April 22, 2014 – Last night I watched an HBO documentary called “Questioning Darwin.” It took an in-depth look at those who reject Darwin’s theory of natural selection on grounds of faith in the words of the Judeo-Christian Bible. At the same time it presented the personal journey of Darwin from his roots to his presentation of his theories in the book, “The Origin of the Species,” in which he described the mechanism of natural selection, the theory upon which our scientific understanding of how life evolves on this planet. What struck me as disturbing was the absolute religious conviction of those interviewed that Darwin was wrong regardless of what they had learned in science in school. In many cases those interviewed were not even exposed to the concept of natural selection in the schools they attended or through home schooling.
That brings me to the point of this posting today. In the latest polls on what Americans think about science facts suggests that a large number of the citizens of the Earth’s wealthiest nation are rooted firmly in their biblical convictions. Knowing this it should be no wonder that statements by many in the federal House of Representatives and Senate, and in the congresses of state government reflect similar positions. The poll I’m referring to is the AP-GfK poll of 1,012 Americans age 18 or older conducted in March 2014. The poll makes a series of general scientific and unscientific fact statements and asks people to express confidence in their accuracy.
When asked to respond this is what the Americans surveyed thought:
“The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation.”
- Extremely or very confident in this statement: 54%
- Not too or not at all confident in this statement: 25%
“The average temperature of the world is rising, mostly because of man-made heat-trapping greenhouse gases.”
- Extremely or very confident in this statement: 33%
- Not too or not at all confident in this statement: 37%
“Life on Earth, including human beings evolved through a process of natural selection.”
- Extremely or very confident in this statement: 31%
- Not too or not at all confident in this statement: 42%
“The Earth is 4.5 billion years old.”
- Extremely or very confident in this statement: 27%
- Not too or not at all confident in this statement: 36%
“The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a Big Bang.”
- Extremely or very confident in this statement: 21%
- Not too or not at all confident in this statement: 51%
Of those who responded to the poll:
- 29% had a bachelor’s degree or higher,
- 29% had some college education,
- 31% were high school graduates,
- and 12% had less than high school.
In terms of age groups:
- 22% were between 18 and 29
- 34% between 30 and 49
- 26% between 50 and 64
- and 18% over age 65.
The margin of sampling error was plus or minus 3.4% with a 95% confidence level for the total results.
What the poll shows is that whatever is being taught in science classrooms in the United States today and in the recent past, the information is not sticking for many. Why? Religious belief is the principle reason. The battle between scientific fact and faith is being won by the latter rather than the former. You would think the science of Hubble, Darwin and Einstein would by now be seen as irrefutable regardless of faith but it clearly is not.
Instead people’s acceptance of science is very selective. For example when asked to respond to the statement:
“Smoking causes cancer.”
- 82% were extremely or very confident in its accuracy.
- only 4% were not too or not at all confident.
So that science is getting through. Or look at the results of the statement.
“Overusing antibiotics causes the development of drug-resistant bacteria.” This is clearly a statement that supports natural selection in the evolution of drug-resistant strains of bacteria. And here the responses are:
- 65% are extremely or very confident in its accuracy.
- 9% are not too, or not at all confident.
And this one which is all about the human genome,
“Inside our cells, there is a complex genetic code that helps determine who we are.” This is the mechanism of natural selection and yet here:
- 69% respond that they are extremely or very confident in the accuracy of that statement.
- only 8% not too, or not all confident.
What this shows is selective listening when it comes to understanding science. And if science fact intrudes on faith then the light of science goes out. I call this blissful ignorance. And this is the same issue when the facts of climate science are presented. While here there is no conflict with faith unless there is some biblical attribution to Noah’s flood or the “End of Days.”
On a more positive note, the latest national American survey completed on April 20, 2014 and conducted by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication shows that when asked about what they believe should be the federal government’s very high or high priority regarding the environment Americans respond as follows:
- 62% want the government to address water pollution.
- 61% want the government to develop new sources of clean energy.
- 56% want the government to clean up toxic waste.
- 54% want the government to address air pollution.
- 46% want the government to correct the damage to the ozone layer.
- 45% want the government to help nations reverse the loss of tropical rainforests.
- 44% want the government to address global warming.
When directly confronted with questions specific to the issue of the environment, the above results suggest that Americans do accept science facts when considering policies they believe governments should enact. It is hard to reconcile the blissful ignorance about greenhouse gases and climate change with the environmental conviction expressed by a significant number of Americans who want the government to address global warming. If global warming isn’t human-caused then what do Americans think their government can do?