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SciTech Science Can't Bridge Cultural Divides

Jan 6, 2005
Metro-Vancouver, B.C., Canada
Science can't bridge cultural divides, poll suggests

By Margaret Munro, Postmedia News - September 22, 2010 5:02 PM

Science is said to be an international language, but a survey has turned up striking cultural divides on hot button scientific issues.

Americans are far more pro-nuclear and willing to trust flu experts than Europeans, and much less concerned about genetically modified crops, according to a survey by Scientific American and the journal Nature.

But the most notable difference was between East Asia and the rest of the world. The survey found 35 per cent of Japanese and 49 per cent of Chinese respondents agreed there is "reason for doubt" that evolution can explain the incredible variety of species on Earth. That view was shared by about 10 per cent of respondents from the rest of the world.

Japanese and Chinese respondents were also less likely to say that they trust scientific explanations of the origins of the universe. And almost one-third of Chinese respondents said that scientists should stay out of politics, compared with about 10 per cent of respondents from other countries.

The web-based survey was far from scientific — the 21,000 respondents decided whether to participate — and it sampled countries unevenly, with thousands of respondents in North America and Europe, 1,195 in Japan and just 269 in China.

"Still, the results are sobering for anyone who believes that a public informed about science will necessarily share scientists' views," says a report on the survey to be published Thursday in Nature.

It suggests that skepticism in Japan and China about evolution and the Big Bang may be rooted in Asian philosophies such as Shinto or Buddhism, which have their own explanations for the origin of life.

Naruya Saitou, a population geneticist at Japan's National Institute of Genetics, suggests in the Nature report that the apparent doubts may also stem from recognition of complexity in nature. This also explains other trends in Japan, he says: systems biology is a relatively unpopular career path for scientists because "life is too complex to be reduced to a formula" and GMOs are shunned because "people are afraid of manipulating the huge complexities in nature."

Wu Yishan, a chief engineer at the Institute of Scientific and Technical Information of China in Beijing, says that the evolution question probably also triggered healthy, skepticism in Chinese respondents.

"As a scientist you should be able to doubt anything," he told Nature.

Another striking difference was in trust in flu pandemics experts — 69 per cent of American respondents said they trust what scientists say, compared to only 31 per cent of European respondents. Scientific American ties the difference to the Geneva-based World Health Organization's handling of the outbreak and controversy over the billions of dollars' worth of vaccines and antiretroviral drugs ordered up to combat the virus that turned out to be milder than initially thought.

Two European studies have suggested WHO's decision-making process was tainted by conflicts of interest because scientists who had recommended stockpiling of vaccines were later found to have ties to drug companies — a controversy that generated banner headlines in Europe but little media and public attention in North America.

The survey did find some common ground. Worldwide, respondents agreed that scientists are more trustworthy than other public figures. Religious authorities were deemed least trustworthy, followed by politicians and company officials.

And more than 70 per cent of respondents agreed science funding should be spared in tough economic times. When asked what should be cut instead, defence spending was the overwhelming choice — 82 per cent of Canadian respondents favouring cuts to defence over cuts to education or social-welfare programs.

And despite a recent controversy over leaked emails by climate researchers and the United Nations' climate panel, the survey found climate change denial is in decline. Among Canadian respondents 41 per cent said that over the past year, they've become more certain that humans are changing the climate, compared to 12 per cent of respondents who have grown more doubtful.

© Copyright (c) Postmedia News

source: http://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/Science+bridge+cultural+divides+poll+suggests/3564084/story.html

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