AP poll has experts lamenting science literacy – It’s more complicated

Should we be surprised by this? No, I’m not. Disappointed, maybe. But, we should be used to these results by now.

Poll: Big Bang a big question for most Americans.

Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.

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.

So we all know that many people will say they don’t “believe” in evolution, global warming or the Big Bang. 51% of people question the Big Bang theory. Why? Well, science literacy is poor in this country, no doubt about that. But consider this… while it’s responsible and prudent to have a reasonable understanding of the basic and accepted tenets of science, you really can get through your life denying a lot of facts about nature. It just doesn’t come up in daily work. There are other factors, social ones, that play a huge part in how we behave and what we accept as true.

The problem lies, as I contend, with the lack of science appreciation. People think the subjects are dull and useless, to be left for those “others”. The real problem is how to fix that attitude. The focus has not necessarily been in that realm.

Not everyone will become a scientist and needs to know the details of the laws of nature, but they do need to understand how humans know what we know and what grows from that – including processes for food supplies, medicine, safety laws and policy. For sure the cup is half empty for 50% of the population, but lamenting that they don’t know facts or don’t “believe” in a concept is not helping. We can’t just fill up their cup with information and assume they will change their minds. Things are more complicated than that. The cocktail of science and society involves religion, politics, pop culture, economics and social norms. The life of scientific ideas in society is a huge matter that is not just a result of poor science education.*

Aside: All journalists misunderstand “skepticism” as a practiced approach to understanding the world. Check out the Media Guide to Skepticism.

*Author has a EdM in Education focusing on Science and the Public


  12 comments for “AP poll has experts lamenting science literacy – It’s more complicated

  1. April 21, 2014 at 12:06 PM

    “but they do need to understand how humans know what we know and what grows from that”

    Dawkins book, “The Magic of Reality: How We Know What’s Really True” is really good in that regard. I recently gave it to my niece. I wrote a note on the inside cover that I wished there was a book like that, or someone to emphasize similar things to me, when I was an adolescent. It would have saved me from a lot of religion-related misadventure and misery.

  2. Chris Howard
    April 21, 2014 at 12:38 PM

    I’d argue that pride and willful ignorance factor into that equation.

    A great deal of the American public believe that being wrong, or ignorant, is a weakness, rather than a persistent condition of being human.

    A condition that can only be solved by possessing a humble and receptive attitude when it comes to learning.

    There’s a long history of know-nothing, and hard hat pride in the U.S. It makes people feel like their ignorant opinions are on par with knowledgable opinions.

    Of course it doesn’t help that education in general is viewed as a necessity, in order to get a “good” job, rather than an enriching experience.

  3. Graham
    April 21, 2014 at 8:46 PM

    I always put it down to the decision to put “Equality of Outcome” (Everyone passes) over “Equality of Opportunity” (Everyone has the chance to pass).

  4. Artor
    April 21, 2014 at 11:05 PM

    Let’s not forget tribalism. There’s a large segment that accepts that their “tribe” requires them to believe in Jesus, love guns, hate fags, and detest anything that sounds “elite.” They can’t accept basic facts about reality, because then they wouldn’t fit in their tribe. That’s tremendously scary for some people, and no amount of rational thinking will change them.

  5. skeptictmac57
    April 22, 2014 at 7:26 PM

    Good point Artor. As an older American who was brought up in the Baby Boom generation,I have become distressed by my contemporaries who gravitate toward attitudes that only a decade ago they would have been appalled by,simply because they see a cultural drift toward them,and they work around people who they want to fit in with.
    I have always marched to my own tune,and could not care less what ‘everyone else’ believes,unless they can justify their beliefs with facts that can withstand logical and skeptical scrutiny.
    Being popular or accepted by one’s peers may be socially expedient,but it is a poor principle on which to build your life,and in my opinion shows a lack of true character and good judgement.

  6. Steve Chaput
    April 22, 2014 at 7:36 PM

    When I was growing up in the ’50s & ’60s we accepted the truth of evolution and other theories of science. Teachers didn’t have to fear for their jobs because they were promoting ‘secular humanism’. our parents wanted us to be educated. It seems that in the last two decades or so certain religious groups and anti-science factions have successfully pushed their own agendas into schools and the media. We really have become a much dumber nation and it appears that way too many folks are happy with that.

  7. justin
    April 23, 2014 at 5:59 AM

    Big bang is broad term, which in essence means we don’t know. We don’t know what banged, why it banged, or even how it banged. We just know the universe around us is the aftermath if that bang. Physics can walk us back to a point, but, then it fails. Miserably. Yes, the majority will say they don’t believe because of willfully ignorance, but lets be clear. There is a tremendous lack of some pretty fundamental information to make this theory believable to your average person. Excluding their religious views of coarse. To quote the late great John Adams “this would be the best of all possible worlds if there were no religion in it”. But please understand that its not just willful ignorance hindering our acceptance. Its also the very incomplete theory. Thanx y’all 😉

  8. Chris Howard
    April 25, 2014 at 8:47 AM

    But we can say that about almost anything, so that really isn’t a valid excuse. (If you are offering it as such).

    We can say that about God, for example.

    Where is God? What does He look like? What are His/Her/It’s powers, and attributes? What came before God? How can the prime mover argument apply to God or Gods, but not the Big Bang, or any other phenomena?

    Epicurus actually outlines this much better than I do, but the point is still the same. People choose to follow one incomplete theory over an other, and they usually do so via willful ignorance, and other cognitive biases.

  9. Jason
    April 25, 2014 at 4:41 PM

    It’s never about what’s being said; its about how its said. Many scientists are pretty elitist. Many educated people are pretty snobby, too. If people who truly love science want to spread their message, then spread it with cheerfulness and understanding; not condescension.
    If “Tribalism,” is the issue, stop looking down on some one else’s tribe and maybe they will listen to you!

  10. justin
    April 26, 2014 at 4:54 PM

    I wasn’t necessarily using it as an excuse for religion. I was saying that some people should be give the benefit of the doubt when looking at the statistic above. Just because someone doesn’t believe completely in the current theory of the “big bang” doesn’t automatically make them religious or willfully ignorant. Just because the majority of scientists agree on something doesn’t make them right. There are many theories on the beginnings of the universe. Most are outlandish and highly unlikely. But there are more than a couple that are worth researching. My comment wasn’t against or for either argument. It is simply wishful thinking that maybe some people are more open minded then the state suggests. The state is kind of analogous with Democrat or Republican. You’ve only got two choices. Pick either one and half of everyone will think your always wrong. Pick neither and everyone thinks your wrong. Open up to all possibilities and use your own power of reason to choose what you believe.

  11. Chris Howard
    April 26, 2014 at 9:57 PM

    I suppose my point is that we should all believe what is supported by the best evidence rather than believing whatever we want.

    Believing what we want, when not supported by the best evidence; or worse, no evidence, is WAY more elitist (and arrogant) than a scientist who, often, has humbled themselves in service to the truth.

    Plus I think there’s a confusion between being in an elite profession (one which requires a lot of focus, and study, to the exclusion of other aspects of ones life, and for a significant amount of time) and being an elitist. They aren’t the same.

  12. Chris Howard
    April 27, 2014 at 9:38 AM

    If I think a person is wrong about something that’s not “looking down on them” (I’m not exactly sure what that means?) that’s me saying that I think they’re wrong about something.

    That’s not a judgement of their character, but rather a comment on their belief. If it is taken as snobbery, or a personal attack, that is a perceptual error on their part. It’s not about them, it’s about the best evidence, and wether they have it or not.

    So, back to scientific literacy.

    If I tell an illiterate person to read Moby Dick, and then write me a book report on it is that fair of me?

    Keep in mind that this person can’t even read the Cliffs Notes, much less write. That means that they simply do not possess the cognitive tools to do the job assigned. They can’t even watch a movie because that is another persons interpretation of Melville’s work, and would bias their understanding of Moby Dick.

    Now, if I tell them “I’m sorry but you can’t read, therefore you can’t do a book report on Moby Dick.” is that me being an arrogant elitist, or simply stating a fact, cold as it may be?

    Further, if that person refuses to become literate, but instead becomes angry and starts to believe that all English teachers are elitist and arrogant, because they can read, rather than learning to read themselves, is that really a fair assessment of the situation, or just sour grapes?

    What if the person watches Henry Dana’s “Two Years Before The Mast” and proclaims that it is Melville’s true message? Would the evidence support their view? How could they know what the evidence means, or is? How could they know what constitutes good literary evidence? Again, their illiterate.

    So, is their alternate theory really worthy of serious consideration by people who are not just literate, but highly literate, many of whom have spent their entire adult lives studying Melville, and Dana’s works?

    If the illiterate person insists on claiming that their theory is correct, again with no understanding of the subject matter, no idea how to read, and no experience in an academic environment, are we really supposed to take this persons theory seriously?

    Again, none of that should be taken as a personal attack or remark on that persons character, or that of their “tribes”. It’s just a simply statement of fact.

    If that person still insists, after all that, that they are the ones who possess the True interpretation of Moby Dick, then who is the real arrogant party, in this situation?

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