Americans question science

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.
AP Wire
Apr 22, 2014

Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

Rather than quizzing scientific knowledge, the survey asked people to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.

On some, there's broad acceptance. Just 4 percent doubt that smoking causes cancer, 6 percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain and 8 percent are skeptical there's a genetic code inside our cells. More — 15 percent — have doubts about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines.

About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection. Most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory.

Those results depress and upset some of America's top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts.

"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.

The poll highlights "the iron triangle of science, religion and politics," said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they've got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public "most often values and beliefs trump science" when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world's largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Political values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change.

Religious values are similarly important.

Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises, according to the poll. Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts they may see as contradictory to their faith.

"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."

But evolution, the age of the Earth and the Big Bang are all compatible with God, except to Bible literalists, said Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine. And Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and an evangelical Christian, agreed, adding: "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."

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

Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny who lives in Washington, D.C., said she's certain smoking causes cancer because she saw her mother, aunts and uncles, all smokers, die of cancer. But when it comes to the universe beginning with a Big Bang or the Earth being about 4.5 billion years old, she has doubts. She explained: "It could be a lack of knowledge. It seems so far" away.

Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, "I feel the change. There must be a reason." But when it came to Earth's beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because "I wasn't there."

Experience and faith aren't the only things affecting people's views on science. Duke University's Lefkowitz sees "the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact" as a more striking factor, citing significant interest groups — political, business and religious — campaigning against scientific truths on vaccines, climate change and evolution.

Yale's Leiserowitz agreed but noted sometimes science wins out even against well-financed and loud opposition, as with smoking.

Widespread belief that smoking causes cancer "has come about because of very public, very focused public health campaigns," AAAS's Leshner said. 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.

That gives Leiserowitz hope for a greater public acceptance of climate change. But he fears it may be too late to do anything about it.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK's probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn't otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

 

Comments

Wolverine49457

The high and mighty brain trusts of science also told us there can be several people (personalities) within one person, they worked diligently to promote the idea and ushered in the era where Multi personality disorder was real, the science was settled and thus were crafted treatments and therapies designed to help the patient cope, you may recall this new and exciting field of study was all based on the woman known as Sybil...who made it all up fooling the entire scientific community including the multi honored (by themselves) and the highly acclaimed Nobel prize winning whiz kids, yes we doubt and question science sometimes because science like medicine, government and legal system all too often get it wrong.

AprilMayJune

I found the article to be well written and it certainly explains much about a number of the comment contributors to be found in these parts.

I recall that many psychologists through the years have maintained that there really is no multiple personality disorder. At any rate here is an article about the hoax perpetrated by Sybil: http://psychcentral.com/blog/arc...

ghmomma

http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseas... It IS a valid disorder....just because someone faked the condition doesn't invalidate it. David Koresh claimed to be the final prophet and his followers believed he was god.

Back to the Wall

I trust science, It's the scientists and their willingness to cherry pick facts to support hypotheses that are sold to the highest bidder that aren't trustworthy.

Mystic Michael

And I would suggest to you that any "scientist" willing to sell his/her professional reputation to the highest bidder is in fact no scientist at all, but simply a charlatan with a PhD and a white lab coat.

The current, artificially-induced brouhaha over climate change is most illustrative: While the vast majority of earth scientists & climatologists (some 98%+) agree that climate change is real, is happening right now, and has potentially devastating global consequences, the tiny minority left over have mostly been found to have a not-so-hidden pro-corporate agenda, i.e. they've accepted funding for their projects from people like the Koch Brothers - with the tacit understanding that their reports had better demonstrate whatever outcome their benefactors expect - or no more funding from Uncle Dave & Uncle Charlie.

nextdoor

Lot of science needs government money to be studied. and scientists need money to live off.Go figure

Mystic Michael

And yet, virtually no government funding ever comes with ideological strings attached - a condition that seldom exists when corporations and/or wealthy private interests are providing the capital. Because those people are accustomed to getting exactly what they want. So when the principle of scientific objectivity collides with their desires for a pre-determined outcome, guess which blinks first?

I'll tell you how I figure: Scientists are among the most fair-minded, objective, truth-oriented people you'll ever meet - IF you've ever met one. They spend many years obtaining their educations, struggling to get by as poor graduate students, then spend the next 40-50 years being perpetually underpaid, with their work getting politicized by people who have ulterior agendas - all so that they get to pursue their passion for truth & knowledge.

To insinuate that any of them chooses to pursue such a difficult, demanding path - only to sell out so that they can then "cash out" with "lucrative" government funding, has got to be one of the most ignorant, idiotic remarks I've ever encountered here. And that's saying a lot.

LuditeHunter

It would all be SO much simpler and easy to believe if one ingredient were removed from the mix. Those pesky, self serving, greedy, manipulative, narcissistic HUMANS.

Tell me please, with any more certainty than the Farmers Almanac... Will it rain next Month?

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