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Environment

We Bend Science to our Beliefs

Collide-a-ScapeBy Keith KloorJune 2, 2012 3:18 PM

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My, how times have changed. Thirty years ago, what was the likelihood of Americans electing a black president and accepting gay marriage? We really have progressed, haven't we? Or maybe not. In 1982 (the year synthetic insulin was created via genetic engineering, by the way), 44% of Americans believed that God created humans in their present form some time in the last 10,000 years. Today, according to a new Gallup poll, that view is held by 46% of Americans. Below is a graph from Gallup that shows how the "prevalence of this creationist view" has remained essentially unchanged since 1982:

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As Gallup notes:

Despite the many changes that have taken place in American society and culture over the past 30 years, including new discoveries in biological and social science, there has been virtually no sustained change in Americans' views of the origin of the human species since 1982. The 46% of Americans who today believe that God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years is little changed from the 44% who believed this 30 years ago, when Gallup first asked the question. More broadly, some 78% of Americans today believe that God had a hand in the development of humans in some way, just slightly less than the percentage who felt this way 30 years ago. All in all, there is no evidence in this trend of a substantial movement toward a secular viewpoint on human origins. Most Americans are not scientists, of course, and cannot be expected to understand all of the latest evidence and competing viewpoints on the development of the human species. Still, it would be hard to dispute that most scientists who study humans agree that the species evolved over millions of years, and that relatively few scientists believe that humans began in their current form only 10,000 years ago without the benefit of evolution. Thus, almost half of Americans today hold a belief, at least as measured by this question wording, that is at odds with the preponderance of the scientific literature.

So what do we make of this? That nearly half the United States is anti-science or scientifically illiterate? I kinda doubt that and I bet many of you do, too. Well then, what about our attitudes on some of those notoriously controversial issues, such as climate change and genetically modified crops? We know that a preponderance of the scientific literature finds global warming from man-made greenhouse gases to be true and GMOs to be safe. Yet there are sizable blocks of people who cannot be persuaded of either. People reject the consensus views of science for various reasons--religious, ideological, cultural. We're increasingly learning about why this is and how it leads to polarization on some issues, like climate change and genetic engineering. Many journalists and scientists are wrestling with the implications of social science research that suggests informed citizens will not necessarily base their views on better and more information.

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