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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Column: Americans more in touch with reality TV than reality

To the naked eye, it seems the general American public loves reality to which it can relate; reality television shows and situational comedies mimicking real-life America litter the TV guide every night. 

According to a Barna Group study in 2014, 74 percent of Americans turn on their TV every day, and 30 percent of those people watch for five or more hours. The top-watched shows include reality competitions like “Dancing with the Stars” or crime shows like “NCIS.”

So, with that many Americans watching television each day, why is the general public so misinformed about most scientific questions? Why do people choose to watch the reality of someone else rather than live their own? 

Genetically modified foods, nuclear power plants, offshore drilling and increased use of fracking — these complicated topics are not attractive. I can vouch for the fact that I would rather watch “The Bachelor” than worry about the chemicals in my grocery bag.

But in a world full of war, climate change and social and economic inequality, are people just starting to ignore problems?

Tim McDonnell at Mother Jones published an upsetting article titled “This Chart Shows That Americans Are Way Out of Step With Scientists on Pretty Much Everything.” The graph in question depicted some of the world’s biggest current issues and the discrepancy between the opinions of the American public and that of scientists.

Some topics didn’t have as big of a gap as expected. For example, 68 percent of scientists compared to 64 percent of Americans believe that the space station has been a good investment for the U.S.

However, some of the differences were concerning. Almost 100 percent of scientists believe that humans have evolved over time, whereas only 65 percent of Americans agree. Does this mean that almost half of the U.S. does not know who Charles Darwin was? Or are these people just choosing to think he was a crackpot?

Elliott Cheu, associate dean of the College of Science and a professor of physics, said there “are a number of factors that affect how the American public reacts to [and] understands the scientific community.”

“Perhaps the greatest is the fact that scientists do not communicate their results and findings as well as they could,” Cheu said.

Could this explain why 88 percent of scientists think that genetically modified foods are okay to eat and only 37 percent of Americans agree?

If research was made more readily available by scientists — research that was easy for the general public to read, process and comprehend — then the astonishing gaps shown on topics like genetically modified foods, use of animals in research and the safety of pesticides in foods might diminish.

However, Cheu said the Internet muddies the playing field.

“There is a vast amount of information which is unfiltered,” he said. “This allows people to seek out information and opinions that support their view.”

A high percentage of both scientists and Americans favor the use of bioengineered fuel, and both parties had a low percentage in favor of increased fracking. Is this because there is simply more information on bioengineered fuel than there is on fracking?

Cheu said he doesn’t know if more education would aid people in distinguishing between science and pseudoscience, but that providing a venue for the public to engage with scientists in a positive light could help.

So while Americans sit on the couch tonight to watch their favorite stars dance or a bloody crime-scene investigation, just remember that 50 percent of the public doesn’t think that humans have anything to do with global climate change.

Which reality is more frightening?


Trey Ross is a journalism sophomore. Follow her on Twitter.

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