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The Sciences

White People Have Trouble Accepting Pangaea


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White Americans, anyway. That seems to be the result from this poll at Daily Kos (via Tom Levenson's Twitter feed).

Research 2000 for Daily Kos. 7/27-30. Likely voters. MoE 2% (No trend lines) Do you believe that America and Africa were once part of the same continent?

Yes No Not SureAll 42 26 32 Dem 51 16 33 Rep 24 47 29 Ind 44 23 33 Northeast 50 18 32 South 32 37 31 Midwest 46 22 32 West 43 24 33 White 35 30 35 Black 63 13 24 Latino 55 19 26 Other 56 19 25

Probably readers of this blog are not a representative sample of Americans, and most or you -- even the white people! -- know that Pangaea was the supercontinent that existed about 250 million years ago, before plate tectonics worked its magic and broke it apart. Now, some of my best friends are white folks, so I don't want to make any grand generalizations about their intelligence or education. But this is a good illustration of a point made by Jerry Coyne -- the problem of scientific illiteracy is not a simple one, and in particular it's not just a matter of better outreach and more Carl Sagans. Which is not to say that more and better outreach and science journalism isn't important or useful -- it clearly is, and I'm in favor of making structural changes to provide much better incentives for making sure that it happens. But there are also factors at work for which outreach isn't the answer -- political and social forces that push people away from science. Those have to be confronted if we want to really address the problem. (I don't know who was the mischievous person who thought of asking this poll question in the first place, but it was an inspired idea.) Update:Aaron Golas in comments points to a post by Devilstower laying out that the question was worded in an intentionally provocative way, to illustrate how bad questions can fail to correctly gauge scientific understanding. Which is completely true, and a point worth making. But I argue that the poll does reveal something, namely the extent to which underlying cultural attitudes can influence one's stance toward purportedly scientific questions. Thus, "White People Have Trouble Accepting Pangaea," not "White People Don't Know About Pangaea." As a measure of what percentage of Americans truly understand continental drift, the poll is pretty useless; as an indication of how culture affects that understanding, it's very illuminating.

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