Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The science of ignorance

Just before Earth Day, a new Associated Press-GfK Poll revealed the state of Americans’ ignorance of science. It’s not a pretty picture at all, though maybe not entirely as bad as many are saying.

Most of the coverage so far has been based on taking the top two most positive results and comparing them with the bottom two least positive. I think this is a function of the options offered to respondents.

Respondents were asked a series of questions on scientific matters, things that are considered settled science. For each question, respondents were asked to state how confident they were the statement was true, and their possible answers were: Extremely confident, Very confident, Somewhat confident, Not too confident or Not at all confident (those who refused to answer or didn’t answer were also measured).

The middle response was that people were “somewhat confident”, which still expresses confidence that the statement is true. I would’ve thought that the correct middle response would have been something allowing someone to state they were “neither confident or not confident”—though since I can’t figure out how to word that clearly, I wonder if that could be the reason it wasn’t the middle point.

How this plays out in the news media coverage is that it drops out the people who are “somewhat confident” the statement is true, which makes Americans look to be more doubtful of science.

The problem in this can be seen in two very different questions.

Asked about their confidence in the statement, “Smoking causes cancer”, the vast majority (82%) were “Extremely/Very confident” the statement is true, while only four percent were “not too/not at all confident”. It doesn’t matter if the “middle ground” answer of “somewhat confident” (12%) is included in those who are confident because the overall confidence of respondents is clear.

But look at a very different statement: “The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man-made heat-trapping greenhouse gases.” The news media reported—accurately—that nearly 40% of Americans are “not too/not at all confident” that the statement is true, which is alarming in itself, but added to that the fact that a mere 33% of Americans are “Extremely/Very confident” the statement is true, and it’s a very scary result—or is it? Fully 28% of respondents were “somewhat confident” the statement is true, which means that a clear majority of Americans—61%—have some level of confidence that the statement is true. That’s a very different impression than the one created merely by looking at the two ends of the spectrum and seeing that confirmed climate change deniers clearly outnumber those who back climate science.

We see the same thing on the statement “The Earth is 4.5 billion years old” where 60% of respondents have at least some confidence that’s true (27% “Extremely/Very confident” and 33% are “somewhat confident”), and a mere 36% don’t.

The only statement on which the science-deniers have a slim majority was “The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang”, where 51% of respondents were “Not too/Not at all confident” that this is true, and a mere 21% of respondents were “Extremely/Very confident” (25% were “Somewhat confident”, for a total of 46% who had some level of confidence). This profound ignorance about the Big Bang led Vox to publish “Most Americans don't believe in the Big Bang — here's why they should”—not that the science deniers would be willing to read it, let alone accept it as fact.

Even with the reservations about the somewhat misleading picture given by not including “Somewhat confidents” in the total of people who are confident a statement is true, despite that, this is a pretty disheartening look at Americans. How can the country hope to compete in a global economy when it denies some of the most fundamental facts of science?

The poll doesn’t attempt to answer that question (which I think is obvious: It can’t), nor does it say why ignorance of scientific facts is so widespread in the USA, so I will: Fundamentalist religion and Big Money.

Fundamentalist christianity has been waging war on science pretty much as long as they’ve been around. That picked up speed as their political fortunes began to rise some four decades ago. For them, the universe and everything in it was created some 6,000 years ago over six days of 24 hours each. Because of that, they have to deny that “The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” and that “The Earth is 4.5 billion years old” or that “Life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection”.

It seems to me, though, that religious belief isn't the sole reason for science denial. A non-scientific statement included in the poll, “The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation” found a majority (54%) were “Extremely/Very confident” that was true, and another 18% were “Somewhat confident”. That means only 25% of Americans didn’t believe that was true. Even so, despite this religious belief, majorities of Americans accepted scientific truth on all but one question.

I think that the fact that there are plenty of Christian scientists who see no conflict between their religious beliefs and scientific facts probably accounts for the fact that majorities of Americans know the earth is billions of year old and that evolution is a fact. I suspect that the reason a slim majority doubt the Big Bang has less to do with religion and more to do with simply not understanding the science.

Big Business is the other major factor in creating scepticism about science. It has a strong vested interest in convincing ordinary people that climate change doesn’t exist: Their profits would plunge if people take action to reduce greenhouse gasses. Because of that, it’s in their financial self-interest to fund disinformation campaigns to undermine science by creating confusion. This becomes linked with fundamentalist religionists and crackpot conspiracy theorists, who deny the science for their own reasons, leading to what I think is the truly surprising thing about the poll results: The fact that a majority of Americans DON’T deny the science of climate change.

By sowing doubt in science and fostering rejection of the scientific method, Big Business is helping to fuel general anti-science attitudes as well as encouraging people to ignore science. That, in turn, leads to people expressing scepticism about settled science.

So, taken as a whole, the poll paints a depressing picture of Americans’ lack of scientific knowledge. The picture may not be quite as bad as the news media are making it sound, but it’s still pretty bad.

The only way to fix this terrible situation, and to end silly “debates” about settled science, is to increase science education in the schools. If more people understood science, we wouldn’t waste so much time on silly arguments that are based on mere emotion and feeling, not reason or facts. I’ve Very Confident of that.

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