According to a new Associated Press-GfK poll, approximately half of Americans are doubtful that the Big Bang occurred as years of science affirms. Not only does the Big Bang collide with belief, Americans are also skeptical of evolution, the age of the Earth, and the human hand in global climate change. However they are certain that smoking causes cancer, that mental illness is a physical condition of the brain and that a genetic code inhabits our cells and informs who we are.
The distrust of science split along political lines, with Republicans less likely to trust large, abstract ideas and Liberals more capable of higher-order logic and reasoning. Where ideas become more difficult to grasp, and farther from personal experience, the more likely doubters were to rely on myth, belief and religion for explanations. If something is not part of everyday experience, and is very difficult to grasp, then other humans must not be able to comprehend or explain it either and the thinking seems to go.
A person’s beliefs often will win out when they collide with new information from science, such as the Big Bang. This is particularly true when the phenomenon in question is not a day-to-day concern. That is, scientific explanations are more often held with esteem when they come from a personal source such as a doctor informing a patient that their smoking will cause cancer. Family resemblances are well known and documented so when an authority informs us that these similarities are due to a genetic code, the story seems to hold water. There is no such personal message when that same individual cranks up a polluting automobile which contributes to global warming.
The only personal message inherent in driving a car is the personal convenience involved. This makes it less likely to admit that the action of driving causes any harm to the world. It is good for the individual’s immediate needs, so therefore this is not in question. If something might be hard to think of why it could be harmful to the entire world then it is just best not to.
For someone to make the leap from personal to abstract is even difficult with evolution. While most will accept the notion of genetics and the variations inherent in that phenomenon, making the jump to evolution is all but impossible. Familial resemblance and trait-sharing is one part of evolution. For example, any family tree might be able to demonstrate an evolutionary narrative if there were a reason for such an example. Such objectivity is not easy to come by, as each participant in the study has been exposed to the same tools and knowledge as their more scientifically savvy neighbors. Evolution also concerns large, glacial changes in species over long swaths of time, which makes the concept even more difficult.
These problems with reasoning and logic are increasingly dangerous as the human species and planet Earth race head-on toward very large and intractable problems that are not as evident in personal experience. The particularly cold weather from this past winter might sway some to believe that global warming is a hoax, or a flawed theory. However an understanding of climate change will tell the thinking person that extremes in temperature are part of the larger problem. For the less scientifically minded, when the weather changes the problem does too.
Belief in the Big Bang may not be an absolute necessity. Knowledge of the origins of the solar system and universe do not result in actionable ideas which might solve a problem, as that is a past event. However when resources are scarce or societal behaviors are causing problems, knowledge of the bigger picture will help individuals to make smarter choices for the greater good. If belief were shattered in its collision with the Big Bang, then it might also be pliable when more vital issues are under consideration. For example, the study of evolution must be taught in schools so that society can continue its progress in medicine and the physical sciences must be funded to continue human understanding and roles of weather patterns. When one allows his or her thinking to come in-line with a scientific approach to life, so, too, does thinking align with ethics and a higher morality.
Commentary by Hobie Anthony