Yesterday, the Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal wrote up a new AP poll confirming a long-standing truth: Americans don’t poll very well on science. The poll asked 1,012 Americans to rate their confidence in a series of statements about science and medicine, all but one of which were true statements uncontroversial in the scientific community (full results below). Over 90 percent of respondents were at least somewhat confident that smoking causes cancer, a mental illness is a medical condition affecting the brain, genes inside our cells help determine who we are, and overusing antibiotics causes the development of drug-resistant bacteria (well, the last one was 89 percent).
What prompted the scientific wailing and rending of garments, however, were questions of a more foundational nature. While 55 percent of respondents were at least somewhat confident that “Life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection,” 42 percent were not too confident, or not at all confident. That matches Gallup’s polling of Americans’ attitudes towards evolution, where 46 percent of respondents were young earth creationists.
When asked about the Big Bang, the idea that “The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang,” 46 percent of Americans were at least somewhat confident, while 51 percent were not confident. 60 percent were at least somewhat confident in the earth being 4.5 billion years old, however, so some of the Big Bang variation may be attributable to uncertainty. The foundational question that received the strongest affirmative response was in fact “The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation.” 72 percent of respondents were at least somewhat confident in that statement.
Such results were, as expected, bemoaned as the product of a society bewitched by ignorance and superstition when the clear light of scientific day stands obvious before it. The AP rang up a variety of scientists, and reported back that “Those results depress and upset some of America’s top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners.” One climate scientist said that the poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics”; the AP followed up to find that “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.”
But as Madrigal notes, “very little has changed in the public awareness of scientific knowledge over the past 20 years.” Madrigal also documents that “On a general level, Americans’ understanding of science is comparable to people in other countries.” That does bear some close examination. After all, the past 20 years have seen some of the most incredible advances in physics and biology, in medicine and technology. The Higgs Boson has been discovered, and human cloning accomplished. Yet pluralities of Americans don’t even profess the most basic tenets of the scientific cosmology: a universe born out of the Big Bang, and life derived from natural selection.
The scientists shouldn’t fret too much. As Scott Galupo wrote a year ago about Ben Carson, the world-renowned neurosurgeon’s own Young Earth Creationism,
For the vast majority of human beings, even modern cosmopolitan professionals, beliefs about the geologic timescale, the processes of biological adaptation, paleontology, cosmology, etc. exist comfortably outside the scope of their core competencies. I get twitchy when scientific illiteracy creeps into the top ranks of our political class, but, at the same time, I’m forced to recognize that a country in which only four in 10 people believe in theory of evolution seems to function pretty well on an everyday basis.
Among the AP’s scientific hand-wringings came this gem: “‘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.’” Yet when the AP interviewed laymen about their cosmological confidences, they received such answers as “But when it came to Earth’s beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because ‘I wasn’t there’” and “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.”
These don’t sound like Bible-thumping religious fundamentalists; they actually sound more like skeptical empiricists. Truth be told, relatively speaking almost no one in the United States is competent to judge the physics that go into judging the Big Bang’s credibility. For the rest, blue state scientific adherents as much as red state fundamentalists, it’s a leap of faith, or at least a trusting in the judgment of others. The Origin of Species has almost no relevance to the everyday life of a person, the age of the Earth even less so. Whether the Big Bang tests out and multiple universes are the logical result, absolutely none. It makes scientific prophets comforted to see their creeds affirmed by the masses, but such popular affirmation has little relevance to the priests of science making measurements in the laboratories.
We all do have a stake in the rise of antibiotic resistant bacteria, and the resulting superbugs that threaten to defeat any of the remedies we have come to rely on, the treatments that allow us to safely cut people up for surgeries. In that case, we should be quite heartened that at the more practical level, 88 percent of Americans are at least somewhat confident that the overuse of antibiotics causes these superbugs. That indicates they should be more receptive to messaging to curb antibiotic overuse. Prophets of science, direct your sermons in that direction.