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United States Science

The US Public's Erratic Acceptance of Science 600

An anonymous reader writes "The U.S. general population is often the butt of jokes with regard to their understanding of science. A survey by the Associated Press now shows just how arbitrary and erratic the public's dissent can be. 'The good news is that more than 80 percent of those surveyed are strongly confident that smoking causes cancer; only four percent doubt it. Roughly 70 percent accepted that we have a genome and that mental illness is seated in the brain; about 20 percent were uncertain on these subjects, and the doubters were few. But things go downhill from there. Only about half of the people accepted that vaccines are safe and effective, with 15 percent doubting. And that's one of the controversial topics where the public did well. As for humanity's role in climate change, 33 percent accepted, 28 percent were unsure, and 37 percent fell in the doubter category. For a 4.5-billion-year-old Earth and a 13.8-billion-year-old Big Bang, acceptance was below 30 percent. Fully half of the public doubted the Big Bang (PDF).'"
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The US Public's Erratic Acceptance of Science

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  • by braddock ( 78796 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:03PM (#46819315)

    We should be glad we are a country which does not take the word of "authority" at face value. Surely the best scientists and innovators come from that tradition. If a person does not understand a proof, they should not blindly accept it.

  • by benzapp ( 464105 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:05PM (#46819321)

    How many can tolerate the obvious truth, supported by thousands of studies, that average differences in intelligence across the various peoples of the world and especially races are due to genetic factors?

    How many accept the fact that pervasive poverty and barbarism in the world has little to do with history or materialism, and instead is due to the fact that the poor are so because they have less ability to control themselves; hence their prodigious fecundity?

    People are usually unwilling to accept scientific truths that contradict their religious worldview. In the case of the typical slashdot reader, that worldview is the belief in the equality of man and the tablua rasa myth.

  • by SampleFish ( 2769857 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:13PM (#46819373)

    Thank you for making some sense today.

    Although it is easy to prove that the Earth is older than 6,000 years I don't think we actually know how old the universe is. There is a new estimate that came out in 2013 so many people may not be aware of it. Before 2013 we estimated "that the Big Bang occurred between 12 and 14 billion years ago." that's uncertainty of over %16? Doesn't sound very confident to me. The good news is that the new measurement lands in the middle of the old estimate which is encouraging.

    NASA says:
    "How does WMAP data enable us to determine the age of the universe is 13.77 billion years, with an uncertainty of only 0.4%? The key to this is that by knowing the composition of matter and energy density in the universe, we can use Einstein's General Relativity to compute how fast the universe has been expanding in the past. "

    Unfortunately, Einstein's General Relativity is not a bulletproof model and these estimates will have to be revised as our understanding of physics changes.

    From my layman understanding; I think it's safe to say that the universe is at least 13 billion years old but it could be much older. It's the best guess we have.

    SOURCE: []

  • by Jeremiah Cornelius ( 137 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:22PM (#46819419) Homepage Journal

    Doubt "Big Bang"?

    Well you should.

    It can be said that: Under the conditions for which we need a working model, this 'Big Bang' hypothesis behaves in a way that consistently explains our extrapolations from observable phenomena. It also introduces some inconsistencies when take as a factual occurrence, when we introduce additional extrapolations from different phenomenal observations at quantum level. For those, notions such as "time" or "location" seem to be irrelevant, if not non-existent. This demolishes the very concept of actual measurement in any possible way - so let us posit additional models that require among other things, the hypothesizing of multiple, non-observed dimensions that nonetheless allow our maths to be validated and not face the ontological consequences of nothing being real.

    Zeno had similar preoccupations, with time and position.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:22PM (#46819421)

    Compare the two questions:

    "Are you confident that the earth is billions of years old?"

    "Are you confident that the earth is 4.5 billion years old?"

    Version 2 was the version they asked. Frankly, I'd not express too much confidence in that. Just too much precision. Version 1 would have been a much fairer test.

  • by Theovon ( 109752 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:59PM (#46819599)

    Much as most don’t understand the scientific definition of “theory,” you seem to be using the wrong definition of “doubt.”

    Proper scientists recognize that a currently held theory is merely the best explanation we currently have for a phenomenon. In light of the evidence, they believe it’s PROBABLY MOSTLY true, but they are willing to easily accept that it isn’t if new evidence demonstrates that the older theory doesn’t explain all the facts. This isn’t “doubt” so much as “critical thinking.”

    The doubters the article is referring to are people who, DESPITE the evidence, believe the theory is NOT true. Of course, most of them are painfully unaware of the evidence, they have no idea how to get to it, and they wouldn’t know how to interpret it if they had it. A lot of that is due to a broken educational system.

    People say there’s “mounds of evidence” for evolution. So I’ve asked biologists if there was a compendium of major publications in the area, but I didn’t get very far. There are decent college text books, but many don’t present the original evidence; they only recount the findings from the literature. Part of the problem is that most of the “evidence” is boring tables of measurements of fossils and bones. If you won’t know what the numbers mean and how they relate, they’re just numbers. They are the evidence, but it doesn’t help they layman at all. Another part of the problem is that any summary of the evidence would leave out too much. A proper treatment of the topic would be on the order of “every peer-reviewed publication on the topic since Darwin.” This is because publications cite each other so they don’t have to reinvent the wheel. They make “assumptions” they don’t have to justify because someone else already did, but it’s a major undertaking to follow all the rabbit holes. Biology PhDs have trouble with that. A farmer will be hopelessly lost.

    With most sciences, most people are clueless. But since they have no other reason to doubt it, this doesn’t cause any conflict. People have heard of chemistry and astronomy and mostly just consider them to be overly difficult or esoteric. It’s only biology (and some of cosmology) that makes any statements that go against things people have been taught to believe. They have no hope of understanding the science, but they do believe what their religious leaders tell them, and there is nothing intelligible to the that says otherwise.

    It’s this lack of understanding of what “common folk” go through that makes me really angry with people like Richard Dawkins. As far as many people are concerned, he’s nothing more than an arrogant jerk who thinks that everyone who believes differently from him is a moron. I’ve seen dozens of videos of him on YouTube, and I never see him present evidence. He merely claims that it’s there and believes that it should just be obvious to everyone what it means. It’s like me (the computer nerd) when I was in high school who treated people unkindly because they didn’t understand computer as well as I did. Now I’m a CS professor, and I have to teach basic CS concepts to young adults. It’s VERY challenging to get some concepts across, but I work hard to do it. Dawkins is terrible at this. Perhaps if he deigns to teach an undergraduate course now and then, he might do okay, but he strikes me as one of those all-too-common lecturers who has no patience for anyone who questions what he says. His attitude reminds me of so many religious people who insist that you’ll go to hell if you don’t believe blindly exactly as they do. I guess calling someone a moron isn’t as bad as telling them they’re going to hell, but it’s a similar intolerant attitude, intolerant to people who don’t share your same training

  • by Paul Fernhout ( 109597 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @09:13PM (#46819657) Homepage

    From Dr. David Goodstein, 1994: []
    "In the meantime, the real crisis that is coming has started to produce a number of symptoms, some alarming and some merely curious. One of these is what I like to call The Paradox of Scientific Elites and Scientific Illiterates. The paradox is this: as a lingering result of the golden age, we still have the finest scientists in the world in the United States. But we also have the worst science education in the industrialized world. There seems to be little doubt that both of these seemingly contradictory observations are true. American scientists, trained in American graduate schools produce more Nobel Prizes, more scientific citations, more of just about anything you care to measure than any other country in the world; maybe more than the rest of the world combined. Yet, students in American schools consistently rank at the bottom of all those from advanced nations in tests of scientific knowledge, and furthermore, roughly 95% of the American public is consistently found to be scientifically illiterate by any rational standard. How can we possibly have arrived at such a result? How can our miserable system of education have produced such a brilliant community of scientists? That is what I mean by The Paradox of the Scientific Elites and the Scientific Illiterates.
    The question of how we educate our young in science lies close to the heart of the issues we have been discussing. The observation that, for hundreds of years the number of scientists had been growing exponentially means, quite simply, that the rate at which we produced scientists has always been proportional to the number of scientists that already existed. We have already seen how that process works at the final stage of education, where each professor in a research university turns out 15 Ph.D's, most of those wanting to become research professors and turn out 15 more Ph.D's.
    Recently, however, a vastly different picture of science education has been put forth and has come to be widely accepted. It is the metaphor of the pipeline. The idea is that our young people start out as a torrent of eager, curious minds anxious to learn about the world, but as they pass through the various grades of schooling, that eagerness and curiosity is somehow squandered, fewer and fewer of them showing any interest in science, until at the end of the line, nothing is left but a mere trickle of Ph.D's. Thus, our entire system of education is seen to be a leaky pipeline, badly in need of repairs. The leakage problem is seen as particularly severe with regard to women and minorities, but the pipeline metaphor applies to all. I think the pipeline metaphor came first out of the National Science Foundation, which keeps careful track of science workforce statistics (at least that's where I first heard it). As the NSF points out with particular urgency, women and minorities will make up the majority of our working people in future years. If we don't figure out a way to keep them in the pipeline, where will our future scientists come from?
    I believe it is a serious mistake to think of our system of education as a pipeline leading to Ph.D's in science or in anything else. For one thing, if it were a leaky pipeline, and it could be repaired, then as we've already seen, we would soon have a flood of Ph.D's that we wouldn't know what to do with. For another thing, producing Ph.Ds is simply not the purpose of our system of education. Its purpose instead is to produce citizens capable of operating a Jeffersonian democracy, and also if possible, of contributing to their own and to the collective economic well being. To regard anyone who has achieved those purposes as having leaked out of the pipeline is silly. Finally, the picture doesn't work in the sense of a scientific model: it doesn't make the right predictions. We have already seen that, in the absence of external constraints, the size of science grows

  • Re:Shocking... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Opportunist ( 166417 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @09:22PM (#46819699)

    I'm just wondering, do people distrust science, or do they distrust corporations? I trust science that it is capable of producing vaccines that are perfectly safe (well, as safe as a medical treatment can become, there's always a minimal risk involved, but in general the gain outweighs the risk by some margin). I don't trust corporations to not cut corners and endanger lives if they can get away with it while making a buck.

  • Re:Hmm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @10:22PM (#46819945)

    I suspect most of these results aren't necessarily coming about because of religion, but from basic ignorance of science. Ask questions about something the listener has no knowledge about in any meaningful way, then they either guess the answer or they give the answer that they are expected to give by society. This applies to even people who give the "correct" answer, I doubt many of those who agreed that smoking caused cancer ever read the scientific reports about it or that those who agreed with the big bang theory understand what it really is.

    In other words, this is not a poll about understanding science but a poll about which viewpoints are commonly accepted or not.

    And this is not use a problem in USA, you will find this around the world, but it's more fun to make fun of the US and pretend that it's more ignorant than elsewhere.
    Even if you will find more people in Europe that agree that climate change is caused by humans this does not mean that there are more people who read science journals over there, but that the prevailing public attitudes lean in that direction more than in the US. In the US we've got some people trying to actively sway public opinion about climate change for economic reasons, thus lots of doubt is created which is less common in Europe. For both Europe and the US the vast majority of the people have only heard about climate change from the news media anyway.

  • by Darinbob ( 1142669 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @10:27PM (#46819965)

    Yes but how can a person know to accept that model without first learning the model? So why poll the general public about this question when most the general public really only knows what they were told to recite in school or what they saw on Nova? "Acceptance of science" partially means do you trust what the popular theories are as presented in the media without actually doing the math or analyzing the data yourself, and it partially means have you heard of this topic before so that you even know what scientists tend to think about it.

  • Re:Shocking... (Score:0, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @10:36PM (#46820001)
    They distrust corporations that can buy "scientists" who say whatever the corp wants them to say. An example already given is all the tobacco company-funded studies "proving" that "smoking was safe". Real science eventually won but the lies were perpetuated for decades.

    About vaccines, I have one word for you: thimerosal. It's a mercury-based preservative found in many different vaccines. Yes, mercury, a known neurotoxin, injected into peoples' veins. The same mercury that created the saying "mad as a hatter" since hatmakers used mercury and eventually went crazy from its effects on the central nervous system. What does this mercury do to children? Is even one case of autism or mental retardation caused by it? What does it do to adults? Remember mercury was once the doctors' treatment of choice for various venerial diseases. At the time that was considered a good idea. Just like the Romans thought lead piping was a great way to do plumbing, and also thought the sweet-tasting lead acetate was a wonderful food additive. Of course they'd have laughed at you if you questioned that, because that's how things had been done for so long, right?

    Oh and the mercury amalgams used in the "silver" dental cavity fillings? They out-gas mercury. This is known and not disputed. You can Google for videos to see it yourself. Some dentists use only the composite that is mercury free. In fact the very word "quack" to describe a faulty doctor came from dentists, because they called mercury "quacksilver" and later "quicksilver". But at the time they would tell you it is perfectly safe.

    Just like now we use chlorine in drinking water even though we know it damages arteries (arterial sclerosis). Only when arteries are damaged this way can cholesterol cause plaque to build-up and eventually clog them. Healthy arteries can handle tons of cholesterol (a vital nutrient) with no problem. We put fluoride in drinking water even though we'd never dream of medicating people with no regard to dosage in any other manner, even though there is no evidence it helps teeth, even though it can hurt teeth, even though it harms the thyroid, even though dentists and not physicians decided it was not toxic to the rest of the body, even though following the money leads you to see that it was an industrial waste product that was expensive to dispose of but selling it to water companies turned it into a revenue source.

    It boils down to this. Do we think we are so very special and we are so arrogant that this is the ONLY PERIOD OF HISTORY when we are always told the real truth about important things ... or will future generations be amazed that we did the things we do just like we now look at the Romans deliberately ingesting lead? We love to think we are so special don't we? There is no evidence for that at all, but we like to insist on it adamantly. We love to think we have all the correct answers, none of this information has been corrupted by the impact of money, and none of it will be reconsidered by future generations. Right? Nah nothing arrogant about that, nosirree.

    None of the above is medical advice. If you want that, talk to a real doctor. What I intend is that you maybe do some research, ask some questions, talk to some practitioners if you need advice.
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @10:39PM (#46820019) Homepage Journal

    All ideas may have been created equal, but they do not remain so after they've been tested.

    Scientific theories are the ideas that you don't have to prove again every time you use them, because they have already been tested very thoroughly. This means a paleontologist is allowed to assume that dinosaur bones are the fossilized remains of extinct animals that lived millions of years ago. He doesn't *have* to waste his time dealing with the opinions of Young Earthers who think the world was created 7000 years ago and that Adam and Eve rode around on dinosaurs. He can just assume as factual that dinosaur fossils are millions of years old and dismiss the Adam-and-Even-on-a-dinosaur idea without further ado -- until the Young Earthers come up with proof.

    And it's not the least unfair, any more than its unfair that a football team that gets the ball on their own ten yard line has more work to do to score a goal than one that gets the ball ten yards from goal. It may seem discriminatory to people who haven't been following the game up to this point, but that's because they aren't aware of the work it took to get the ball where it is.

  • Re:Hmm (Score:5, Interesting)

    by causality ( 777677 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @11:10PM (#46820131)

    Not implying. There are a lot of willfully ignorant people that prefer their religion's tale of a 10,000 year old universe

    That's both sad and amusing. Having read and learned about the Bible, I can tell you this much: the geneologies in Genesis and elsewhere are not complete and exhuastive. They do not claim to be complete and exhaustive. Nowhere in the Bible is it so much as implied that they are.

    The standard ancient Hebrew practice of listing such geneologies is to list only the most famous/notable ancestors. More mediocre and lesser-known ancestors are left out deliberately because they were not considered worthy of mention. Thus there are large gaps of unknown time in the geneologies listed in Genesis and elsewhere. Nothing to the contrary is ever claimed. This fact is not even difficult to find out, except that it does depend on doing your own homework instead of letting the TV and the culture do the thinking for you. The main point of all the geneologies in the Bible is to establish that the line of King David was known (old testament) and is the same line from which Yeshua (new testament) is descended, which is important because various prophecies concerning the Messiah predicted this (e.g. Isaiah).

    To infer some kind of final ultimate Age of Humanity or Age of The Earth from this is madness. The Bible never represents it as such, and anyone claiming it does is simply unfamiliar with the very book (and ancient Hebrew culture) they are claiming to understand. The Bible makes no claims whatsoever concerning things like how long ago Adam lived, how long ago Noah lived, how long ago the Flood was, etc.

    Most self-described Christians don't know this and that's just plain fucking lazy, to be frank with you. You believe this is the WORD OF GOD and yet you can't be bothered to learn a few easily researched facts about it?? This is what happens when people always have some excuse for why they won't do their own thinking and their own learning.

  • by quantaman ( 517394 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @11:48PM (#46820265)

    What about the multiverse? :)


    This was a joke about him saying there was only one universe.

    The atmosphere isn't some single indivisible thing anymore than the universe,


    Notwithstanding other planets the atmosphere consists of multiple layers of atmosphere, different regions of the planet, different aspects like storms, rainfall, temperature, etc.

    For instance CO2 warming doesn't just explain the earth getting warmer right now, it also explains that different layers of the atmosphere will warm to a different degree, it also explains past warming events.

    you aren't going to find a climate scientist who specializes in the atmosphere anymore than you find a physicist who specializes in the universe.


    I think you misunderstood what I meant, they don't specialize in 'the universe' because the universe is actually an insanely vast and complex thing, they instead specialize in some arcane aspect of inflation theory.

    The reason that matters is because you can repeat observations.

    What???? Seriously, I hope this is a troll?

    There is no proof of a multiverse, the atmosphere is within confined known space and measurable, science does have specialists, and I can repeatedly watch lightning come out of the sky but that does not mean Zeus throwing thunder because he's angry.

    If this was not a troll ... well the world is already in trouble so what's one more.

    Your issue with the multiverse and specialist thing was a misunderstanding, similarly with the atmosphere I wasn't saying it was infinite, I was saying it was way too big and complex to treat as a simple thing.

    The theory that Zeus threw thunder, if the atmosphere was as simple as a thing that made thunder then the only thing we could repeat was the observation that thunder happens. But we can test the Zeus theory multiple ways, we can fly up to the top of the clouds and see if a giant is hanging out up there, we can look at multiple clouds in different parts of the globe and see if there's more simultaneous lightning strikes than Zeus has limbs, we can check to see if lightning strikes correlate with sacrifices, or if there are other cloud characteristics that predict lightning. There is only one atmosphere but I just named four ways to test the Zeus theory, its not as simple as one atmosphere means one observation and no way to double check your theory, that's why the observational vs narrative model is false.

  • Re:Shocking... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by erikkemperman ( 252014 ) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @03:45AM (#46820943)

    Everyone skeptic of AGW needs to not only ignore basically all of climate science, but also the common sense argument:

    The energy captured in coal, gas, and oil is the result of many millions of years of sunshine. How, exactly, does one reasonably maintain an expectation that our releasing that in a matter of a couple decades should have no significant effects?

  • Re:re; You Should? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mrvan ( 973822 ) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @04:25AM (#46821073)

    I'm a scientist, but not in astrophysics or a (remotely) related discipline.

    At some deep level, I "doubt" the big bang theory because it seems to me that it is not something that can really ever be tested, simulated, experimented with, so we have n=1 observational data at best, and building causal theories on n=1 observational data is tricky; and on another level I "doubt" the theory because I don't know the literature or even really understand the phenomenon and I have no clue what the scientific evidence for and against it are. "They" say that it is the currently accepted theory, but what does that even mean? Why would I not doubt it?

    All that said, I don't believe that the theory is false, I just accept that "other scientists" know what they are doing so as a body they are probably right if they accept a model. But I don't like accepting things on authority, I like understanding why something would be the case, and I don't have that understanding for big bang theory.

    [at least with other "grand theories" like tectonics or evolution I have some understanding of the process involved and the evidence that lead the scientific community to accept it (e.g. the magnetism 'bar code' for tectonics) and it can be observed somewhat in real life (the functioning of current species, the shape of continents. And let's not even talk about flat earth, young earth, intelligent design and other complete hogwash]

  • Re:Shocking... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Quirkz ( 1206400 ) <ross.quirkz@com> on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @11:12AM (#46823629) Homepage

    And they should. You can't go around screaming "mercury" like there's only one form of an element, and it always has the same property no matter what chemical compound it's part of. Imagine we had the same lecture about "sodium" (an explosive metal) or "chlorine" (a deadly poison). Can you BELIEVE they put sodium AND chlorine in our TABLE SALT! It's an explosive deadly poison! They're killing us all!

    Oh, actually, I didn't get through the quackery far enough to see that chlorine came up in drinking water. This AC really hasn't ever heard of table salt.

    Most of the stuff in that post is conspiracy level "they're lying to us and everything's a poison" diatribe. Do a little research and you'll see that 1) thimerosol wasn't in most vaccines and was removed from nearly all of them at this point because of the paranoia and FUD, 2) even when it was in some vaccines, it is mercury compound with no demonstrated physical harm, unlike, say, the stuff in old thermometers, 3) this "mercury is always evil" argument ignores any rational analysis of toxicity levels, disregarding how minimal the amount of mercury was in any of the vaccines compared to other general exposure.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. -- Milton Friendman