A Majority of Americans Still Aren't Sure About the Big Bang

By Alexis C. Madrigal

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. 

In fact, fewer Americans were confident in that statement that any other on the list, which covered topics like vaccines, evolution, and the Earth’s age.

AP/GFK

It is worth noting, however, that the way the question was framed gathers at least two possible different groups into the "not confident" bin: A) people who hold a different belief about the beginning of the universe and B) people who just don't know, and might have been scared off from saying they were "confident" in an answer. 

No matter, the 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.  

In 2012, the National Science Board tried to parse out why Americans were different by adding 'according to astronomers' into the Big Bang question for half the survey respondents. Like this:

According to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion.

60 percent of Americans said this statement was true, versus 39 percent who said so when the "according to astronomers" was not present. This would suggest that 40 percent of people know the science, 40 percent of people don't, and 20 percent have heard the science, but believe otherwise. 

Before you lament the fall of the republic, consider that very little has changed in the public awareness of scientific knowledge over the past 20 years. The 2014 report put it bluntly: "The public’s level of factual knowledge about science has not changed much over the past two decades."

But here's the good news. On a general level, Americans' understanding of science is comparable to people in other countries. For example, the NSB notes that in a 22-question 2011 survey of 10 European countries and the US, the American mean was 14.3 correct answers, ranking behind Denmark (15.6), the Netherlands (15.3), Germany (14.8), and the Czech Republic (14.6) but ahead of Austria (14.2), the UK (14.1), and France (13.8). 

Not so bad, though probably not too heartening to our Nobel Prize winners. 

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/04/a-majority-of-americans-still-arent-sure-about-the-big-bang/360976/