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Friday, June 6, 2008

How We Think About Stem Cell Research

Religious values hold more sway over public attitudes toward stem cell research than scientific knowledge does, according to a new survey conducted by a team of communications researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "More knowledge is good—everybody is on the same page about that. But will that knowledge necessarily help build support for the science?" one of the study's authors, Dietram Scheufele, said in UW-Madison news story. "The data show that no, it doesn't. It does for some groups, but definitely not for others."
Here's how it works: For those who place a high value on science, their level of scientific understanding matters and helps shape their attitudes. For people who aren't very religious, understanding the science is linked to more positive views toward stem cell research. But for those who say religion plays a large role in their lives, scientific knowledge doesn't influence their attitudes toward the research at all. According to Scheufele, then, the answer "is not about providing religious audiences with more scientific information. In fact, many of them are already highly informed about stem cell research, so more information makes little difference in terms of influencing public support. And that's not good or bad. That's just what the data show."
The results, published in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, are similar to an earlier study conducted by Scheufele and Elizabeth Corley of Arizona State University, which looked at attitudes toward nanotechnology. Again, the message is that attitudes and values are different from knowledge and understanding, which researchers would do well to keep in mind when thinking about how to communicate about controversial scientific issues with the public. —Heather Wax