While most scientists believe the universe began with the Big Bang, many Americans put a big question mark on the theory, according to an Associated Press/GfK poll.
The poll showed that when considering ideas that scientists consider truths, Americans are less confident in concepts as they become more abstract or more distant in time, such as global warming, the age of the Earth and particularly the Big Bang, from 13.8 billion years ago.
But when it comes to closer-to-home issues like the dangers of nicotine, Americans’ doubts dissolve, according to the survey results released Monday.
Rather than quizzing people on scientific knowledge, the survey asked them to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.
On some, there is 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 is a genetic code inside our cells.
More people — 15 percent — have doubts about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines. Health experts say recent outbreaks of stamped-down diseases, like measles and whooping cough, are a result of fewer parents vaccinating their children. Some blame a medical journal article, now discredited and retracted, for spurring unfounded distrust of vaccines.
About 4 in 10 people say they are not very confident or outright disbelieve that the Earth is warming mostly because of heat-trapping gases released by human activity, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection. Still, most were at least somewhat confident of those concepts.
But a slight majority — 51 percent — question the Big Bang theory.
Those results upset some of America’s top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners who vouched for the science in the poll statements and called them settled scientific facts.
“Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said of the University of California at Berkeley’s Randy Schekman, the 2013 Nobel Prize winner in medicine.
The poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
And scientists know they’ve got the smallest side of the triangle.
For 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.
Political and religious values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change.
Confidence in those four areas of science decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises, according to the poll. Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts that they may see as contradictory to their faith.
“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,” he said.
But evolution, the age of the Earth and the Big Bang are all compatible with belief in God, except to Bible literalists, said Francisco Ayala, a former priest and a professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California at Irvine.
Beyond religious belief, views on science may be tied to what we can see with our own eyes. The closer an issue is to us and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, said John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit at Mercy.
Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny who lives in Washington, D.C., said she is certain smoking causes cancer because she saw her mother, aunts and uncles — all smokers — die of cancer. But when it comes to the universe beginning with the 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.”
Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, “I feel the change. There must be a reason.”
But when it comes to Earth’s beginnings, he has doubts simply because “I wasn’t there.”
Experience and faith aren’t the only things affecting people’s views on science. Lefkowitz sees “the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact” as a more striking factor, citing significant interest groups — political, business and religious — campaigning against scientific truths on vaccines, climate change and evolution.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press