Science versus public opinion

Posted on 2017‒08‒04

science

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

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.1

3 in 8 Americans think astrology is at least "sort of scientific".2

🌍 Earth is ball-shaped; it's about 10 000 km from equator to pole.3

It's not clear how many Americans believe Earth is flat, but there's anecdotal evidence that some do.4

🌞 When viewed from distant, fixed stars, Earth revolves about the Sun.5

1 in 4 Americans think it's the Sun about Earth.6

🌋 Earth is about 4 500 million years old.7

About 1 in 5 Americans believe the earth is less than 10 000 years old.8

🌌 The Universe is about 13 800 million years old, started with an explosion, and has expanded ever since.9

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

1 in 6 think it hasn't been expanding.10

🌡️ Climate change is real and caused by people.11

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.12

About 1 in 3 Americans don't think so.13

🤒 Antibiotics kill bacteria, not viruses.14

2 in 5 Americans think otherwise.15

💉 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.16

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

🌿 At present, GMO food is as safe to eat as non-GMO food.17

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: this is a dynamic list and may never be able to satisfy particular standards for completeness.

References

Bishop, George F., Randall K. Thomas, Jason A. Wood, and Misook Gwon. 2010. “Americans’ Scientific Knowledge and Beliefs About Human Evolution in the Year of Darwin.” Reports of the National Center for Science Education 30 (3). https://ncse.com/library-resource/americans-scientific-knowledge-beliefs-human-evolution-year: 16–18.

Carlson, Shawn. 1985. “A Double-Blind Test of Astrology.” Nature 318 (December). http://muller.lbl.gov/papers/Astrology-Carlson.pdf: 419–25. doi:10.1038/318419a0.

Ernst, E. 2002. “A Systematic Review of Systematic Reviews of Homeopathy.” British Journal of Clinical Pharmacology 54 (6). https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1874503/: 577–82. doi:10.1046/j.1365-2125.2002.01699.x.

Heigl, Alex. 2017. “The Short List of Famous People Who Think the Earth Is Flat (Yes, Really).” People, February. http://people.com/celebrity/flat-earth-celebrities-world-not-round/.

Hubble, Edwin. 1929. “A Relation Between Distance and Radial Velocity Among Extra-Galactic Nebulae.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 15 (3). http://www.pnas.org/content/15/3/168/short: 168–73. doi:10.1073/pnas.15.3.168.

“Planck 2015 Results. XIII: Cosmological Parameters.” 2016. Astronomy and Astrophysics 594 (September). Planck Collaboration; https://arxiv.org/abs/1502.01589: A13. doi:10.1051/0004-6361/201525830.

Smith, Tom W., Peter Marsden, Michael Hout, and Jibum Kim. 2017. “General Social Surveys, 1972–2016.” National Science Foundation; https://gssdataexplorer.norc.org; NORC at the University of Chicago.

Zarka, Philippe. 2009. “Astronomy and Astrology.” In The Role of Astronomy in Society and Culture, 5:420–25. Proceedings of the International Astronomical Union. doi:doi.org/10.1017/S1743921311002602.


  1. Amazingly, the matter wasn't definitively settled until relatively recently because prior work suffered from loopholes (see, e.g., Carlson 1985, and @zarka2011).

  2. 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?" (Smith et al. 2017).

  3. The extrinsic curvature of the earth's surface was first measured by Eratosthenes. Marinus of Tyre was the first to rigorously assign locations a latitude and longitude (c 114 ce).

  4. Witness, for instance, American celebrities who espouse Flat-Earth views (Heigl 2017).

  5. Bradley discovered the aberration of starlight from in 1729. Bessel directly measured the parallax of 61 Cygni in 1838.

  6. 2016 responses to the GSS question "does the Earth go around the Sun, or does the Sun go around the Earth?" (Smith et al. 2017).

  7. Patterson gave the first modern demonstration based on radiometric dating of meteorites in 1956.

  8. "About" 1 in 5 because mentioning religious themes increases this proportion (Bishop et al. 2010)

  9. The linear relation between expansion velocity and distance was first observed nearly a century ago (Hubble 1929). 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 (“Planck 2015 Results. XIII: Cosmological Parameters” 2016).

  10. From the 2016 GSS (Smith et al. 2017).

  11. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change regularly publishes reports on the state of the art in climate science.

  12. I have fond memories of working through Steven Jay Gould's The Structure of Evolutionary Theory in high school.

  13. Once again, this statement must be qualified with "about" because the response depends on how the question is asked (Bishop et al. 2010).

  14. The first antibiotic, arsfenamine, was discovered in 1909, but the first antiviral, idoxuridine, wasn't discovered to until about 1963.

  15. 2016 responses to the General Social Survey querying agreement with the statement "Antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria" (Smith et al. 2017).

  16. More carefully: it does no better than a placebo and cannot be recommended for the treatment of any specific ailment (Ernst 2002).

  17. The relevant Wikipedia article has, like, a zillion citations for this fact.