The Science Checks Out

A recent article from FiveThirtyEight, “Americans And Scientists Agree More On Vaccines Than On Other Hot Button Issues,” highlighted data from a 2014 Pew Research Center study on public attitudes towards science-related issues. In the graphic below, we can see how Democrats, Independents, and Republicans’ views compare with one another — and with those of scientists from the American Association for the Advancement of Science. This story was released in the wake of controversial statements made by Republican presidential hopefuls Chris Christie and Rand Paul that reignited the debate over whether or not children should be vaccinated. The public has much more of a (positive) consensus — both across the political aisle and with the scientific community — on the topic of vaccination compared to global warming, evolution, and GMOs.

Scientist Public-Split On Science-Related Issues

In the original opinion polls, approximately 65% of Independent and Republican respondents and 75% of Democratic respondents believed that all children should be required to be vaccinated, compared to about 85% of AAAS members. Given FiveThirtyEight’s brand of reporting, I would expect the intended audience of this graphic to be highly data-literate, and most likely closer to the scientific side of the spectrum. While the graphic isn’t explicitly partisan, it does highlight data suggesting that Republicans are less in agreement with the scientific establishment (though the responses to the GMO question invert this). As such, the graphic alone might play into a narrative about how Republican politicians like Christie and Paul are trying to pander to extremist, science-denying voters.

However, the article itself points out that plenty of the other potential Republican presidential candidates are pro-vaccination. Most voters, regardless of political affiliation, agree with science. The goal of this data presentation, then, might be to show how we’re not so different after all across the aisle — and with the exception of global warming, members of the public are more often in agreement with each other than with scientists. The graphics shown on the Pew summary and even their interactive tool doesn’t even mention politics, combining all respondents into a single group. If the goal was to show how far off Christie and Paul were in relation to the broader public (and science!), then this data presentation is effective. It demonstrates that their comments were anomalies and not representative of Republican voters.

One criticism I do have is that the line used to denote the scientists’ views is too bold, overpowering the actual tick lines. It might be misinterpreted as the 100% mark, making all the numbers seem higher than they really are. Even though there is a relative public consensus around vaccination, there is still a large number of people — a third of Republicans/Independents, a quarter of Democrats, and even a good number of scientists — who don’t believe that they should be mandatory. Another point is that there is a difference between believing that vaccinations are beneficial and believing that vaccinations should be mandatory — there are certainly other factors, such as one’s philosophy about the role of government, that are also operating in this data set.

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