Poll: Americans Doubt Theories Like Big Bang Theory, Evolution

Science

CBS News – Americans have little doubt about the scientific evidence that smoking can cause cancer. However, a bigger portion of Americans still the question some of the basic concepts of modern science, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

In the survey, with a representative sample of 1,012 U.S. adults age 18 or older, respondents were asked to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.

What the survey revealed was surprising. Overall, Americans show more skepticism than confidence in the scientific concept that a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

There was also considerable doubt about the science behind global warming and the age of the Earth.

The most broadly accepted scientific statement was that smoking causes cancer, with a whopping 82 percent of respondents saying they were extremely or very confident that it did.

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 CBS NEWS

Views on science may be tied to what people see with their own eyes. The closer an issue is to their own bodies, and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, suggested John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Almost four in ten people in the survey said that they were not confident in theaverage temperature of the world is rising, or that life on Earth evolved through natural selection, and about a third doubted that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old. However, a majority was still at least somewhat confident in the concepts.

However, when it came to the Big Bang, a majority — 51 percent — had little or no confidence in the science.

“It is enormously distressing that science, which is our most powerful means for gaining insight into the world, insight into truth, is so mistrusted by so many people,” Brian Greene, a professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University, told CBS News.

Greene, who co-founded the World Science Festival and World Science U. to help educate and excite the public about science, says understanding scientific ideas is not just academic — it’s essential to a vital democracy. “Issues like climate change or nanoscience or genetically modified foods — I mean all of these issues, and a thousand others, are scientific at their core,” he said.

Role of politics and religion

Political and religious values play an important role in a person’s belief in science, the AP noted. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change. As faith in a supreme being rises, confidence in the Big Bang, climate change and the age of the Earth decline, according to the poll.”When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can’t argue against faith,” said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. “It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable.”

Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, told CBS News that people’s world views and social relationships influence what they believe. People do understand that scientists produce information “that ought to be believed,” but there are other motivations, such as social norms or fear of the unknown, that may affect their views.

“They believe them for social reasons — you have been maintaining your relationships with people; holding certain beliefs is part of that,” Willingham told CBS News. “When you’re arguing with someone, no one ever says ‘No, I just won’t believe that because it’s too damn frightening to believe’ — they’re going to give you rational reasons…[It's] very difficult to persuade someone when that’s their motivation.”

People who take the word of the Bible literally are even less likely to believe in evolution, the age of the Earth or Big Bang. But Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine, noted that these three scientific concepts can be compatible with the belief in God.

“The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1, and there is much profound biblical scholarship to demonstrate this,” said Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and an evangelical Christian.Willingham says that some scientific findings — such as that smoking causes cancer — do not challenge religious beliefs, but when science appears to directly contradict their faith — such as evolution versus creationism — people are more likely to find it upsetting.

Andrew Shtulman, professor of psychology at Occidental College says some people may not believe in science because it draws on evidence that they don’t experience in their everyday lives.

“Everyone draws conclusions about the world around them – scientists and non-scientists alike – but non-scientists base those conclusions on much weaker evidence: a single observation, a gut feeling, hearsay from others,” Shtulman told CBS News via email. “When those ‘homespun’ conclusions contradict the conclusions of science, it’s difficult to recognize that they rest on much flimsier grounds.”

The results of the poll are troubling to some scientists, who say it highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

“Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.

Ignorance can be dangerous

Ignorance of science could also prove to be dangerous for America as well, as Willingham notes that parents’ reluctance towards vaccines can harm others by spreading disease. Science is not meant to dictate policy, he says. Rather, it is used to tell others what the state of the world is, and how officials respond to that is a statement of values.

Interest groups — political, business and religious — can also play a role in the public’s scientific beliefs, with campaigns being waged against vaccines, climate change and evolution, according to Duke’s Lefkowitz. Yale’s Leiserowitz agreed, but added that sometimes science wins against even the most well-financed and loud opposition.

The widespread understanding that smoking causes cancer — noted in the study — can be said to be a result of “very public, very focused public health campaigns,” according to Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Leshner said he was encouraged by the public’s acceptance that mental illness is a brain disease, something few believed 25 years ago, before just such a campaign.

“Science, in its really pure form, is just telling you what the state of the world is,” Willingham said. “The more in-tune with reality your beliefs are, the more you are in a position to make a wise decision.”

Shtulman says scientists can help people understand science by explaining their findings with everyday terms, and spent time clarifying much of the misinformation that gets spread in the media.

“Many people get hung up on buzzwords like ‘evolution,’ ‘cloning,’ ‘stem cell,’ or ‘climate change,’ which they do not necessarily understand, but have formed opinions about nonetheless,” Shtulman said.

“These opinions effectively block the reception of new information, even when that information is not itself controversial. The more scientists (and the media) can avoid sensationalizing scientific findings, the better.”

12 comments

  • joeblo

    This is why this country peaked long ago. It is full of completely stupid religion based thinking. They know who won American Idol, though. You know, the important stuff.

  • Sean

    Just because someone doesn’t believe in the big bang doesn’t mean they believe God created everything. For example, I believe the universe is infinite in time and space, which makes the big bang just a speck in the endless amount of time everything’s existed.

  • Freon

    If one person believes something that is contradicted by all evidence, it is called a delusion. If a hundred million people believe something that is contradicted by all evidence, it is called faith.

  • Miguel Castillo

    The problem with the so called “science” is that any finding is truth… until the next finding proves the first one to be wrong. So “science” is guessing. I remember long time ago “scientists” told new moms “feed the white to your baby, but not the yolk”. Today is the other way round. Other example is History/Discovery Channel… the journalist (with a strong bias) do his/her investigation, leave as many variants as he/she want from the equation, and the result is… “science”… and all the people need to believe that. Come on. 1Timothy 6:20 O Timothy, keep that which is committed to thy trust, avoiding profane and vain babblings, and oppositions of science falsely so called

    • PW

      Science is a self correcting process that actually thrives on it’s mistakes. This is what propels the whole thing forward; this is how we advance. That’s actually the BEAUTY of it.

  • Rick

    How do we know that the big bank wasn’t God snapping his fingers? Think about that one creationists.

  • Jerry Sark

    The “scientists” quoted in the article failed to consider a prime reason that the general public is skeptical of many findings of the scientific community; over the last thirty years many “facts” have been fabricated or modified for financial or political reasons, theories have been discredited or disputed between opposing groups of equally qualified experts and questionable new theories have discredited long believed facts. In other words, to the layman scientists have become less than dependable and consistent in their presentation of science. in many cases it is not the truth that we reject but those that present the newest version of the truth.

  • jd

    Based on this poll. The article/author (minority) is trying to convey that most people (majority) are wrong, while acting like most of us (majority) are on his/her side. Just feels like an odd approach.

    Isn’t it possible that we’ve already witnessed “Science” contradict itself many times in our lifetime to mistrust it a bit, or at least not feel certain.

  • Billy Ray Buttwipe

    This is ‘Murica gol-dang it! The good ‘ol stars n’ stripes was founded on the Bahble n’ Jeezus n’ freedum. Evolootion is a lotta hooey dag-nab it!

  • Ron A.

    If Americans can see that overuse of antibiotics creates drug-resistant bacteria, then they are (before their very eyes) witnessing the adaptation of a species, or ironically, Darwinism at work.

  • senor

    How is that 65 percent of Americans believe that the overuse of antibiotics causes the development of drug resistant bacteria but only 31 percent strongly agree with the process of natural selection? How is that are bodies can develop a resistant to antibiotics in such a short amount of time but natural selection does not occur over thousands of years? Also, I’m not sure 1,012 people fully represents the population especially considering certain regions tend to have more religioius beliefs than others.

  • Ronnie Flowers

    Articles like to point out that “people don’t believe in science” and discuss why. However, believing in the science does not mean that people have to believe in the conclusions that scientists say that the science has. For instance, mammal embryo’s all look alike complete with a “tail” looking like thing. That is a scientific fact. However, the fact can be interpreted by different scientists differently. One scientist will say that it proves that all life formed on earth through natural selection and evolution from a Big Bang. However, another scientist can easily say that it just proves that an intelligent Being like an engineer starts all life with the same building blocks. DNA evidence shows that the “tail” already has a predestination of what it is going to be in each animal which can be evidence of an intelligent designer instead of random processes. However, each view has scientific backing, it just depends on which world view that people want to believe in. As for natual selection, it is a proven fact. However, natural selection has never been observed and tested to produce a completely new species like would have to happen for everything having to be created from the Big Bang. The idea that everything that we see came from natural selection is a belief system just as is a religious belief system that an intelligent Being created everything. They both believe in natural selection, but the interpretation of what that means is different. Bacteria is still bacteria, fruit flies are still fruit flies. The species change dramatically but they are still the same “kind.” A wolf is still a type of dog, a flying squirrel is still a type of squirrel, all different types of finches that have been differentiated by natual selection are still finches. The “science” is the bones that are discovered in ruins, the science stops when those bones found represent less than 10% of the skeleton that is created. In that case, the skeleton represents the belief system and the creativity of the scientist.

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