What Does The Public Think About Stem Cell Research?

Chris Mooney points to a long piece that analyses public opinion on stem cell research. The article concludes:

The controversy over human embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning remains unresolved, and the issue may mark a new era of divisive and deadlocked "biopolitics." What the review of the polls makes clear is that public attention was captured by this emerging conflict during the summer of 2001, but has waned since, as media coverage has subsided, and many other competing issues have come to dominate the political and media agenda. Despite Americans' elevated attention to the issue in 2001, however, it appears that the public remains in the dark about the science and the policy driving the controversy.

The public possesses strong reservations about research that destroys embryos, preferring if the research must move forward, that scientists make use of either extra embryos left over from in vitro clinics, or adult cells. Additionally, evidence indicates that question wording in surveys can have strong effects on the public's stated response to these volatile issues.

On the matter of cloning, the public is strongly opposed to reproductive cloning, but resolve softens when it comes to medical applications, while a substantial proportion of Americans remain unsure about the matter. Still, only about a third of Americans support compromise legislation that would allow therapeutic cloning to remain legal.

I'm not sure I agree with this last conclusion here. People have a greater tendency to support therapeutic cloning when they understand it is vital to developing regenerative medicine - and cures for many currently incurable diseases. I'll certainly be distressed if minority support for research is the case, given the winner-takes-all nature of modern "democratic" politics.

The rest of it is more or less what we knew already, but the process is of getting to the answer is interesting and worth reading. The article winds up with the following point:

In all, the analysis points to an important role for the media in shaping future public judgments of stem cell research and human cloning. Evidence of strong question wording effects, combined with the findings relative to low levels of public knowledge, suggest that the public may be highly susceptible to influence by changes in media attention and media characterization of the issue.

Media influences people when they are unfamiliar with the basics of the matter under discussion. Not exactly rocket science, but something that we should all remember: journalists (of all sorts, from bloggers to more formal old school reporters) distort, spin, offer opinions as fact, and help or hinder specific issues as a matter of course.


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