Unbelievable: Why Americans Mistrust Science

by / 17 Comments / 186 View / June 7, 2014

In a 2012 survey by the National Science Foundation, 25% of American respondents answered that the sun orbits the Earth. A recent AP-GFK poll found that as many as 4 in 10 American adults doubt evolution, over half aren’t confident that the Big Bang took place, just under 40% don’t believe that pollution is causing climate change, and 15% don’t believe in the efficacy or safety of vaccines. Surveys like these are good at eliciting disbelief and a laugh, but they beg the question: Why do so many Americans reject scientific theories?

Articles analyzing such surveys almost always cite religion as a root cause of disbelief in science. In a comprehensive study on the subject in 2009, the Pew Forum found that more religious Americans are less likely to believe in theories like evolution or the Big Bang, which they feel directly contradict their religious beliefs. However, religious faith is clearly an incomplete explanation, given that many religious scientists agree with the theories their non-scientist counterparts reject.

Nobel-laureate Randy Schekman hinted at another cause in an AP interview, saying, “These attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are only antagonistic to established fact.” With the amount of time and attention the political realm receives, it’s hardly surprising that it has influence over belief in scientific theories. Environmental protection was a non-partisan issue in America until the 1980s, when environmental regulations were cast as economically harmful. This polarized the issue along political lines, with those on the left becoming much more likely to believe that human actions are causing climate change while those on the right rallied around economic interests.

So why do political and religious ideologies win when they come into conflict with science? A 2012 study on conspiracy theories offers an explanation. Psychologists found that conspiracy theorists can hold their beliefs in the face of contradictory facts because of a process called global coherence, by which subjects selectively chose to believe only those facts which supported their worldview. In the same way, political ideology and religion may shape how willing people are to accept scientific facts. For example, believing that governmental authorities are untrustworthy could allow one to ignore all evidence of a vaccine’s efficacy.

On the front lines, fighting for science are the teachers in the classrooms where students are first exposed to major scientific theories. When teaching science, teachers have to contend with students’ old ideas of how the world works, an uphill battle where the old ideas have the advantage. Children are exposed to scientific ideas at around age eight, when they become able to understand abstract concepts. Before that age, children rely on “magical thinking” to explain how the world exists and works, so science education faces a tough challenge right from the start.  Despite the difficulties, classroom science instruction works very well under the right conditions. Unfortunately, a study analyzing the knowledge level of new college students revealed a concerning lack of understanding of evolution. Investigating the factors behind the knowledge gap, the study found that if high school teachers didn’t delve into evolution to a large enough extent or included creationism in the discussion, the students’ knowledge of evolution suffered greatly.  Not only must the curriculum be intelligently designed, but the teachers must be confident in the veracity of science. A 1990 study of teacher behavior found that teachers’ beliefs influence both what content they presented in lessons and how they presented the nature of science over the course of the year. And in the close battle of ideas, any uncertainty in the teacher can leave students unconvinced.

One of the most powerful, and perhaps the most worrying, causes of disbelief is Americans’ lack of trust in scientists. A 2011 poll found that 69% of Americans think that scientists have falsified climate change research.  Once Americans view scientists as a group that may intentionally mislead them in order to promote an agenda, all scientific theories are open to mistrust. When public figures start questioning hard science and pushing the public toward distrust, people listen. A 2011 poll found that when American responses to science questions were compared to those of respondents from other countries, Americans did relatively well except for when it came to questions about politicized issues like evolution.  In order to improve the perception of science in America, there must be a proactive response to each cause of disbelief. Initiatives like improving teacher education and depoliticizing scientific theories are the kinds of actions needed to put Americans’ confidence in science back on top.


This article was originally published on Nature’s Scitable. View this and other science articles at http://www.nature.com/scitable.

Works Cited:

The National Science Foundation “A Test for Scientific Literacy”, Public Opinion and Statistics (2014).

The Associated Press. “A survey of the American general population”, GfK Public Affairs & Corporate Communications (2014).

The Pew Forum “Public Opinion on Religion and Science in the United States”, Pew Research Center (2009).

Gallup Polling “Increased Number Think Global Warming Is Exaggerated” Gallup Center (2009).

Scientific American ,Michael J. Wood, Karen M. Douglas, Robbie M. Sutton “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories” Social Psychological and Personality Science (2012).

Science Eduacation, George J. Posner, Kenneth A. Strike, Peter W. Hewson and William A. Gertzog “Accommodation of a scientific conception: Toward a theory of conceptual change” (2006).

The American Biology Teacher, Randy Moore , D. Christopher Brooks , Sehoya Cotner “The Relation of High School Biology Courses & Students’ Religious Beliefs to College Students’ Knowledge of Evolution” National Association of Biology Teachers (2011).

University of Delaware, Nancy W. Brickhouse “Teachers’ Beliefs About the Nature of Science and Their Relationship to Classroom Practice”, Journal of Teacher Education (1990).

Rasmussen Report, “69% Say It’s Likely Scientists Have Falsified Global Warming Research” (2011).

National Science Foundation “Science Literacy Questions By Country” Division of Science Resources Statistics, Survey of Public Attitudes Toward and Understanding of Science and Technology (2001).

  • Adam Young

    i think that saying that not believing that the big bang theory is correct or that pollution is causing climate change does not imply, in anyway, that someone “doubts” science. these are things on which scientists have no complete consensus yet. i agree with your point that many americans do immediately reject scientific justification, which is stupid, but those examples dont provide sufficient evidence

    • ScienceisReal

      There is an equal chance your comment is part of the Matrix. Your point?

      • Grant Li-Li

        You are being inconsiderate.

    • Josh Buckley

      There’s pretty much a consensus on climate change (97% of scientists is an oft-quoted figure). Much like GMOs, whether or not climate change is human-caused is not an issue among scientists but is an issue manufactured by the media. The big bang is more questionable, but there’s quite compelling evidence to support it. Regardless, the lack of knowledge about orbits and vaccines is sufficient enough to prove the point of the article.

      • Grant Li-Li

        Yeah but some people may believe the 3%. The article has “evidence” but just not enough. i agree with young here

      • someLDfanatic

        Actually I think the consensus is closer to 52%. I can find the study and repost here when I do.

        • Andrew

          Please do.

    • Tom Friedman

      Just because scientists don’t have a complete consensus regarding the intricacies of certain subjects (such as the big bang) doesn’t make it very valid to doubt the experimentally proven basic tenets of these subjects. For example, theoretical physicists have yet to understand gravity fully on a fundamental level, but it would be absurd to doubt a basic experimental result, e.g. that objects attract each other and that this the primary mechanism behind planetary motion. The point of this article is not that people accept the possibility that our current view of science might not be perfectly accurate (which, of course, is true), but that they doubt well-tested empirical results due to confounding factors such as religious dogma and political ideology.

  • Grant Li-Li

    A great read – quick question. Is it a bad thing American’s are doubtful? Don’t they have a free choice to participate in a doubtful culture.

    • Josh Buckley

      Yes. Especially when that doubt can hurt people – like not taking vaccines.

      • Grant Li-Li

        Hurt? What if vaccines are actually bad for you? Like I know you may link me to that video of those dumb Magicians who have potty mouths and use that logic but whatever said it is still not sure

        • Josh Buckley

          When overwhelming evidence supports a position, I tend to believe it. The evidence in favor of vaccines is overwhelming. Just take a look at this (admittedly simplified graphic, I’m not going into too much detail here, you can do your own research) http://www.forbes.com/sites/matthewherper/2013/02/19/a-graphic-that-drives-home-how-vaccines-have-changed-our-world/

          Everything we know could be doubted in some regards. Perhaps the sun does orbit the Earth. It sure looks like that to a casual observer. Do you think people should doubt that the Earth orbits the sun?

          However, we could extend our all-doubtingness ever further. For instance, we can never even verify Newton’s Laws of Motion because we don’t have a completely non-accelerating reference frame. Do you doubt Newton’s Laws? In a more extreme case, we could all be Boltzmann brains, in which case all of the physical universe we know may not exist, and any results from any experiments we conduct could be in our imagination. However, I think that there is a level of doubt that is just stupid, and that level of doubt is frequently reach by the public (although the media should carry quite a bit of the blame).

          • Grant Li-Li

            Ok fine you may have a damn point.

        • Megan Newsome

          Also, if vaccines are naturally bad for somebody, they don’t get vaccines; and that’s why it’s important that /everybody/ else /does/ get vaccinated for what is called “herd immunity.” That’s why it’s so imperative to be vaccinated when possible!

  • T-herbert Jeffery

    This seems to be a biased assessment of a totally legitimate question. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writer is a naturalist. “Before that age, Children rely on ‘magical thinking’…” gives the writer’s position away; equating religious claims with magic is a textbook naturalistic assertion. Overall and for that reason, I think the argument is weak, just as a Christian’s assertion that evolution is “magical thinking” would make his argument approaching this question weak. Obviously, the issue is not as clear-cut as it seems. Maybe the ideologically assured demeanor of people like the who the writer seems to be cause people to be skeptical of scientific claims with implications on religion, or what seem to be implications. As far as I know, the Big Bang is currently almost completely established, but the evolution we are taught in school is increasingly being doubted. More and more scientists are starting to question whether natural selection and genetic mutations are sufficient to bring about the diversity we observe today. Even Richard Dawkins has admitted that in 100 years the current theory will probably have been proven wrong. Now this is not to suggest that the new theory will be creationism or the like, but my point is that there is this pseudo-intelectual grandeur, which many scientists have, that people believe comes with believing certain scientific conclusions. I have no problem believing any scientific conclusion as long as it’s supported by evidence. It’s nothing but unbridled disingenuity to assert that any of those conclusions is a fact, like 2+2=4 is a fact. Also, it doesn’t help that there is an obvious bias within the scientific community against scientific theories with theistic implications. The fact that people lose their jobs because they allow something that positively discusses intelligent design to go through the peer review process doesn’t sit well with the religious.

    • Ryan Hopkins

      I wasn’t using equating young children’s “magical thinking” to theistic ideas. If you’re unfamiliar, “magical thinking” is a term used by developmental psychologists to describe how young children think about the mechanisms that underlie the world around them. I used this piece of developmental psychology to show that all children, regardless of exposure to theism or ideas about the physical world, need to shown how to properly use analytic thinking to explore the abstract ideas that govern the world. So my point was really to show that all teachers fight an uphill battle from the start in science education. If you’re interested in looking at how these ideas are applied to education, you can check out the Posner source in my works cited.

      You say that evolution is being doubted in the scientific community, but a Martz, Larry; McDaniel, Ann study found that only 700 out of 480,000 earth and life scientists don’t accept evolution, a recent NIH paper supports this kind of figure with a 99.9% acceptance rate, and the Pew forum source I cited reported a 97% acceptance rate when surveying scientists in all fields.

      Many, if not most, religions include the central tenant of faith. This means that the religion necessitates that believers adhere to the religion without any external evidence. The sciences preform experiments on components of the universe to figure out mechanisms and causes of events and properties, so if there is no externally available evidence of a theistic cause, the sciences will, by their very nature, avoid citing those supernatural causes.

      All of the theories I discussed have been shaped and supported by tens of thousands or millions of observations. All the theories aggregate these facts to produce predictions and conclusions about our world (which can be further tested). The “fact” that 2+2=4 you give is a conclusion in the same way, its a product of the field axioms and equality, which themselves come from the properties of commutative rings and Euclidean domains. So 2+2=4 is really a conclusion that happens to hold up in our world under every normal circumstance, just like the theories I used in the article.

      • T-herbert Jeffery

        Thanks for clarifying the ‘magical thinking’ issue.

        As for my assertion regarding evolution, I don’t necessarily have any sources to cite because I can’t remember where I read it.

        I’ll concede that point in favor of looking at your definition of faith. I’ll say I’m a bit confused when you say “This means the religion necessitates that believers adhere to the religion without any external evidence.” Does “external evidence” refer to epistemic justification, or does it refer to testable, empirically verifiable evidence, like the evidence used in science? It seems like another naturalistic assertion, but I’ve already wrongly jumped to a conclusion. I think you’re right in saying that if there is no evidence for a theistic cause, or any cause for that matter, science will, and should, avoid those conclusions. But that’s not what is happening. Intelligent Design doesn’t presuppose any theistic cause, it just points to a cause(s). But the fact that there is even a possibility that any type of god(s) or God could become part of a scientific theory doesn’t sit well with the majority of the scientific community because people commonly think that God and Science are mutually exclusive. I don’t think there is any conflict, but many theists do. So if it seems like a Science vs. God situation, some are going to choose sides.