Predictors of public attitudes toward controversial science 1979–1990

Caitlin Drummond, Baruch Fischhoff

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Recent research has suggested that individuals with greater science literacy and education hold more polarized views on religiously and politically polarized scientific topics, such as human evolution and climate change (Drummond and Fischhoff 2017). We ask whether such a pattern is observed in public attitudes toward scientific controversies of a previous era. In secondary analyses of a major national survey, we examine social and individual factors associated with attitudes toward scientific controversies in the period 1979–1990. Our source is the National Science Foundation’s nationally representative Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology, which asked about public attitudes toward nuclear power, food additives, genetic engineering, space exploration, human evolution, the Big Bang, and human/dinosaur co-occurrence. Despite some inconsistency in the measurement of key variables, the data reveal consistent relationships within topics and across survey-years: political ideology predicted polarization of attitudes toward nuclear power, while religiosity predicted polarization of attitudes toward genetic engineering, space exploration, human evolution, and the Big Bang. Unlike results from more recent surveys, respondents with more education and greater scientific knowledge were no more polarized by politics or religion, with the possible exception of attitudes toward human evolution. Our findings suggest the importance of historical context in interpreting public responses to science and technology issues.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1318-1335
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Risk Research
Issue number10
StatePublished - 2020
Externally publishedYes


  • Scientific controversies
  • science communication
  • science literacy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Safety, Risk, Reliability and Quality
  • General Social Sciences
  • General Engineering
  • Strategy and Management


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