Explaining Majority Support for Stem Cell Research

Matt Nisbet

Did Communication Efforts Trump Moral Values in 2004?

In the days following the Presidential election, many media observers arrived at an interpretation of Bush’s victory as driven by a voter focus on morality and values. Contrary to pollsters and campaign strategists who in the lead up to the election predicted that the war in Iraq, terrorism, the economy, and jobs would be the major themes that would decide the Presidential race, immediate post-election press analysis dubbed the outcome a matter of “Guns, God, and Gays.” As support for the explanation, many reporters cited exit poll results that showed moral values to be the most important issue named by voters. They also noted that nearly a quarter of voters nationwide were white Evangelical Christians with seven out of ten Evangelicals voting for Bush. A recent analysis finds that since the election “moral values” has been used in more than 4,000 press stories.

In conversations and circulated emails across universities during election week, many colleagues almost immediately began to question the moral values interpretation. When I discussed the issue in a course I teach on “Quantitative Reasoning for Journalists,” several of the journalism students shared my skepticism. Confronted with tight deadlines, immense uncertainty, a compelling narrative, and an explanation that fit with their East coast tastes, the simplicity of the moral values explanation seemed too convenient and easy a fit for many reporters. By the end of election week, others in the media had criticized the moral values interpretation. (See, for example, Howard Kurtz’s column.)

More in depth analysis of the complexities of the election will help sort out the accuracy of this first draft of history. Already, a survey report by the Pew Center for the People & the Press casts some doubt on the moral values interpretation. According to the Pew report, the relative importance of moral values depends greatly on how the question is asked. In response to the question “What mattered most to your vote?,” the post-election survey finds that when moral values is included as a response option against issues like Iraq and terrorism, a plurality (27%) cites moral values as most important to their vote. But when a separate group of voters were not provided response options, and were asked to name in their own words the most important factor in their vote, significantly fewer (14%) mentioned moral values.

But beyond the discussion of journalistic interpretations and survey measurement, there does appear to be one other major factor a bit out of step with defining the election ultimately about moral values: how do we explain a consistency across national polls in 2004 that shows majority support for embryonic stem cell research? And how do we explain that California’s Proposition 71 ballot initiative—which proposed $3 billion in state funding over the next ten years for embryonic stem cell research—passed easily, despite the fact California is struggling with a budgetary and economic crisis? The most likely answer is that in 2004, on this issue, public communication efforts were able to trump values in building majority support for stem cell research.

The Yuck Factor

The “Yuck Factor” is a commonly held assumption that has guided interpretations of public opinion when it comes to stem cell research. Bioethicist Leon Kass describes a “visceral repugnance” and “emotional opposition” felt by many members of the public when they first hear about biomedical research involving human embryos and about the possibility of human cloning. The repugnance is an “emotional feeling of deep wisdom,” that leads an individual to “intuit and feel, immediately without argument, the violation of things that we rightfully hold dear.”

Francis Fukuyama in Our Post Human Future traces the origins of this emotional feeling to both Christian and Kantian philosophies of human dignity that permeate Western culture. These traditions share the view that human life has a higher moral place than the rest of the natural world, with the implication that humans should always be treated as ends, and never as means. Untangling the relative influence of either tradition is difficult. As Ron Inglehart and Pippa Norris describe in an excellent new book debunking the secularization hypothesis, Christian religion continues to shape U.S. culture to the extent that its notions are transmitted even to the individual who has never set foot in a church. The Yuck Factor is therefore thought to be a relatively intuitive response. According to this interpretation, most individuals probably have difficulty articulating why they might oppose embryonic research; they just know it when they feel it.

Public opinion data generally reflects the existence of an inarticulate natural resistance to biomedical research involving early stages of human life. If for example, members of the public have never heard about stem cell research, and they are asked whether scientists should be allowed to use embryos in laboratory work, their natural and likely response is “no.” As I will discuss in this column, with the exception of about a third of the American public who are extremely religious, the Yuck Factor answer changes as the moderately to non-religious public encounters more information about the issue, especially when such information emphasizes the promise of cures and other positive considerations such as economic growth. There is a downside, however, to these information effects. At the moment, the influence is more the outcome of public persuasion emphasizing sound bites and slogans than public education leading to greater public understanding of the issue. As I detail in my conclusion to this column, this may present questions marks in the future for continued public trust in science.

A Miserly Instead of Fully Informed Public

If the public’s likely first reaction to embryo research is one of repugnance, the underlying assumption of the scientific community is that increased knowledge and understanding among the public about the technical matters and benefits of embryonic stem cell research will help the public intellectualize and temper any intuitive opposition. The key component of this assumption about a “fully informed” public is that citizens possess both the motivation and the ability to understand the science involved in stem cell research, and to actively deliberate the merits of research. Yet a preponderance of evidence from the public opinion literature finds that the public is generally more “miserly” than fully informed. Instead of an “omnicompetent” citizen—informed and interested about all issues—individuals are more likely to “satisfice” rather than “optimize” their use of information, always looking for short-cuts to process new information, form attitudes, and reach decisions (For an introduction to the concept of the miserly citizen, see Samuel Popkin’s Reasoning Voter).

In general, the miserly public relies on pre-existing views and only the information most readily available to them in the media as the fuzzy material from which to focus their opinions. In terms of pre-existing views related to biomedical research, religious values are especially important when encountering the persuasive attempts of institutional elites since these values often serve as powerful filters for accepting or rejecting arguments in favor or support of research. Religious values also serve as important information short cuts, reducing the need for citizens to weigh and consider all sides of an issue. Instead, religious values can be reliable “opinion generators,” channeling opinions on a wide array of policy questions.

An individual’s religious values are likely to be a powerful source of opposition to stem cell research. Catholic and evangelical-affiliated organizations have been the most opposed to human embryonic stem cell research. From a traditional Christian perspective, human life is created in God’s image. Catholic and evangelical elites consider embryos to be human beings, “a human life worthy of full moral protection from the moment of conception.” When scientists use or create embryos only to destroy them for the purpose of extracting stem cells, Catholic and evangelical elites view scientists as taking on the role of God, violating divine will. Therefore, according to religious advocates, use of government tax dollars to fund research would make “all citizens complicit in this research,” de-legitimating the Christian worldview, and ultimately threatening the authority of religious institutions (For more on the religious perspective, see the 1999 report from the National Bioethics Advisory Commission).

With powerful cues from church leaders, not only are committed Catholics and evangelicals likely to consistently oppose embryonic stem cell research, these individuals, when encountering information in the media about the issue, are likely to use their religious values as a perceptual filter, accepting only those considerations that are congenial to their religious values, and rejecting aspects of the information that are not. The impact of increasing information for the highly religious individual is therefore unlikely to change their initial moral opposition. In contrast, moderately religious or non-religious individuals are likely to be more open to the appeals of pro-research advocates through the mass media.

In formal social psychological terms, the process just outlined conforms to what researchers call a memory-based model of opinion formation. As communication researchers Dietram Scheufele and James Shanahan describe, this model assumes that 1) some pieces of information are more accessible in a person’s mind than others; 2) that opinion is to a large degree a function of how readily accessible these certain considerations are; and 3) that accessibility is mostly a function of ‘how much’ or ‘how recently’ a person has been exposed to these certain considerations.

Media influences are even more likely when it comes to complex and remote policy debates such as the stem cell controversy. In comparison to other issues like the economy, terrorism, or jobs, Americans have very little direct experience with stem cell research. Moreover, the complexity of the issue also means that the public scores very low in terms of knowledge of either the science or the policy surrounding the debate. This lack of direct experience and knowledge makes the public even more susceptible to making judgments about the issue based almost exclusively on the most salient considerations made available through media coverage. This process, however, is contingent on the nature of the considerations that are most heavily emphasized in media coverage. If positive considerations about research are accented in media coverage, then public opinion at an aggregate and individual level is likely to swing in the direction of support. If negative considerations are emphasized, then public support is likely to diminish. As we will also discuss, these media influences are mitigated in part by the strength of an individual’s religious values.

The Nature of Media Coverage

As I outlined in a previous column, my research over the past few years has found that media attention to scientific issues moves in cycles of “up and down” attention, and that these cycles are driven in part by several important mechanisms. For example, when the potential for reporting on conflict and drama is maximized, media attention to a scientific issue will be greatest. In other words, press attention spikes when there is clear disagreement between political actors, when debate takes place in overtly political contexts such as Congress, the White House, or the Presidential campaign trail, or when natural events such as the death of Ronald Reagan or Christopher Reeve bring the issue of stem cell research into dramatic and tangible focus. The result is that coverage is often “episodic,” peaking in attention around a dramatic event, and then relatively disappearing for long periods of time, despite the unresolved nature of the problem, and the almost constant release of new scientific studies and findings.

Related to the up and down cycles of attention to the issue, various interest groups and actors linked to the stem cell debate are engaged in a constant struggle to strategically define or “frame” the nature of research. Framing involves a contest to emphasize certain dimensions of an issue over others. Frames lead policymakers, journalists, and the public to draw certain conclusions and attributions about the causes, consequences, and solutions to an issue, and frames also shape how much attention an issue receives.

Policy debates often include two categories of frames. The first category involves technical definitions of an issue. When framed in technical terms, an issue is less provocative, there is generally limited media and public attention, and debate tends to be relegated to administrative policy arenas such as regulatory agencies. The other category includes moral and dramatic frames. These frames ignite visceral responses, spark media and public attention, and often mobilize diverse interest groups and sectors of the public to become involved. When debate moves from administrative arenas to overtly political forums such as Congress, the White House, or the Presidential campaign, issues usually become predominantly defined in moral and dramatic ways. In fact if an interest group wants to shift decision-making away from administrative contexts and capture the interest of Congress, the White House, and the public, the best strategy is to push moral definitions of the issue into the media.

How do technical and moral frames apply to the stem cell controversy? Before 1998, research on stem cells — mostly from non-controversial sources such as bone marrow and umbilical cord blood — was framed in highly technical terms, focusing on the release of the latest scientific findings or emphasizing the details of funding and applications of research. These technical dimensions, while important, don’t touch on political emotions or grab much attention. What changed in 1998? When the discovery of human embryonic stem cells was announced, and Science magazine proclaimed the event the breakthrough of the year, research advocates and opponents were energized around the question of funding research that necessitated the destruction of human embryos. Both sides, in order to mobilize public and political support for their preferred outcomes, framed the issue as a moral matter. Opponents discussed the violation of religious doctrine and the impact of “playing God.” Research proponents emphasized the moral implications of not moving ahead with research that might offer “breakthrough” miracle cures

In 2001, when media attention the issue of stem cell research spiked, there was fairly equal emphasis in coverage on the moral arguments of “playing God” versus “hope for cures.” In 2002 and 2003, media attention moved into a “downward” cycle as coverage reflected a return to a technical framing over the suitability of Bush’s allocated stem cell lines, the specifics of funding, and new research. This downward cycle reversed in early 2004 with the death of Ronald Reagan, which again catapulted the issue to the top of the media agenda for several weeks. Attention was maintained as the Kerry campaign pushed the issue on the campaign trail and at the Democratic National Convention, and proponents of California’s Proposition 71 began to raise money, build momentum, and campaign to pass the ballot initiative.

With the Kerry campaign pushing the issue in 2004, and proponents in California raising and spending large amounts of money to pass the initiative, there was a heavy emphasis in media coverage on the potential for cures and the benefits for economic development. In comparison to 2001, there was less emphasis in coverage on moral arguments against research including the violation of religious doctrine, or the connection to abortion. In part, this is likely attributable to the stretched resources of stem cell opponents, as the same religious leaders and social conservatives who focused heavily on the stem cell issue in 2001, were now concentrating mostly on gay marriage. It is also attributable to natural events, as the deaths of Ronald Reagan and Christopher Reeve focused indirect attention on the issue, with a heavy emphasis on claims that research offers hope for treatments of Alzheimer’s and spinal cord injuries.

Evidence that Communication Efforts Trumped Moral Values in 2004?

There are five main lines of evidence from the available public opinion data that support the hypothesis that increased media attention and an emphasis in coverage on the potential for cures boosted support for research to majority levels in 2004. These five lines of evidence include 1) the effects of question wording on levels of support across polls taken in 2004, 2) the correlation between a rise in media attention and support for stem cell research across aggregated poll trends between 2001 and 2004, 3) the ability of campaign efforts in California to shift public opinion strongly in favor of Proposition 71 4) the cross-sectional analysis of public opinion data that reflects important differences in opinion relative to stem cell research that are a combined product of amount of exposure to information about the issue and an individual’s underlying religious values, and 5) open-ended responses to poll questions on national and California surveys that asked why the respondent either supported or opposed embryonic stem cell research or the ballot initiative.

Differences in support across question wording. The influence of question wording on survey respondent answers provides cues about what could happen in the “real world” if media attention were to increase, and if the media were to emphasize one- sided positive information about the potential for cures and economic growth. A consistent pattern occurs across polling questions asked in 2004. When pollsters asked respondents “Do you support embryonic stem cell research that could lead to a cure for Alzheimer’s?” or some variation on this type of question that mentions the possibility of cures for a specific disease or list of diseases, public support for research was strong, falling in the 60% to 70% range. If the polling question simply asked respondents “Do you support embryonic stem cell research?,” support dropped into the 50% range.

So what’s going on here? In the first set of questions, the survey is “priming” for poll respondents positive considerations about the issue. In other words, at the time of asking the question, the wording is making readily available to the respondent positive information about the topic, and miserly citizens rely on this information in making up their minds. The influence of information can cut both ways, however. As I discuss in a previous column, if as in the case of surveys conducted by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, the survey respondent is provided with negative information about stem cell research, the miserly respondent is more likely to register opposition.

Correlation between rise in media attention and support for research. A recent Virginia Commonwealth University report summarizes the results of an annual survey that has asked respondents about embryonic stem cell research using the same question wording each year since 2001. Respondents were asked “On the whole, how much do you favor or oppose medical research that uses stem cells from human embryos—Do you strongly favor, somewhat favor, somewhat oppose, or strongly oppose this?” Public support for stem cell research trends as 48% in 2001; 35% in 2002; 47% in 2003; and 53% in 2004. Near majority support in 2001 and majority support in 2004 are correlated with historic spikes in media attention to stem cell research, and an emphasis, especially in 2004, on the potential for cures and economic growth. A historic low in public support in 2002 corresponds to a major drop in media attention to the issue, and the close linkage of stem cell research that year to the more morally problematic issue of medical cloning.

The findings of Pew and Harris surveys conducted in 2001 and 2004 provide additional evidence. Using consistent question wording, the Pew and Harris surveys indicate that public support for embryonic stem cell research in 2004 was up from 2001 levels. More revealing, these same surveys found that respondents in 2004 reported hearing more about the issue than survey respondents in 2001. According to the Pew survey, in March 2002, only about a quarter of Americans (27%) said they had heard a lot about this issue. In 2004, 42% of Americans say they have heard a lot about the stem cell debate.

Campaign efforts in California. Among California voters, increased media attention emphasizing positive considerations about research appears to have spurred growth in support for Proposition 71. The amount of money spent by proponents of the ballot initiative, the eventual solid support among Republican state leadership, the strong endorsements of major state newspapers, and the absence of any serious money spent on advertising by opponents, meant that California media coverage was saturated with heavily one sided considerations in support of the ballot initiative. As media attention, campaigning, and advertising increased leading up to election day, we see in the polls a correlated increase in support among likely voters from August to late October. We also find important differences among respondents in support for the measures across levels of information.

A Field Poll of likely voters taken July 30 to August 8 reflected a California electorate evenly split on the ballot initiative, with 45% favoring, 42% opposing, and 13% undecided. A Field Poll survey taken a month later (Sept. 24-29) showed a possible trend towards increased support though not beyond the margin of error for both polls (+/-4%), with 46% now favoring compared to 39% opposed, and 15% undecided. Given the positive media coverage and the heavy advertising by ballot measure proponents, of greater interest, were the differences in support among poll respondents who reported hearing something about the initiative. Half of likely voters (50%) in the September survey said they had seen or heard something about the initiative prior to being surveyed, an increase over August when 40% were aware of the bond measure. More than one in five voters (22%) reported having seen or heard television or radio advertising about the initiative. Among those reporting hearing something about the issue, 58% supported the ballot measure, compared to 34% among those who had not heard of the initiative.

A final Field Poll taken Oct. 21-27 showed that support for the ballot measure had increased to 54% of likely voters while 37% were opposed. By this time, with the combination of media attention and advertising, eight out of ten likely voters (83%) had heard of the ballot initiative. Among those reporting having heard about the issue before being surveyed, 58% supported the measure compared to a level of 35% support among those that had otherwise heard nothing about the ballot initiative.

On Election Day, the ballot initiative passed by a tally of 59% to 41%. Exit poll data shows that only 4% of individuals reported making up their minds about the ballot initiative on election day, and these individuals were far less supportive of the measure (56%) than their counterparts who had made up their minds in the last three days (4% of the sample, 70% support), during the last week (3% of the sample, 86% support), during the last month (12% of the sample, 69% support), or later than one month ago (77% of sample, 58% support).

As early as August, several reporters asked me to make a prediction about whether the ballot initiative was going to pass. Like a good scientist, I hedged my bets, and predicted that under certain conditions, the ballot initiative would win majority support. I said that the key to success would be for ballot proponents to rise above the campaign noise of the Presidential election, state races, and other initiatives, and generate attention to Proposition 71. When attention was paid to the issue in the media, it was important to be very one-sided in emphasizing cures and economic development, pushing aside competing messages linking the issue to moral values and abortion. If proponents were able to do that, I predicted that the measure would pass. Otherwise, if most voters arrived at the voting booth on Election Day having heard nothing about the initiative, then their only considerations to draw upon would be some combination of their natural sense of emotional repugnance, (the so called Yuck Factor,) their hesitancy to fund a state program during a budget crisis, or their religious and conservative values. Under those conditions, Proposition 71 would be a very close vote. In the end, the campaign efforts helped swing the views of about 19% of the electorate in the month leading up to the vote, and these individuals, with the exception of the 4% who decided on Election Day, sided heavily in favor of the ballot measure, pushing it to a strong majority win.

Other aspects of the exit poll data are also of interest. Kerry voters registered 82% support for Proposition 71, compared to just 39% support among Bush voters. Not surprisingly, Protestants with a strong religious commitment were strongly opposed to the ballot measure. Among Protestants who attended church weekly (9% of sampled voters), only 36% supported Proposition 71. Among Catholics who attended church weekly (17% of sampled voters), 51% supported the measure. Among voters who indicated they never attended church, regardless of affiliation, (23% of the sample), support was at 73%.

Support was also low among California voters who indicated that either moral values (18% of sample, 43% support) or taxes (6% of sample, 43% support) were the most important issue facing the country. Support was greatest among voters who said the most important issue was either education (4% of voters, 77% support), economy/jobs (16% of voters, 71% support), Iraq (20% of voters, 78% support), or health care (5% of voters, 78% support). Respondents who said terrorism was the most important issue, were split (20% of voters, 50% support).

Voters living in big cities (25% of sample, 73% support) were more likely to favor Proposition 71 than voters living in smaller cities (24% of sample, 61% support), suburbs (40% of sample, 60% support), small towns (6% of sample, 45% support), or rural areas (5% of sample, 51% support). Regionally, support was strongest in the Bay Area (18% of voters, 72% support), and L.A. county (23% of voters, 67% support).

Cross-sectional differences across information levels and religious values. The problem in looking at these descriptive pre-election and exit poll results is the inability to control for possible confounding relationships, and focus narrowly on the relative influence of religious values and increasing information on support for embryonic stem cell research. I first started thinking about this relationship in late 2002 while conducting my dissertation work at Cornell University. In a research article (Nisbet, forthcoming) appearing in a special January 2005 issue of the International Journal of Public Opinion Research dedicated to the controversy over biotechnology, I test the combined influences of increased information and religious values on public support for embryonic stem cell research, while controlling statistically for confounding variables such as education, age, gender, income, partisanship, ideology, attitudes about abortion, and generalized attitudes towards science.

Using data from the 2001 and 2002 VCU Life Sciences survey, I find that for individuals who had heard nothing or very little about the issue, when asked their opinion about research on human embryos, regardless of their level of religiosity, they were likely to fall back on their only relevant consideration, the so-called Yuck Factor, and indicate their opposition. However, for those individuals who were non-religious or moderately religious, the more they reported seeing, reading, or hearing about research (given predominantly positive media coverage), the more likely they were to call upon positive considerations when forming an opinion about the subject, and these individuals were more likely to indicate their support for research. But for individuals who were highly religious, given their propensity to use their religious values as a perceptual screen on new information, increased levels of awareness of the issue did little to change their initial opposition. A similar finding was identified after all controls for conservatives. In other words after controlling out the influences of religion, and examining for the most part non-religious conservatives, this value predisposition also served as a powerful screening device, so that increased levels of awareness of the issue did little to change conservatives natural opposition to the issue.

The reader should remember, as is the case in all statistical analyses, these findings are probabilistic. In other words, they reflect average tendencies across groups of individuals. Exceptions, or outliers, exist to these tendencies. For example, there do indeed exist some extremely religious individuals that favor embryonic stem cell research, but the average tendency across very religious individuals is that they are less likely to favor research than their moderately religious or nonreligious counterparts.

Since completion of this study, other survey data released in 2004 generally confirms my findings relative to the influence of increased information, given positive media coverage, on support for research. In a 2004 Pew survey, respondents who had heard a lot about the stem cell debate were much more supportive of research in this area than were those who have heard little or nothing at all. By more than two-to-one (63%-28%), those who had heard a great deal about the issue believed it is more important to conduct stem cell research that may result in medical cures than to not destroy the potential life of human embryos. A similar finding is reflected in the 2004 Harris Poll.

Open-ended responses to national and California survey items. A final line of evidence is provided by the answers by survey respondents when asked in follow-up questions why they supported or opposed either embryonic stem cell research or passage of Proposition 71. If proponents of embryonic stem cell research are fashioning campaign messages and sound bites that emphasize the hope for cures and economic development, and news coverage emphasizes these considerations as well, then these messages should be the types of considerations that are most commonly reported by the supportive public when asked why they favor research. On the other hand, members of the public who are highly religious or who are economic conservatives, are far less likely to accept these positive considerations when exposed to news coverage or campaign commercials, and they instead rely on their pre-existing value orientations when making up their minds about the issue. For these opponents, their open ended reasons why they oppose research should reflect their religious values and economic concerns.

The results of open ended survey items generally reflect these expectations. In the VCU Life Sciences survey, among respondents favoring embryonic stem cell research, 72% mentioned considerations that could be grouped into preventing, curing, or helping with disease, or benefiting science. Among those opposed to research, 46% mentioned that it was because of considerations related to the fact it was human life, it was immoral, or because of God and religion. In the late October Field poll of likely California voters, when those in favor of Proposition 71 were asked why they supported the measure, 92% of respondents answered because they either saw a need for medical advances, or to find a cure for diseases. Among opponents, 44% answered that they were pro-life, or because the research was immoral/violated God’s law. More than a third (36%) alternatively said it was because the state couldn’t afford the measure, or they opposed using tax money.

Conclusion: Public Education Needs to Replace Public Persuasion

In an election year allegedly dictated by moral values, it appears that public communication efforts in the form of increased media attention and campaign advertising have buoyed public support for embryonic stem cell research to majority levels. Heightened media attention combined with a heavy emphasis on the potential for cures and medical advances has made, for the most part, positive considerations readily and easily available to the miserly public when making up their minds about this issue. Majority support, however, is likely to be volatile. Since media attention to a scientific issue commonly moves in varying “up and down” cycles, and the public still possesses some moral ambivalence, we can expect over the next few years that public support for embryonic stem cell research will hover around 50%. In years or periods of months where there is little media attention to the issue, public support might register below majority levels, as the public, when called on the phone by a pollster, and asked their opinion about stem cell research, have fewer positive considerations available to them when making up their minds, and therefore fall naturally back on an inarticulate sense of Kantian and religious “yuck.” For stem cell research advocates, the job at hand is to keep media focus on the issue, and to emphasize heavily in coverage the hope for medical advances and cures.

When it comes to the persuasive influence, however, of positive information on public support for embryonic stem cell research, there does exist a “value gap.” A prevailing assumption on the part of many in the science community is that the public both has the motivation and the ability to become well informed about science-related disputes. The data and research however demonstrates that the public not only relies heavily on the information that is most readily available to them through the mass media to form an opinion, but also make heavy use of their religious and ideological values. For example, among the 30% to 40% of Americans who are highly religious, their religious values serve as a perceptual screen on new information, with increasing levels of awareness of the issue doing little to change their initial opposition.

It would be a mistake, however, to ignore public values other than ideology and religion that may also shape public support for stem cell research, especially as the issue becomes increasingly linked to the broader debate over human cloning. In continental Europe, for example, individual-level “green” orientations have been linked to resistance to medical biotechnology. These “green” opponents are for the most part non-religious, politically left, post-materialist, and risk averse. Green predispositions are the European modernist counterpart to the traditionalist religious resistance observed in the U.S. The green resistance takes shape within a European institutional framework that features multiple social carriers, including political parties that cultivate a left modernist worldview. Though this type of modernist opposition to research has emerged among some on the left in the U.S., the movement is not as sociologically deep in the U.S. as in Europe. Nevertheless, for a small segment of the U.S. public, green institutional ties and individual predispositions may be sufficiently strong enough to serve as important influences on opinion. Ironically enough, in California, at the same time the state was passing funding for embryonic stem cell research, several counties were passing ordinances organized by greens that banned the planting of genetically-modified crops.

The point is that the scientific community, industry, research advocates, and the government need to be careful in how they communicate with the public. When it comes to the stem cell issue, this election year has been more an exercise in public persuasion than public education. Short term objectives to win an election or pass a state proposition dictate the use of simple messages and sound bites repeated over and over again. If the Bush campaign demonstrated anything, neither the media nor the public has much tolerance or capacity for complexity and uncertainty in arguments at election time. The simplified argument always wins.

With stem cell research, the simple strategy worked in California in passing Proposition 71. Yet, in campaign discourse and media coverage, there was very little attention to the complexity of the issue. Glossed over was the scientific uncertainty surrounding the timeline for when treatments will be available, and just how many in a long list of diseases might be realistically treatable. There were also important issues of social uncertainty never addressed. Namely, who controls the research, the patents, and the access to stem cell lines? Nor was there much attention to which Americans would be able to afford the derived treatments, and how health care plans would cover such treatments. And, in the short history of the stem cell controversy, the media still has yet to cover in depth the ethical dimensions of the debate outside a “playing God” versus “wrong to hold back medical advances” dichotomy.

Now that we can move from public persuasion to efforts at public education, these themes should be addressed. At risk is public trust in science. If ten years from now, the public, who overlooked their moral reservations in deference to the hope for cures, see no tangible benefits from research, then faith in science could take a blow. Already, conservatives and religious advocates are pushing the allegation that scientists, in service to their self interests, are selling the public an elixir of stretched claims. A google search on the terms “stem cell and junk science” reveals dozens of pages at places like Fox News that argue scientists have had since 1998 to come up with treatments derived from embryonic stem cell research, yet no such treatments exist. In coming years, public education is necessary to counter the likely attack from the right on the credibility of science.


  • Nisbet, M.C.. (forthcoming). The competition for worldviews: Values, information, & public support for stem cell research. International Journal of Public Opinion Research.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew Nisbet is Professor of Communication, Public Policy and Urban Affairs at Northeastern University, a CSI technical consultant, and writes regularly on science, politics, and a more focused life at www.wealthofideas.org.