According to a new Associated Press poll, Americans are a lot more sure about the negative effects of smoking than they are on the origins of the universe. The poll, which asked a series of questions on politically controversial scientific inquiries, found that Americans strongly agreed that smoking causes cancer, and that who we are is influenced in part by our genetic codes. On the other hand, a slim majority of Americans aren't so sure about the "Big Bang" theory of the origin of the universe. A slim majority also believed that "there must be a supreme being guiding [the universe's] creation" because of its complexity.
According to the results, just 21 percent of Americans were "extremely" or "very" confident in the Big Bang theory, which posits that our universe was born in a violent expansion about 14 billion years ago. Another 25 percent were "somewhat" confident in the theory, while 51 percent were "not too" or "not at all" confident. Granted, the AP chose a kind of strange wording for their question on the origin of the universe: "The universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang." (They seem to be slightly more "confident" about the age of the Earth.) Although the Big Bang theory has been around as a reliable predictive model for some time, scientists uncovered the first direct evidence of its "first tremors" just months ago.
Here are the results for the other questions asked in the survey, by percentage:
Right. So we, as a society, seem to strongly agree that "smoking causes cancer," that "a mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain," that "inside our cells, there is a complex genetic code that helps determine who we are," and that "overusing antibiotics causes the development of drug-resistant bacteria." Although the first fact used to be politically controversial, the rest of these seem to be basic scientific observations about the world that transmit from person to person without very much political baggage. While some religions challenge the above definition of mental illness, there's not really a big policy argument at the national level questioning this scientific conclusion.
Then it gets complicated: Just 53 percent of Americans are extremely confident that vaccines are "safe and effective" for children, even though the anti-vaccination movement is almost certainly a much bigger threat to public health than any currently administered vaccine is. Another 30 percent of Americans are "somewhat" sure that vaccines are safe, so we're still in a strong majority here. But the results get worse for science when you go down the list of science "controversies:" 33 percent of Americans are certain that greenhouse gasses are contributing to a rise in average world temperature (another 28 percent are somewhat confident); and 31 percent are comfortable with evolution (24 percent are "somewhat" OK with it).
"Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises," the AP writes about the poll's results, even though all of these theories should be compatible with any version of Christianity that doesn't rely on a literal interpretation of the Bible. When the AP shared the results with several prominent scientists, the researchers were "depress[ed] and upset" by the findings.