A recent poll conducted by Associated Press and GfK found that Americans are more skeptical and less confident about several scientifically proven concepts like global warming, evolution, age of the earth and the Big Bang that led to the formation of the universe 13.8 billion years ago. The poll drew this conclusion after asking people to rate their confidence in a range of statements about science and medicine instead of directly testing their scientific knowledge.
The poll found that 4 percent doubted that smoking leads to cancer, 6 percent wondered whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain, 8 percent were skeptical about the genetic code inside human cells and 15 percent were unsure about the efficacy of vaccines. Additionally, 4 in 10 Americans disbelieve that the earth is facing global warming, that the earth happens to be 4.5 billion years old and that life on earth was a result of natural selection. In fact, 51 percent people also doubted the Big Bang Theory.
The findings of the poll have upset most of America’s top scientists, many of whom have won the Nobel Prize.
“Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said Randy Schekman, winner of the 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine.
According to Anthony Leiserowitz, directors of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, the poll highlights the iron triangle of science, religion and politics and scientists have the shakiest leg in the triangle.
“To the public most often values and beliefs trump science when they conflict,” said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the largest scientific society in the world.
The poll also revealed that political values were closely knit with scientific views. The Democrats seemed more apt than Republicans to express faith in the Big Bang, evolution, climate change and the age of the earth. However, the confidence in these concepts happened to decline as the faith in a Supreme Being rose, which is why devout believers expressed greater doubts in these concepts because they see them contradicting their faith.
“When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can't argue against faith… It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable,” said Robert Lefkowitz, winner of the 2012 Nobel Prize for biochemistry.
However, Francisco Ayala, a former priest and a professor of philosophy, biology and logic, said concepts of evolution, the age of the earth and the Big Bang Theory are all compatible with God. Darrel Falk, an evangelical Christian and a professor of biology, agreed with Ayala saying the story of the cosmos and the Big Bang can be found in Genesis 1 where profound biblical scholarship demonstrates true facts.
John Staudenmair, a Jesuit priest and a historian of technology, said that views on science are closely knit with what people can see with their own eyes – the closer an issue to the body and the less complicated it is, the easier it is for a person to believe it. For example, Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny, is certain that smoking causes cancer because she witnessed her family members, all smokers, die of cancer. But she was skeptical about the Big Bang because she does not have enough knowledge about the same. Similarly, Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect, said he believes in global warming because he has witnessed a warm 2012 without a winter but he expressed doubts over the Earth’s beginnings because he was not present then.
Lefkowitz believes experience and faith are not the only factors affecting people’s views on science. He thinks the concerted campaigns to discredit scientific facts plays an important role as well. He cited different stakeholders including business organizations, political parties and religious groups.
The poll was conducted in March 2014 with the help of KnowledgePanel, a probability-based online panel designed by GfK to represent the United States’ population. The poll interviewed 1,012 adults and projected a margin of 3.4 percentage points sampling error for all respondents. The respondents were selected randomly and interviewed online.