Science versus public opinion

Posted on 2017‒08‒04


How do Americans' lay beliefs deviate from scientific knowledge? Let us count the ways...

Recently, the March for Science Facebook group posted a cute image macro:

The image in question

This list is a good start, but

Here's my take on addressing these issues, loosely sorted according to Library of Congress Classification:

🏳️‍🌈 Attepting to change one's sexual orientation doesn't work; most people experience "little or no sense of choice" about it.

: 2 in 5 Americans think that being gay or lesbian is "just the way some choose to live".

💫 Astrology doesn't work and isn't science.[^astrology]

: 3 in 8 Americans think astrology is at least "sort of scientific".[^astrology1]

🌍 Earth is ball-shaped; it's about 10 000 km from equator to pole.[^earthshape]

: It's not clear how many Americans believe Earth is flat, but there's anecdotal evidence that some do.[^earthshape1]

🌞 When viewed from distant, fixed stars, Earth revolves about the Sun.[^earthorbit]

: 1 in 4 Americans think it's the Sun about Earth.[^earthorbit1]

🌋 Earth is about 4 500 million years old.[^earthage]

: About 1 in 5 Americans believe the earth is less than 10 000 years old.[^earthage1]

🌌 The Universe is about 13 800 million years old, started with an explosion, and has expanded ever since.[^universeage]

: 1 in 6 Americans think it didn't start with an explosion, and

: 1 in 6 think it hasn't been expanding.[^universeage1]

🌡️ Climate change is real and caused by people.[^climatechange]

: 1 in 10 Americans think climate change isn't real, and

: 3 in 10 think it's natural.

🐘 Every species alive today—humans included—arose from prior species through mutations modulated by natural selection.[^evolution]

: About 1 in 3 Americans don't think so.[^evolution1]

🤒 Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.[^antibiotics]

: 2 in 5 Americans think otherwise.[^antibiotics1]

💉 Vaccines are safe and effective.

: About 1 in 10 Americans think that the health benefits are "low", the risk of side effects is "high", and that the risks outweigh the benefits.

🌊 Homeopathy doesn't work.[^homeopathy]

: 1 in 50 US adults used a homeopathic remedy in 2012.

🌿 At present, GMO food is as safe to eat as non-GMO food.[^gmos]

: 2 in 5 think it's worse.

Compiling this list was a useful exercise—it gave me some perspective on the bounds of the typical American's knowledge (and experience with typing emoji into Vim to boot). I might add some more items in the future, but I remember the words of a wise old sage: <i>this is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness</i>.

[^astrology]: Amazingly, the matter wasn't definitively settled until relatively recently because prior work suffered from loopholes [see, e.g., @carlson1985 and @zarka2011].

[^astrology1]: 2016 responses to the General Social Survey (GSS) question "would you say that astrology is very scientific, sort of scientific, or not at all scientific?" [@norc-gss].

measured by Eratosthenes. Marinus of Tyre was the first to rigorously assign locations a latitude and longitude (c 114 ce).

[^earthshape1]: Witness, for instance, American celebrities who espouse Flat-Earth views [@heigl2017].

Bessel directly measured the parallax of 61 Cygni in 1838.

[^earthorbit1]: 2016 responses to the GSS question "does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?" [@norc-gss].

[^earthage1]: "About" 1 in 5 because mentioning religious themes increases this proportion [@bishop2010]

[^universeage]: The linear relation between expansion velocity and distance was first observed nearly a century ago [@hubble1929]. Successive microwave radiometry experiments have refined the estimate of the Universe's age to 13 799 million years, a figure accurate to one part in 500 [@planck2015].

[^universeage1]: From the 2016 GSS [@norc-gss].

[^climatechange]: The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly publishes reports on the state of the art in climate science.

[^evolution]: I have fond memories of working through Steven Jay Gould's <i>The Structure of Evolutionary Theory</i> in high school.

[^evolution1]: Once again, this statement must be qualified with "about" because the response depends on how the question is asked [@bishop2010].

with the statement "Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria" [@norc-gss].

[^homeopathy]: More carefully: it does no better than a placebo and cannot be recommended for the treatment of any specific ailment [@ernst2002].

[^gmos]: The relevant Wikipedia article has, like, a zillion citations for this fact.