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Majority Of Americans Don’t Believe In The Big Bang Theory

Big Bang

A new Associated Press poll has yet more depressing news for those of us already distressed about the appalling state of science education in this country:

A majority of Americans don’t believe in even the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics, which 99.9 percent of members of the National Academies of Sciences do: that our universe began with an enormous explosion, the Big Bang.

51 percent of people in a new AP/GFK poll said they were “not too confident” or “not at all confident” that the statement “the universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” was correct.

(…)

[T]he Big Bang question data was enough to “depress and upset some of America’s top scientists,” the AP said.

If so, they haven’t been paying attention to the data about the scientific knowledge that Americans possess. The National Science Board (a part of the National Science Foundation) has produced an annual survey of American beliefs about science called the Science and Engineering Indicators since the 1980s.

Up until 2010, they asked the following question: True or false, the universe began with a huge explosion.

Since 1990, the number of people answering true to that question has bounced between 32 and 38 percent. (The number was anomalously higher in 1988, a discrepancy that they do not explain.)

Americans both seem to find the Big Bang confusing—I mean, it’s not intuitive science—and to have faith-based conflicts with the scientific conclusions of cosmology.

On questions of evolution and the Big Bang, Americans respond scientifically at “significantly lower [rates] than those in almost all other countries where the questions have been asked,” according to the 2008 version of the report.

It isn’t just the Big Bang that the American public seems to doubt, but a whole host of rather basic scientific concepts:

 

AP Science Poll

 

On some level, of course, polls like this aren’t very relevant. Science, after all, is not a matter of majority opinion and the truths about Cosmology and Evolution remains as they are regardless of whether or not the majority of the American public “believe” in them or not. Additionally, it is arguably silly to ask people whether or not they “believe in” various scientific principles the same way we might ask a child if they believe in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy. Science isn’t a matter of belief, and the important questions really are what, if anything people understand about the science that explains the world around them. It’s not easy to capture that in a poll question, though, and as the writer at the link above notes there are some legitimate quibbles with the way that the poll questions were phrased here.

None of that is to say, though, that these are unimportant matters, though. It’s vitally important to the extent that peoples opinions about, or knowledge of, these basic scientific ideas shape their views about public policy issues. These issues range include everything from what the proper policy responses to rising global temperatures should be, to whether or not pseudoscience such as “Intelligent Design” should be taught alongside Evolutionary Theory in public school classrooms. On a more basic level, though, it strikes me that it ought to be important for the citizens of an advanced nation in the 21st Century to at least have a basic knowledge of  science and what it has told us about where we came from and the universe we live in. In the end, that is a far more interesting story than some fable that starts with two naked people in a garden.

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About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May, 2010 and also writes at Below The Beltway. Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Strictly speaking, the prompt is mistating the big bang theory in a way that someone who does believe in it would have to answer “not confident at all” as it’s presently not clear whether the event described in the theory was actually the beginning of the universe (e.g. Hartle-Hawking State) or merely a local event in a much older and larger universe (e.g. Brane Cosmology).

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  2. al-Ameda says:

    No surprise.

    It’s science, most people have no idea or clear understanding about most major scientific concepts. Just consider how many people use the word “theory” as if it means nothing is proven, that if a “theory” cannot explain all phenomena then it has no value.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  3. Neil Hudelson says:

    The slightly higher percentage of people who acknowledge* that the earth is warming, and the cause is man, is more worrisome to me than whether or not someone understands the Big Bang. The Big Bang, belief or not, will not affect my life or my progenies’ lives. Climate change is the much bigger clusterf*ck of a problem.

    *i say acknowledge, because unlike the Big Bang, climate change is easier to understand, easier to teach, and the evidence is legion. There is no “belief;” either you acknowledge it or you live in a state of willful, intentional denial.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 13 Thumb down 0

  4. Pinky says:

    I could see a legitimate argument about each and every one of those statements.

    (And, lest I be accused of being one of those stupid, crazy anti-vaccine people, let me say that whatever trivial risks there are in getting vaccinated are more than offset by the benefits. But “safe and effective” is a broad standard.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  5. Mikey says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I’m quite sure the overwhelming majority of those who answered “not too/not at all confident” to that question did not do so with that distinction in mind. They would likely have answered that way to any question not containing the words “God” and “created.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  6. mantis says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    it’s presently not clear whether the event described in the theory was actually the beginning of the universe (e.g. Hartle-Hawking State) or merely a local event in a much older and larger universe (e.g. Brane Cosmology).

    True, but someone with that level of understanding would likely get the intent behind the question and respond accordingly.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  7. Paul L. says:

    Smoking has 25% chance of causing cancer.
    So what major scientific advancement (that progressives say creationists should not be able to use) relies on the Big Bang theory?

    Over 50% believe The fact (not theory) of Evolution/Abiogenesis

    Neil Degrasse Tyson must have been wrong during the 1st episode of
    Cosmos when he said we don’t know exactly what happened during/at origin
    of life .

    As proved by the last episode of Star Trek The Next Generation All Good Things…

    http://en.memory-alpha.org/wiki/All_Good_Things…_%28episode%29

    Q then shows Picard a pool of green sludge, a pool of amino acids. They
    are about to combine to form the first proteins, however, the
    disturbance from the anomaly stops the combination as it happens. Life
    on Earth doesn’t start, and the anomaly stopped the creation of Humanity.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  8. anjin-san says:

    Let’s stay focused on the things that matter in 21st century America. What are the Kardashian girls up to anyway?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 1

  9. Tillman says:

    @Stormy Dragon: I mean, I objected when they described it as “a big explosion,” your technicality is some orders of magnitude above that.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  10. Tillman says:

    @Pinky: Okay. How trivial does the risk need to be for it to be considered safe? Technically, breathing air contains the risk that it might have a lethal pocket of carbon monoxide in it that will kill me, but the risk is so miniscule that most people consider it safe. I’m not certain the standard is too broad in this case.

    I could see a legitimate argument against vaccination if the evidence weren’t so horrifically skewed against it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  11. al-Ameda says:

    @anjin-san:

    Let’s stay focused on the things that matter in 21st century America. What are the Kardashian girls up to anyway?

    Speaking of big bang theories …..

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  12. mantis says:

    @Paul L.:

    So what major scientific advancement (that progressives say creationists should not be able to use) relies on the Big Bang theory?

    A far greater understanding of our universe. That’s all scientific advancements are: expansions of our knowledge of the natural world.

    And creationists are free and encouraged to be smarter. They choose not to.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  13. Dave D says:

    This is the type of shit that gives us members of congress that sit on the House Science Committee and do dictate policy say things like “Evolution is a lie from the pit of hell.” If only we had an advanced enemy to beat again then science education might again be a priority.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  14. Paul L. says:

    @mantis:
    So before the Big Bang theory, there were no scientific advancements?

    Environmental should hate the Big Bang theory as it allowed Man to create the technological means to rape Mother Gaia.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 13

  15. DrDaveT says:

    You do realize that asking whether “The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang” should give you much lower agreement rate than “The universe began with a big bang”, right? Specifying how many years ago changes the question significantly, even for people who don’t have a religious objection.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  16. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Alternate title to this post:

    Majority of Americans are Ignorant.***

    *** I want to say ‘stupid’, but I know better. Ill informed? Yes. But stupid? Not necessarily.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  17. Pinky says:

    @Tillman:

    I could see a legitimate argument against vaccination if the evidence weren’t so horrifically skewed against it.

    Agreed. (I originally typed that in all caps by accident, and actually I agree with it enough that it probably should be in all caps.)

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  18. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @DrDaveT: I don’t understand your point Dave. 99.999999% of cosmologists (OK i exagerate) agree on the age of the universe (within a certain factor, the # i hear most often is rounded to 14 billion years). That most Americans are ignorant of this is proof only of their ignorance. If the question said 6 billion years, do you think the results would be different?

    Now if they said the universe was 6,000 years old….

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  19. alanstorm says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    Yes, as demonstrated by the last two presidential elections, where “Hope and Change” and “Forward” were held to be meaningful goals and strategies.

    If you want to criticize science knowledge in this country, look no further than the public education system.

    I am well aware that there are good teachers out there – I had a few during my tenure there – but they are vastly outnumbered my the mediocre, and they usually don’t set policy.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8

  20. anjin-san says:

    @ Paul L.

    Environmental should hate the Big Bang theory as it allowed Man to create the technological means to rape Mother Gaia.

    So are you trying to tell us that you are just too stupid to understand all this complicated science stuff?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 1

  21. Tyrell says:

    What we are dealing with here is quantum physics. For decades the government has been engaged in research, experimentation, and testing of light, field theory, relativity, time, and electro-magnetic fields. Most of this has and will be kept secret, but some information does get out.
    The so-called “Big Bang ” theory leaves out one important thing: in order to have a “bang” , you must have some materials. You can’t make something from nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 5

  22. charles austin says:

    It is certainly arguable that the Big Bang violates all three laws of thermodynamics. Note, laws, not theories. The truth is, we have no idea what happened approximately 13.8 billion years ago. The Big Bang is the best theory going, but it still has a number of problems that are way beyond our ability to explain right now. Oh, and things are created from nothing all the time in the quantum world. That is in fact how black holes can evaporate as a particle and anti-particle come into existence (look up the Feynman diagrams) and one gets sucked in to the black hole and the other doesn’t. But I digress.

    But are most people generally not scientifically literate? Of course. When was this golden age where everyone knew and understood the latest scientific theories that you seem to think we have fallen from?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    I don’t understand your point Dave.

    i will bet you any amount of money you like that more Americans are comfortable asserting that the universe began with a big bang than that the universe began with a big bang N years ago, for any value of N you care to name.

    It’s the same principle as the following two questions. Which of these would you be confident in agreeing with:

    A. Genes are instantiated in DNA molecules.
    B. Genes are instantiated in DNA molecules and expressed through RNA transcription.

    Everybody knows that A is true, and would confidently agree. People who’ve studied some biology (which is to say, a few people) know that B is true, and would confidently agree.

    It may be unfortunate that most people don’t know how old cosmologists think the universe is, or what RNA transcription is, but that’s not the same thing as them not believing in the Big Bang theory or DNA. The title of this article is misleading.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  24. mantis says:

    @Paul L.:

    So before the Big Bang theory, there were no scientific advancements?

    What are you talking about? No, there was less understanding before than after. Science advances knowledge. Whatever mode of inquiry you subscribe to has the opposite effect.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 11 Thumb down 1

  25. mantis says:

    @Tyrell:

    The so-called “Big Bang ” theory leaves out one important thing

    No, it doesn’t, you just don’t understand it.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  26. Franklin says:

    Since 1990, the number of people answering true to that question has bounced between 32 and 38 percent. (The number was anomalously higher in 1988, a discrepancy that they do not explain.)

    1988 is when A Brief History of Time, a bestseller, came out. Coincidence?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 5 Thumb down 0

  27. michael reynolds says:

    @DrDaveT:

    I thought the same thing. 13.8? But 13.7 would be wrong? It’s badly worded.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. anjin-san says:

    @ tyrell

    The so-called “Big Bang ” theory leaves out one important thing: in order to have a “bang” , you must have some materials. You can’t make something from nothing.

    You need to get current. If you are going to bandy about “field theory, relativity, time, and electro-magnetic fields”, you should take the trouble to understand what you are talking about.

    This is a decent place to start.

    In the year 2014, a reasonably intelligent person has the ability to gain insight into the secrets of the universe and creation. It’s an opportunity that should not be wasted.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  29. Paul Hooson says:

    Strangely, even the Old Testament describes the exact same thing, but with the beauty of old Jewish folklore and legend, that there was nothing, and then suddenly God created creation over seven days. On the other hand, space itself is a miracle, in that everything man knows can be measured, except space which has no barriers or limits, and expands on in infinity, which seems impossible, according to man’s conventional understanding of limits on measurements. Everything man knows, the Earth, the seas, your home, the distance to the Moon, can all be measured, but not space itself. It has no walls or limits where space simply reaches the end. This seems impossible, and is a living miracle. The stars are all other suns by which planets revolve, but because it takes light so long to travel, some of these suns may have ceased to exist many years ago, but we still see their light.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  30. anjin-san says:

    The truth is, we have no idea what happened approximately 13.8 billion years ago

    No it isn’t, but I agree that you have the right to remain willfully ignorant, if that is what you choose.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  31. bill says:

    @anjin-san: i can see a lot of this changing in the next 20 yrs, but despite all of the theories surrounding any of it “shit happens” is just not all that scientific for most of us! no, i don’t believe some guy with white hair & a robe or some blue lady with too many arms created it either, but at the end of the day which is really all that crazier? challenging theories is not willful ignorance always.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 2

  32. gVOR08 says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: DaveT’s point isn’t about the accuracy of the dating, but the accuracy of memory. Were you to ask me a month from now – true or false, the Universe is 13.8 billion years old and the earth 4.5 billion; I’d have to honestly answer I wasn’t sure. I do wonder how the results would change if the questions were worded “many billion years ago” and “about 5 billion years old”.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  33. george says:

    @Paul L.:

    So what major scientific advancement (that progressives say creationists should not be able to use) relies on the Big Bang theory?

    I’d turn that around. If the physics behind the big band theory are incorrect, where are all the scientific advances coming from the better creation science physics? When a fundamentally better new scientific theory comes out, it without fail sparks a host of new physics – relativity for instance did this, as did quantum mechanics (not to mention all the new biology – genetics, DNA etc that come out of the theory of evolution).

    All creation science would have to do to shut up its critics is produce predictions and results that do better than current physics/microbiology/biochem etc. Don’t believe in evolution? Come up with an alternative to DNA (ie evolutionary theory has a mechanism for passing on traits – if you don’t believe traits are passed on and then selected for by survival, come up with an alternative with better predicitive results). Don’t believe in the big bang? Come up with an alternative to relativity and quantum mechanics which don’t require the observable universe to be roughly 14 billion years old and billions of light years across, but only about 10,000 years old/light years in radius.

    There are problems with the big bang theory. Of course, there are problems with quantum mechanics, with general relativity, with Ohm’s law, in fact with every scientific theory out there. We use them because they’re the best we have. A creationist alternative science (which maybe would produce far better technology than what we currently have) would probably convince almost everyone of the truth of creationism. Currently it seems like creationists cherry pick – yes we like theories A, B, and C, but not D because D is against our holy scripture, though D is based on A,B,C.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  34. Matt Bernius says:

    @bill:

    challenging theories is not willful ignorance always.

    The key thing is that *not all challenges are equal.*

    If you are going to challenge theory, you need to actually bring a viable counter-theory/explanation. Simply saying “I don’t believe it, because I don’t believe it” is not an acceptable challenge.

    @george:
    It would be so much easier if everyone read Thomas Kuhn, he very clearly lays out how science “works” and how it “changes.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  35. Tyrell says:

    @Franklin: The government conducted secret research concerning time and reltivity at a base located at Montauk, New York. (“Montauk Project-Experiments in Time”, Preston). Most information is still highly classified. It involved a ship that the Navy somehow made invisible and was “teleported” to another port.
    Most surveys show that a high percentage of the population believes that UFO’s exist. And many claim to have actually seen one.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  36. mantis says:

    @Matt Bernius:

    It would be so much easier if everyone read Thomas Kuhn

    Indeed, and Karl Popper. But they won’t. I barely knew of those guys until grad school, and I was a science undergrad!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  37. Matt Bernius says:

    @Mantis,

    Sadly teaching science is different from teaching science literacy. I think most scientists would greatly benefit from the one-two perspectives of Popper and Kuhn. If for no other reason that then help dispel the idea that science is free of ideological influence and that the course of science is anything but predetermined or fixed.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  38. stonetools says:

    The real problem for me is not that many people don’t understand or accept the Big Bang Theory. It really doesn’t matter to me if someone in Buzzard Creek, Idaho, doesn’t accept the Big Bang Thoery. What is potentially damaging to me is that one of the major parties in the USA recruits and promotes political candidates who are anti-science, then once they are elected, places them on committees where they decide science related issues.

    The outgoing committee chair, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), has suggested that climate change is the product of a mass global conspiracy of scientists — the overwhelming majority of whom have concluded that burning fossil fuels cause warming — to obtain grant money. In 2011, he told National Journal he didn’t believe climate change was man-made because “I don’t think we can control what God controls.”

    “I’m really more fearful of freezing,” Hall said. “And I don’t have any science to prove that. But we have a lot of science that tells us [climate scientists are] not basing it on real scientific facts.”

    That puts him only slightly farther out from incoming chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who chastised the “lap dog” media in 2009 for not questioning the scientific consensus on climate change enough.

    Smith’s vice chairman this year, Rep. James Sensebrenner (R-WI), decried climate change theory as a “massive international scientific fraud” and evidence of what he called “scientific fascism.” Another climate skeptic on the committee this year, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), suggested in a hearing that “dinosaur flatulence” might explain historic warming patterns

    Those dudes are actually dangerous, since their decisions might determine future policy that could affect the course of civilization.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  39. gVOR08 says:

    I can’t get very worried about the Big Bang question. Philosophically interesting, but no day to day relevance. I worry far more about the climate change, evolution, and vaccination questions. They’re quite relevant to public policy issues. But the question about complex, therefore product of supreme being is a real pet peeve with me. It’s exactly backwards.

    I design stuff for a living. Trust me, simple is good, but hard. Complicated is easy. It’s like the blogger who apologized for the length of his article, he didn’t have time to write something shorter. If there was an intelligent designer, the universe would be simpler. Unless she was rushed. Complication is the result of evolution, not design. The Wright Brothers didn’t invent the 777. Yes, Boeing did design the 777, but as the product of a century of aircraft evolution.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  40. Franklin says:

    @Tyrell: Not sure what this has to do with my post, but if it were true that we could move a ship invisibly (I do remember reading about this supposed ‘project’), you’d think we could do something simple like win the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And boy would Russia be f**ked right now.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  41. grumpy realist says:

    @Paul L.: Whaaaa…?

    That’s so stupid it isn’t even wrong. You think the Sahara got the way it did recently?!

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  42. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: Um, actually you CAN make something out of nothing, doofus. Because “nothing” ain’t NOTHING. The universe is very good at embezzling from itself and putting stuff back. Particles pop into existence and go back into nothing all the time. And if this happens near a black hole, one of the particles may get sucked in while the other one hangs around. Hence, “matter” has been created out of nothing.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  43. grumpy realist says:

    @Tyrell: Surprising how many UFO aliens only show themselves to geezers driving on back roads in New Jersey.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  44. Tillman says:

    @mantis: His question is poorly phrased as “scientific advancement” when what I think he means (being charitable here) is “technological advancement.” Like gVOR08 says, “I can’t get very worried about the Big Bang question. Philosophically interesting, but no day to day relevance.”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  45. Mu says:

    @anjin-san: You must have some supreme inside to be that confident. When I went to college, we KNEW there was a Big Bang, and all was good. When I was in grad school, we KNEW we had Big Bang and Dark Matter, and all was good. Over the next 30 years we KNEW that we had Big Bang and Dark Matter and Inflation and Dark Energy, and all was good.
    The problem of course being that everything before year of the universe 300,000 or so is opaque and hidden from observation, and all we have is models trying to explain what was before and consistent with the observed fact. The current model works quite well for a lot of things. But people said that about phlogiston too.
    So I would answer that question with “somewhat confident”, and no more.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  46. anjin-san says:

    @ Mu

    You must have some supreme inside to be that confident. When I went to college, we KNEW there was a Big Bang

    Please show where I claim that we KNOW. I will stand by.

    What I did do is take issue with this statement:

    we have no idea what happened

    We do have “an idea” – a reasonably good one.

    It’s also incorrect to state that current thinking about the big bang ignores the problem of what existed prior to that event.

    My answer would be “reasonably confident”

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  47. DrDaveT says:

    @gVOR08:

    It’s like the blogger who apologized for the length of his article, he didn’t have time to write something shorter.

    That would be Blaise Pascal, blogging in 1656 at societyofjesus.org:

    Je n’ai fait celle-ci plus longue que parce que je n’ai pas eu le loisir de la faire plus courte.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  48. Tyrell says:

    Go to abovetopsecret.com. Philadelphia Project

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  49. bill says:

    @Matt Bernius: how can you even begin to challenge such a theory, it has no chance in hell of ever being proven?

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  50. Matt Bernius says:

    @bill:

    how can you even begin to challenge such a theory, it has no chance in hell of ever being proven?

    And in one sentence you manage to demonstrate that you don’t understand the science at play here, and worse, you have no interest in understanding the science at play here.

    This is why — at least on this topic — no one should bother reading anything you write. You can’t expect anyone to respect your opinion if you don’t bother do any work to demonstrate you can form an informed opinion.

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0