Smoking will kill you. Americans are confident about that scientific fact. But we are far less confident in the scientific truths about evolution, the Big Bang, and creation. A new Associated Press/GfK poll of just over a thousand American adults reveals some fairly predictable results. It also raises important questions about the meanings of knowledge and ignorance. As this poll shows, most Americans are not entirely confident in either our incorrect knowledge or our correct knowledge. What the poll only hints at, though, is the way most mainstream American scientists are heartily ignorant about the thinking of the majority of Americans.
Most Americans now agree that smoking is unhealthy. Just over half think that life is too complex to have happened on its own. And only minorities of adults seem to have great confidence in evolution, an ancient earth, or the Big Bang.
These poll results can tell us more than just the raw numbers, though. Perhaps most interesting, this poll did not quiz respondents about their scientific knowledge. Rather, it asked people to rate their confidence in these scientific facts. Most Americans were very or extremely confident in their knowledge that smoking causes cancer. Only a minority, however, felt the same way about evolution.
As the Associated Press commented, these results struck mainstream scientists as particularly troubling, since these questions represented “settled scientific facts.” Mainstream scientists, in other words, are extremely confident in these ideas. Overwhelmingly confident.
Clearly, there is a more complicated dynamic going on here than simple non-knowledge of science. As historian Robert Proctor argued, tobacco companies spent a good deal of time and treasure to promote a certain sort of ignorance about the connection between smoking and cancer. This poll suggests that those efforts at manufactured ignorance have been foiled by mainstream science and public-health campaigning. Americans are now confident in their knowledge about the dangers of smoking.
But in the case of evolution and creation, skepticism about mainstream science still flourishes. A slim majority of Americans are “extremely” or “very” confident that life is so complex it must have been created by a “supreme being.” Most Americans are confident about this knowledge. And most Americans lack confidence in evolution.
When Americans lack confidence in the dangers of tobacco or the truth of evolution, they are doing something very different than simply being unaware of facts. They are expressing—some of them at least—confidence in a different set of facts, a different system of knowledge. There is a vast difference, after all, between the “knowledge” tobacco executives had in the 1960s about the health dangers of smoking and the “knowledge” most Americans in the 1920s had about the health dangers of smoking. The tobacco executives carefully built their non-knowledge in the 1960s. Most Americans in the 1920s, on the other hand, were simply unaware of the health dangers.
Similar complexity swirls around Americans’ current non-knowledge about evolution. Many of the people who are most furiously opposed to mainstream evolutionary science “know” a great deal about it. But they have very little confidence in the truth of those evolutionary ideas. That is a vastly different sort of non-knowledge than when someone is simply unaware of modern evolutionary thinking.
In short, it is not that Americans simply don’t know about evolution. We know that we don’t know.
Elite scientists, on the other hand, seem simply to not know things. Most elite scientists, it seems, don’t know much about what non-elite-scientists think. As sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund argued in her book Science vs. Religion, elite academics tend to be woefully unaware of mainstream religious ideas. The fact that so many Americans are so radically unconfident in ideas that mainstream scientists call “settled scientific facts” underlines this cultural divide once again.
If we want to talk about ignorance, we have to do it very carefully. Scientists are ignorant about Americans. Americans are ignorant about science. But scientists seem simply not to know about the ideas most Americans feel confident about. Most Americans, on the other hand, even when we know about scientific ideas, express very little confidence in them.