Thursday, April 24, 2014

Most Americans Don't Accept the Big Bang: Are They Dumb Or Uneducated?

As regular readers of my blog know, I have zero tolerance for people who proffer opinions about scientific theories if they have never even taken a basic course in the  related discipline or area themselves.  Thus, if you are going to spout off about evolution you need to have at least taken a college Biology course (two semesters).  If you are going to opine about the Big Bang or global warming, then I expect you will have at least taken a high school physics course - again, two full semesters.  In an earlier blog post I even posted a basic thermal physics test for those who dispute anthropogenic global warming. See e.g.
The diagram below shows two bodies of equal mass (A and B) within a thermally insulated material. A has a thermometer inserted to take readings. A was initially at a temperature of 100C and B at 50 C when placed in thermal contact.
a) Find the temperature of the system of two bodies in thermal equilibrium. Is this the same as the reading of A’s temperature? (Show work, explain)
b) Which body undergoes a positive change in entropy?
c) Which body undergoes a negative change in entropy?
d) What is the total entropy change for the system, A + B?
Sadly, it is doubtful that even one of the ordinary folk who opine that global warming "doesn't exist or isn't driven by humans"  would be able to do this single problem. Since the Big Bang is ultimately concerned with thermal aspects of physics as well, expansion of plasma in space and time,  it is likely they wouldn't be able to do any of these problems or related ones, e.g.
a) One mole of a gas has a volume of 0.0223 cubic meters at a pressure P = 1.01 x 10 5 N/m2 at 0 degrees Celsius. If the molar heat capacity at constant pressure is 28.5 J/mol-K find the molar heat capacity at constant volume, C v.,m.
b) 20 g of a gas initially at 27 C is heated at a constant pressure of 101 kPa (kiloPascals), so its volume increases from 0.250 m3 to 0.375 m3. Find:

i) the external work done in the expansion

ii)  the increase in the internal energy U
Now, the preceding dismal take is confirmed in a new Associated Press poll that has yet more depressing news for those of us already appalled at the diminishing quality of science education in this country. As noted in the attendant report:
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.
[T]he 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.   Americans - as reflected in the AP survey -  both seem to find the Big Bang confusing and worse, to have faith-based conflicts with the scientific conclusions of cosmology.
I attribute a lot of this to fake scientists - actually pseudo-scientists (like Jason Lisle) - who gain a peanut gallery as well as prominence in the fundagelical religious sphere then profess to spiel on scientific issues like the Big Bang and the age of the Earth, confusing and undermining their followers. See e.g.
In this case, it's not surprising to behold the other shaky scientific investments of Americans, including: that the universe is at least 13.8 billion years old, that life on Earth came about by natural selection, and that the Earth orbits the Sun not the other way around.
In most cases the observed 'shakiness' or lack of confidence in the scientific findings is partly to do with not having the necessary science background or education. Thus, the person without a decent physics education will tend to doubt the Big Bang theory, just as the person without an adequate biology education (which means no exposure to natural selection)  will lack confidence in natural selection and hence evolution.
But what about the educated person who still rejects the Big Bang (as Jason Lisle does), or global warming engendered by humans (as Richard Lindzen does) or evolution (as Jason Lisle also does)? In this case one must factor in pre-existing cognitive distortions such as the confirmation bias. This occurs when one selectively looks for and finds confirmatory evidence for strongly held, entrenched beliefs. Interestingly, this phenomenon is almost exclusively tied to those with conservative political and religious beliefs. Hence, their beliefs dominate their cognitive maps and outlooks and pave the way for the confirmation bias.
It isn't that they are 'dumb' but rather that their brains are contaminated by a bias which prevents them from seeing things objectively.  
The sad conclusion for the scientist looking for a hint that Americans are more open to modern scientific finds?  Don't hold your breath because the factors that engender American doubt in those finds isn't going away anytime soon. Even the best science education (at least to the baccalaureate degree level) may mitigate it, but if the person is steeped in religious convictions that inveigh against the findings there will be no progress. Distortions such as confirmation bias will work against it.
See also:

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