Why are Americans skeptical of some scientific ideas?

A recent poll indicates that Americans are skeptical of evolution by natural selection, global warming, and the big bang theory. Surprisingly (for me, anyway), the biggest scientific loser is the big bang, with 51% of the respondents skeptical that the universe was created approximately 14 billion years ago.

Frankly, this astonishes me. There are sound reasons to be skeptical of the theory of evolution by natural selection (TENS) and anthropogenic (man-made) global warming, but the evidence and arguments for the big bang theory are excellent — and also consistent with the Bible, which is no small thing, since the poll indicated that religiosity is correlated with disbelief in the big bang.

So, why are most Americans skeptical of the big bang?

This is not a rhetorical question; it’s something I’m striving to understand. Some Christians make the argument that a literal interpretation of the Bible requires a young Earth and young universe, but it appears to me that this belief is inspired, or supported, by an argument against evolution. Many people who are skeptical of TENS (particularly evangelical Christians) believe that it requires billions of years to work, therefore if the universe and the Earth are only thousands of years old, TENS doesn’t work. Never mind that billions of years can’t even begin to help TENS, that doesn’t explain why more people are skeptical of the big bang than evolution.

In any case, scientists are, understandably, distressed by these results. Randy Schekman, a Nobel laureate in medicine at UC-Irvine, said, “Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts.”

Schekman is both right and wrong. If quizzed on why he or she disbelieves in certain scientific ideas, I’m confident the average individual would not be able to explain the best evidence and arguments for and against the ideas. However, I don’t believe it has anything to do with leaders (presumably, he means religious and political leaders) being antagonistic to facts, but rather a vocal minority of scientists and their advocates being openly antagonistic to religious belief.

The poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they’ve got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public “most often values and beliefs trump science” when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. [emphasis added]

Of course values and beliefs trump science in a conflict. Unlike science, values and beliefs comprise an entire worldview, one that has been around much longer than modern science and has been much more influential.

But there was a time, at the beginning of the era of modern science up until the mid-20th century, when the Christian worldview and science largely went hand-in-hand. In the 17th century, many if not most natural philosophers (what scientists were called at the time) were Christians, and they saw their work as glorifying God. Mitch Stokes, in his brief biography of Newton, writes:

According to metaphor, God has written two books—Scripture and Nature—and He is glorified by the study of either one. This view, this “belief in the sacral nature of science,” was prevalent among natural philosophers of the seventeenth century. As Frank Manuel, one of Newton’s most important twentieth-century biographers, says:

“The traditional use of science as a form of praise to the Father assumed new dimensions under the tutelage of Robert Boyle and his fellow-members of the Royal Society, and among the immediate disciples of Isaac Newton. … In the Christian Virtuoso, demonstrating that experimental philosophy [experimental science] assisted a man to be a good Christian, Boyle assured readers that God required not a slight survey, but a diligent and skilful scrutiny of His works.”

Although Newton’s intensity while pursuing his work ranges from humorous to alarming, it is put into a different light if we see it as a measure of his devotion to God. For Newton, “To be constantly engaged in studying and probing into God’s actions was true worship.” This idea defined the seventeenth-century scientist, and in many cases, the scientists doubled as theologians. [emphasis added]

There was only occasional conflict for scientists like Newton in the form of struggling to understand how certain aspects of nature are consistent with their interpretation of scripture.

The antagonistic sort of conflict we see today goes back at least as far as Thomas Huxley using Darwinian evolution to undermine Christian belief. Huxley knew TENS had insurmountable problems, but he saw it as a useful weapon to attack Christianity, which he despised.

Unfortunately, this sort of practice has become increasingly commonplace into the 20th and 21st centuries. Global warming isn’t by its nature useful as a direct attack on Christian belief, but it does represent an attack on the Christian ideal of limited government. The historical misuse of biology as a weapon against Christian belief began with Huxley and continues with modern biologists and their supporters — so much so that the public has little idea how much the most recent findings of evolutionary biology support the Christian view of creation. The misuse of physics to undermine Christian belief, however, is relatively new. I find it distressing not only because it is my field of study, but because the field of physics has historically led the way for the other sciences and represents the greatest scientific support for the Christian view of creation.

As a scientist — and irrespective of my Christian beliefs — I find the behavior of the attackers perplexing. The majority of Americans are either Christian or hold some general belief in a supreme being, so why do some scientists go out of their way to alienate a majority of people who support science by sending their children to universities and by paying taxes for government-supported science programs? At some point, they’re just not going to see the value of either. And they’re certainly not going to make the effort to become more literate in a topic that they’re told is in opposition to their faith. Modern scientists like Stephen Hawking who use their considerable scientific knowledge to attack religious belief are therefore doing a tremendous disservice to science. I don’t know what Hawking’s motivation is, but if he dislikes Christianity to the extent that he’s trying to undermine it, as Huxley did, then he is only indirectly realizing this goal and at the cost of eroding confidence in good science.

Poll results notwithstanding, big bang theory is good science — in fact, it is arguably the crowning achievement of modern science — and it is not only compatible with Christian belief, but in my opinion mandated by it. (I will expand on this in a future post.)

Meanwhile, there’s no use blaming political and religious “leaders” for the lack of confidence in science, because, if history has taught us anything, it’s that they don’t tend to lead the way, but jump out in front of the direction in which people are already going. If good science is going to flourish in America, two things must happen. Christians must become scientifically literate — which is something I hope to encourage with my ministry — but scientists have got to stop the public antagonism toward Christian belief.

6 thoughts on “Why are Americans skeptical of some scientific ideas?

  1. Not sure what you mean by that, Thomas. In what way do Americans look to the Bible to explain science?

  2. The general populace is getting fed up with the Ivory Tower of Science.

    As you pointed out, Huxley used a flawed and nascent theory to attack centuries worth of serious thought and investigation, and that sort of dishonest behavior has continued since by devout followers of unbelief.

    Americans have been told repeatedly by Big Science People that we are scum, stupid, a blight on the planet and our miserable lives would be better served as organic compost, and we really shouldn’t be allowed to look our betters in the eyes but rather we should tugging forelocks eyes down on the side of the road as they pass.

    Fallen human nature always reverts to this, it takes a concerted effort following Christ’s teachings in order not to end up here, and that’s a quite a bit more difficult to achieve.

    Then you get stories like this: http://www.naturalnews.com/044806_study_retractions_scientific_papers_academic_dishonesty.html

    I’m not a professional scientist, I’m just a layman, so when others like me talk, they talk freely. The impression I keep getting is that the average Joe is realizing he’s been lied to, over and over, by the same people that also demand more control over his life than even the kings of old had, and it’s beginning to penetrate the consciousness even the most unaware.

    So, to make this even longer, human hubris left without restraint produces the Huxley’s and Hawking’s, and the reaction to that is the general populace decides that tossing out the baby with the bathwater is a preferable solution to being under the heel of liars and con artists.

  3. Sarah, do you think part of the reason why the general public is skeptical of the Bib Bang theory is because it not something that can really be tested? I do believe the science is rock solid regarding the Big Bang but it’s hard to explain to people that everything in the universe started out from a point singularity that was near an infinitesimal volume with extremely high density and temperature. It’s very hard to wrap my brain around that idea!

  4. Ed, I come at it from a different perspective, which is that the Big Bang theory has been rigorously tested and is well-supported by observation, experiment, and math. But it’s apparent that that information hasn’t been filtered down to the general public very well. Something for me to work on!

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