Another day, another depressing report about the level of ignorance of basic science in America. This one is based on a representative sample of 1,012 people over the age of 18. You can see the full survey results here, and the first set of items is the one that made the news.
But the results are a little ambiguous since they posed the options in terms of the level of confidence that people had in the statements that were offered. For example, 60% said they were at least ‘somewhat confident’ that the Earth was 4.5 billion years old while 18% said they were ‘not too confident’ and another 18% said they were ‘not at all confident’. But what does that mean? Not everyone may be sure of the actual number given for the age, even though they may think it is roughly in that region. I prefer questions that ask whether people think the age of the universe is thousands or billions of years old. The same with the age of the universe being 13.8 billion years old for which 46% expressed being at least somewhat confident. Many people may be confident that the universe is billions of years old without being sure of the precise number.
The statement “The universe is so complex, there must be a supreme being guiding its creation” drew 72% who were at least somewhat confident. But what are we to make of those who say they are not too confident or not confident at all? That they reject the idea of such a supreme being altogether? It is not clear. The responses to the statement that “Life on Earth, including human beings, evolved through a process of natural selection” is also hard to gauge since ‘natural selection’ is a technical term whose meaning many people may be unsure of.
I like to look for the silver lining in these results and found some. On page 9, 28% said they do not belong to any religious denomination and 14% said they belong to other religions. 85% of that latter group said that they considered themselves to be Christian. I wonder if these are people who profess some kind of vague spirituality or whether they belong to Christian groups so fundamentalist that they do not want to consider themselves to be Protestants which, while it would be theologically accurate, has a mainstream church connotation that may be distasteful to them.
The best news was on page 10, where more than 55% said that they attend religious services less than a few times a year and of that 25% said they never do. Not going to formal worship services is often the precursor to disengaging entirely from organized religion.
Another good result is that 94% say they are at least somewhat confident that smoking causes cancer, so the relentless driving home of that message seems to have had some effect, although it has taken decades to overcome the propaganda of the tobacco industry. More worrying was that only 83% said they were at least somewhat confident that “childhood vaccines are safe and effective”, though again I would have preferred the question to be worded as to whether they would vaccinate their children, which has less ambiguity.
This survey was done using an increasingly popular method. Rather than every time trying to reach a randomized sample that can result in a lot of people refusing to answer, the survey creates a panel of people who agree to answer such surveys (see the last page for how it is done) for a small reward and this group provides demographic data that enables surveyors to create representative samples. While this makes surveys much easier and cheaper to carry out, the key question is whether the kind of people who would agree to be part of such a panel are truly representative of the population at large.