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