America loves science (well, some of it)

Opinion – The American public thinks science is great – but takes very little notice of what scientists actually say.

According to a survey from the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Americans think science has had a mostly positive effect on society, and scientists are held in high regard – more so than any other professions apart from the military and teaching, and way ahead of the clergy (or journalists, for that matter).

But along with all this adulation comes a shaky grasp of science – fewer than half those surveyed knew that electrons are smaller than atoms, for example.

And there’s a widespread refusal to believe ideas that are generally accepted by the scientific community. While 84 percent of scientists agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity, for example, more than half the general public thinks we’ve had no effect at all.

This will come as no surprise to anyone who reads the comments we get at TG Daily whenever we run a story on climate change. Nobody’s denying that there are all sorts of factors affecting the Earth’s temperature, and there may be some exaggeration  going on – but it hardly seems implausible that human activity should be having *some* effect. And yet, we’ve had readers seriously suggest not only that it’s a myth, but that it’s a massive and deliberate conspiracy involving staff at all levels, all over the world, within governments, universities, research labs, NASA… millions of people, in other words.

But if you want the prime example of the public’s fundamental disagreement with basic scientific tenets, then – you’ve guessed it – it’s the question of human and animal origins.

According to the survey, an extraordinary 68 percent of Americans don’t believe in evolution through natural selection – a state of affairs that is surely unparalleled elsewhere in the western world. Less surprisingly, the figure is just 13 percent for scientists, who understand that the word “theory” in Darwin’s Theory of Evolution doesn’t actually mean “random guess”.

As you might expect, this situation creates a touch of cognitive dissonance. Over a third of the public said that science sometimes conflicted with their religious beliefs. This doesn’t put them off, mind you, as a full 63 percent of these creationists reckoned that scientists contributed “a lot” to society’s wellbeing. So perhaps there’s hope.

This matters. America leads the world in science – one reason it’s so successful. And while it’s good to be a bit sceptical, it’s crazy to fly in the face of the evidence. All over the world, people manage to believe in a God who used evolution as part of his plan. If the world’s leading scientific nation is already rejecting something with so much evidence behind it, what will be next?

We could try making the creationists breed fruit flies, and actually see evolution in action. But a better way might be to make them put their money where their mouth is.

Presumably, if you don’t believe in evolution, you don’t believe in newly-emergent strains of flu or other diseases, either. Just deny the latest vaccines to the creationists, and they’ll weed themselves out in the next hundred years or so. By natural selection.