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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 Irate Engineer ( 2814313 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @07:43PM (#46819223)

    Don't ALL scientists doubt the Big Bang and other models for the universe in the sense that they are all subject to comparison with observations? If a model conflicts with observation, the model either must be dropped or modified.

    Science isn't about believing something to be true.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:09PM (#46819347)

      Your terminology however may cause confusion.

      As currently all available evidence does point to the big bang.

      Therefore until any evidence contradicts that, it is the accepted model.

      Saying scientists 'doubt' any of that can be technically correct if you play with your words enough, but in common language, no they do not.

      • 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: (Score:3, Informative)

          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?

          It doesn't matter to some people: whether my ancestors evolved from the same creatures as apes did or a fluffy pink unicorn farted them into existence doesn't affect their day-to-day activities (with the possible exception of the occasional worship of said fluffy pink unicorn). Unfortunately, though, it does affect who people elect to represent them, and it does affect how they lead us. The results of this survey imply that, for the foreseeable future, we are going to keep getting into situations where el

    • by EvolutionInAction ( 2623513 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:10PM (#46819353)

      That's misrepresenting it again though. Scientists don't doubt the Big Bang or evolution. They are theories that will continue to evolve as we find more evidence. They will modify them to fit the facts. The chances of some revolutionary, completely new method of interpreting the data is very, very slim at this point.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by SampleFish ( 2769857 )

      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.


      • by nobuddy ( 952985 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:20PM (#46819401) Homepage Journal

        The age is constantly revised as the ability to measure increases. usually it is given an "at least" age- the technology and methodology sets a minimum date that the universe cannot be younger than. Sometimes the method gives a range, as the 12-16B one did. Now we are at 13.77B, the next may narrow it down to a date and time...

    • by camperdave ( 969942 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:22PM (#46819413) Journal

      If a model conflicts with observation, the model either must be dropped or modified.

      That's a little too simplistic. Often, when a model conflicts with observation, the first thing that is questioned is the observation. Is the observation accurate? Is it repeatable? Is the observation made without observer bias (intentional or otherwise)?

    • 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 or idiology.

      To me, people who doubt evolution are very unfortunate. It’s sad to miss out on such interesting science or to go through life believing things that are provably false (note that not all of religion is provably false, but the world clearly wasn’t created in 6 literal days), given a long history of scientific discovery. And I’m also really afraid of some of them putting their beliefs into legislation. But I think it’s important to understand that these people have not been equipped by their environment (culture, schooling, etc.) to understand some very abstract ideas. Only once you accept that these people are not evil for what they believe can you start finding clever and interesting ways to convey what we have learned from science and why we believe certain theories are probably correct.

    • 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.

  • Mental illnesses are just what society calls people that do not follow the norm in the way they think or behave.

    • Society calls that being "weird", or a "loner". Mental illness is completely different.

    • You're kind of an idiot, ain't ya?

      Seeing people who are not there is certainly a deviation from the norm. I think my schizophrenic friend would trade that for a more 'normal' brain, though.

      The sudden crushing certainty that you're worthless and everything you do makes your life worse is certainly a deviation from the norm. Think my depressed friends would trade that for a more 'normal' brain, though.

    • by nobuddy ( 952985 )

      No, mental illness is rejecting reality in favor of your fantasies- whatever the source of those fantasies.

  • by Zombie Ryushu ( 803103 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @07:45PM (#46819231)

    You are going to see that where Science conflicts with Religion, and in some cases Industry. The Current Science that we have, with the technology and Anthropology we have, rules out the possibility of the Christian religion having any basis in reality. It doesn't rule out the possibility a god exists. It only means that the current dominant Abrahamic religions are not realistic descriptions of the universe we live in.

    But these religions justify how we treat other people, why certain social groups are stigmatized, and have a heavy impact on who are leaders are, what our laws are, how we raise our children, and the legitimacy of the standing governments. If the Religions aren't true, then there is no justification for the political positions of MANY people in the US Government.

    In other cases, its that we are so dependent on dangerous sources of fuel, like Coal, and Petroleum, that there is the fear of an economic death spiral. So we shut our eyes and want to live in fantasy land, until it kills us.

    • You eat organic food, don't you?
    • by ShakaUVM ( 157947 ) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @08:31AM (#46822005) Homepage Journal

      >The Current Science that we have, with the technology and Anthropology we have, rules out the possibility of the Christian religion having any basis in reality.

      What the fuck?

      No. Not in the slightest.

      You can certainly argue against literal interpretations of Genesis, but most Christians do not and have not believed in a literal interpretation. Biblical literalism is a very modern phenomenon, dating to the start of the Fundamentalist movement with the publication of The Fundamentals in 1910.

      1910 AD. Not BC.

      Only someone with no understanding of either science methodology or history would make the claim that you did.

  • I don't think the survey is very fair for the question about the Big Bang. I consider myself well informed and try to keep at least a layman's understanding of scientific breakthrough. I understand the concept behind the Big Bang but cannot understand most of the hard science behind it.

    Am I willing to take someone else's word just because? I don't possess the knowledge to verify their research. In my opinion, most people should be uncertain because it's not something we're ever likely to prove.
  • 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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward

      That'd be a fair point, but I'd wager that many of the people involved take bronze age writings and conspiracy theories at face value.

    • 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.

      That sounds like anti-conformism for anti-conformisms sake. There's nothing wrong with questioning authority, the problem is with assuming the authority is wrong just because they're an authority. There are a ton of mathematical proofs I don't understand but I blindly accept because I understand the mathematicians don't have a motive to mislead me. And even when something catches my eye and I do decide to question I'll do so aggressively but that doesn't mean I stop believing it. Whatever happens you've got

  • I've never read up on it, so if you asked me I might say "I don't know". That doesn't mean I don't accept a scientific explanation for the creation of the Universe, it just means I don't know enough about it to say "Yep, that's what happened".
  • This is what confidence in evolution, the big bang vaccines, etc mean in the context of the poll.

    Smoking causes cancer
    A mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain
    Inside our cells, there is a complex genetic code that helps determine who we are
    Overusing antibiotics causes the development of drug-resistant bacteria
    The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation
    Childhood vaccines are safe and effective
    The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man-made heat- trapping greenhouse gases
    Life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection
    The Earth is 4.5 billion years old
    The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang

    Except, perhaps for the "mental illness" question, there's not much room for quibbling over the meaning of each, imho.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    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.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Jmc23 ( 2353706 )
      Careful!! Too much critical thinking and you might start wondering who 'sponsored' the survey!
  • by Bonobo_Unknown ( 925651 ) on Tuesday April 22, 2014 @08:26PM (#46819445)
    My biggest problem with surveys like these is that they public are being asked to reply with certainties that are far greater in clarity and definition than any scientist working on these fields would ever propose. And then the ignorant public are laughed at for doubting scientific truth. No cosmologist would ever state they were 100% certain that the big bang happened, and yet we laugh at the public for not being certain either. True ignorance shows itself as certainty, either for or against supposed "scientific" principles. Being uncertain is okay, as long as you are aware of some of the options.
  • 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

  • it's simple (Score:4, Insightful)

    by gzuckier ( 1155781 ) on Wednesday April 23, 2014 @10:09PM (#46829665)
    when science gives me antibiotics and cell phones, i believe in it totally. when it tells me i need to be careful about where I toss my waste products, it's a hoax. I've found this rule to be easy to follow.

One good suit is worth a thousand resumes.