public opinion research to analyze how public attitudes are formed about controversial scientific issues such as nanotechnology and stem cells. What they have found again and again is that knowledge is much less important than other factors, such as religious values or deference to scientific authority.

“Highly religious audiences are different from less religious audiences. They are looking for different things, bringing different things to the table,” explains Scheufele. “It is not about providing religious audiences with more scientific information. In fact, many of them are already highly informed about stem cell research, so more information makes little difference in terms of influencing public support. And that’s not good or bad. That’s just what the data show.”

On the other hand, a value system held by a much smaller portion of the American public works in just the opposite direction. The attitudes of individuals who are deferential to science - who tend to trust scientists and their work - are influenced by their level of scientific understanding.

This theme is similar in some ways to what The Ocean Project has found in the past on ocean public opinion research. Knowledge does not automatically equal changes in attitudes and behaviors/nor support for one's cause, clearly.

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