Race and Gender Shape Views of Science in Surprising Ways

A poll finds women tend to oppose genetically modified food and animal research, and African Americans are optimistic about population growth, regardless of political party.

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If you’re a Republican and a fan of Sean Hannity, global warming is a scam. If you’re a Rachel Maddow-watching Democrat, you fret about ways to reduce your carbon footprint. Scientists produce report after report about the threat of climate change, but, like so many other issues in science, political ideology ultimately determines where people stand.

Or does it?

A survey published Wednesday by the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans’ views on many science-related policies are more likely to be shaped by demographics—age, race, gender, religion, and education—than by political beliefs, often with surprising results.

“The broad pattern is that climate and energy issues are highly politicized,” writes Pew, “whereas issues tied to biomedical science, food safety, and space policy often are strongly tied to other, nonpolitical, factors.”

The extent to which those factors—either alone or combined with others—influence people’s views varies by topic (see chart at bottom).

For instance, should parents be allowed to decide whether or not to vaccinate their kids? The majority of the general public (68%) says no and believes immunization should be mandatory.

Crunching the numbers even further reveals that Americans hold this view regardless of their political party, race, gender, and level of education, spanning high school dropouts to PhDs.

The strongest determining factor turns out to be age: 41 percent of Millennials oppose mandatory vaccination for children, compared with 22 percent of those ages 50 and older. It’s a generation gap born out of successful immunization campaigns that turned outbreaks of childhood diseases such as polio into fading national memories. (Read more about vaccination views: "Young Adults Most Worried About Vaccines, Poll Finds")

Eat. Drink. Man. Woman.

On other issues, like genetically modified (GM) food, the demographic connection is not so readily apparent.

According to the Pew survey, 57 percent of all adults say that GM food is “generally unsafe.” Despite scientific consensus to the contrary, that misconception holds sway over all age groups, as well as people who describe themselves as liberals or conservatives.

But there is a GM gender gap, with 47 percent of men believing the food is safe, compared to only 28 percent of women.

That finding is consistent with previous surveys. One popular theory that’s emerged over the years is that women are more wary of GM foods because they tend to be the grocery shoppers for their families and pay closer attention to nutritional information.

Just one problem with that idea: There’s absolutely no evidence to support it, says Steven Greene, a professor of political science at North Carolina State University, who, along with colleague Laurel Elder, has studied public opinion polls on GM foods dating back nearly a decade. Greene found that women have the same views toward GM foods “whether they’re parents or not.”

Greene has looked at several additional variables that could help explain why women are more skeptical than men, including political orientation, risk perception, and measures of confidence in science, business and medicine. So far, none of them explain the persistent gap between the sexes—which, he says, presents a puzzle that is “kind of fascinating” in and of itself.

Ultimately, he believes the answer may lie in data that has not yet been collected. He’d like to see polls that burrow deeper, asking people how concerned they are with food in general, how worried they are about their health, and who does the most shopping in their households.

The Rights of Animals

The gender gap turns into a chasm when respondents express their opinion about the use of animals in scientific research: 60 percent of men favor it, 62 percent of women oppose it.

As with GM foods, previous polls have found similar results. Women, in fact, have long played a prominent role in the animal rights movement. Emily Gaarder, a sociologist at the University of Minnesota-Duluth, says that, during the 19th century, anti-vivisection activists developed a gender-based recruitment strategy. They drew comparisons between the plight of animals and the institutionalized abuse of women, who were victims of invasive medical procedures and domestic violence.

Gaarder has noticed echoes of that empathy in her research on contemporary activism, saying that “women may be more likely to have compassion and concern for animals based on their own position in society.”

More broadly, though, she sees “gender socialization” as the defining factor. From an early age, women are raised in an environment that says it’s okay for them to openly express compassion for others. By contrast, for men, “it might even be a kind of risky thing to show care and concern for animals,” says Gaarder, “because that’s not considered a masculine attribute.”

Population Growth

Other science-related issues reveal wide differences among racial and ethnic groups.  A majority of Hispanics (70 percent) in the Pew report are certain that human activity is driving climate change, in contrast to 44 percent of whites and 56 percent of blacks. That data tracks with other surveys, including one conducted last year by the polling firm Latino Decisions, which found that Hispanics were deeply concerned about the impact of extreme weather not only in the United States, but among their communities in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The issue of overpopulation also exposes a racial rift. A majority of whites (61 percent) and Hispanics (65 percent) believe that there won’t be enough food and resources for the growing number of people in the world. But African Americans are more optimistic, with 57 percent saying that population growth won’t be a major problem because we’ll find ways to stretch natural resources.

Brentin Mock, a journalist at CityLab who writes about racial issues in the United States, says that population growth is a topic that has unique resonance within the African American community. Although he’d like to take a thorough look at Pew’s data, he speculates on three reasons why blacks might diverge from other racial groups on this question.

“Right now, we're a minority—13 percent of the United States—and we could stand to use a lot more people,” he says, noting that gerrymandering has put a lot of African Americans in jurisdictions where they don’t have the numbers to elect officials who will represent their interests. So, some respondents, whose worldviews are informed by their local experiences, may see population expansion, on measure, as a positive development.

And then, there’s the historical context, dating back to when slave owners sought to manipulate the birth rates of their “property.” In the 20th century, Mock points to alarmist rhetoric such as the bestselling 1968 book, The Population Bomb, by Stanford University Professor Paul R. Ehrlich, which warned that the world was on the brink of disaster unless countries undertook drastic birth control measures.

Such thinking, both implicitly and explicitly, sometimes placed the blame on people of color, at home and abroad. (In 1969, biologist Walter Howard published a widely read article attributing racial unrest to “surplus individuals.”) As such, says Mock, when a pollster asks whether population growth is problematic, some African Americans immediately associate that question with population control and respond with a positive counter-narrative.

Lastly, Mock says, there are those in the African American community who feel the issue is not being framed properly and see a solution within reach.

“Population is not a problem; consumption by the wealthy is a problem, and we just need a more equitable allocation of resources,” Mock says.

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