Scientists of a feather flock together

Researchers and the public may disagree in part due to their social circles

owls in a row

Like some birds, people tend to hang out with people with similar characteristics — whether it’s similar careers, politics, education or affinity for owls. The effects of like-minded social networks might explain some of the results of a recent survey of opinions between scientists and the public.

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Scientists and nonscientists don’t always agree. When it comes to genetically modified foods, 88 percent of scientists think they are safe to eat. Only 37 percent of nonscientists approve of them. Scientists overwhelmingly (89 percent) support the use of animals in research, but only 47 percent of the public is in favor. And while 87 percent of scientists agree that humans are behind climate change, only half of nonscientists are inclined to believe it.

These are some of the results of a new study from the Pew Research Center and the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, both in Washington, D.C. The study’s release prompted a predictable flurry of news coverage. In the opinion pieces and news, two main take-aways dominated. First, scientists need to reach out more. And second, the public is refusing to listen.

This is not a new message. Scientists and science communicators alike are often told how more scientists need to communicate with the public. And they see just as many articles and blog posts describing the public as ill-educated and stubborn.

But as I read through the Pew study, I couldn’t help but wonder if the differences in opinion might be evidence of scientists and nonscientists talking past each other.  We tend to hang out with people who are similar to ourselves. Scientists are friends with other scientists or science fans. Liberal-minded folks are surrounded by other liberals. People of a certain religion gravitate toward others with the same religious beliefs. This effect is only amplified on social media. When we e-mail, share links or tweet, we tend to do so to an audience of people who already buy what we want to say.  The same information and opinions swirl around within groups, and many of these circles will never overlap. Perhaps scientists and the public don’t see eye to eye because socially, they don’t see each other at all.

We know that we prefer to surround ourselves with people who are similar to us. Aristotle noted 2,300 years ago in the Nichomachean Ethics, “equality and likeness are friendship.” Modern sociology has shown how true this is, from education to politics to religion. People who share the same tastes are more likely to friend each other on Facebook. We seek the advice of people like us and are also more likely to work with them. We marry people like us. “We love similarity, we seek out similar friends and mates, and when we’re in a relationship it reinforces our own views,” says Kevin Lewis, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego.

In the Pew study, the demographic differences between scientists and the general public were striking. While the general public survey was 49.5 percent female, AAAS scientists surveyed were only 29 percent female. The AAAS scientists were also generally older, 35 percent were older than 65 compared to 24.7 percent of the survey population.

Perhaps the biggest gaps were in education and race. Unsurprisingly, the AAAS scientists were extraordinarily well-educated, with 72 percent holding at least one Ph.D. In contrast, only around 40 percent of the general public had completed a bachelor’s degree, and almost 35 percent of the general public had no college education at all. While the general public survey population was 60.5 percent white, the AAAS scientists were a whopping 83 percent white.

These demographic differences probably translate to who those surveyed associate with. If you are a scientist with a Ph.D., your closest friends are probably people you went to grad school or college with, or perhaps the scientists who work just down the hall. Scientists work with each other, date each other and are friends with each other. “It’s very hard to tease out network effects because we not only influence our friends, but we also tend to choose friends who are like us,” explains James Fowler, a social scientist also at the University of California, San Diego. “People might go into science because their friends who share their beliefs are scientists and they want to be near their friends.  To the extent we do both of these things, it can create a bit of an echo chamber.”

Not only that, it’s very simple to delete, mute or otherwise get rid of views you don’t want to see, making communication that much harder. Lewis notes that the idea that scientists just need to do more outreach implies that scientists have more influence than they probably do. “If only I could go and reach out to whoever I wanted to and choose to influence their views,” he says. “I could write the most brilliant op-ed you’ve ever seen, but if I’m saying something someone disagrees with, they aren’t going to listen.”

I am a good example. As a former scientist and current science blogger, I am friends with many scientists. I follow them on Twitter and they follow me. I am friends with scientists on Facebook. My social media feeds are filled with good science reporting, interesting scientific facts and mockery of unscientific beliefs. So when I post pro-science links on Facebook, it’s mostly pro-science people who will see it. Science links on my Twitter feed are read by people who already like science. When this blog post gets published, the people who will read it are the people who are already inclined to read about scientific topics.

Many of us might think we like dissenting views. But really, Lewis says, differences in opinion are often uncomfortable. He refers to the psychological concept of balance theory, where two people and an object, such as a product or an idea, form a triad. “When you have a friendship between two people you have a positive tie, and it’s uncomfortable when you have a difference in opinion on a third object,” Lewis explains. In an effort to resolve the difference, one person might try to persuade the other to alter their views, to try out the Playstation 4 or to vaccinate their kids. Alternately, they may decide they never liked that person all that much anyway, choosing the product or opinion over the friendship.

Dissimilar people mean more arguments, more attempts to persuade. It’s so much easier to just see the things you agree with. And so people who watch Fox News have friends who also watch Fox. People who watch Rachel Maddow have friends who watch Maddow. And the two rarely meet.

This echo chamber might help to explain some of the wide gaps between scientists and the public with regard to some opinions. But Cary Funk, a survey research at Pew who worked on the report, is very cautious about interpretation. She notes that “we don’t see a single reason for these differences, and we’d encourage people to look at each of these issues and think about the unique aspects of each.” She also notes that further results, broken down by the political affiliation, religion and other demographics of the general public will be released later in the spring. It is possible that social networks between Democrats and Democrats or Christians and Christians may influence some opinions and not others. It’s also possible that our opinions on GMOs might be wholly unrelated to those of our friends.

Maybe all your friends are sharing a post about new evidence of human-caused global warming. Or perhaps they are all sharing a post claiming the world is actually getting colder. But who sent it to you will influence whether you read it — and whether it changes your mind.  

Bethany was previously the staff writer at Science News for Students. She has a Ph.D. in physiology and pharmacology from Wake Forest University School of Medicine.

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