From flat Earth “truthers” to vaccines opponents to space travel skeptics, many Americans continue to reject science, especially in an election year.
Science can put a man on the moon, but it can’t make everyone believe it was real.
Among human achievements, the moon landing is one that a sliver of society holds in their hearts as a hoax.
Other topics, like the true age of the Earth, vaccines, and climate change are hotly debated subjects.
According to the science community, it’s background noise clogging the airwaves.
Scholars say an understanding of science is vital to an informed society, but there are gaps between the source, dissemination, and comprehension of that information.
Last week, Atlanta rapper B.o.B. (real name Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr.) tweeted to his 2.3 million Twitter followers that he can prove the Earth is flat based on the lack of curvature of the horizon.
That began a short-lived beef with famed astrophysicist Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, who debunked B.o.B. on the Nightly Show with Larry Wilmore, calling it “a symptom of a larger problem.”
“There’s a growing anti-intellectual strain in this country that may be the beginning of the end of our informed democracy,” Tyson said. “Of course, in a free society, you can and should think whatever you want. If you want to think the world is flat, go right ahead, but if you think the world is flat, and you have influence over others, as with successful rappers, or even presidential candidates, then being wrong becomes being harmful to the health, wealth, and security of our citizenry.”
Tyson intentionally did a “mic drop” before walking off stage.
B.o.B. is far from alone. Science literacy is relatively low in the United States and other countries.
According to the National Science Foundation, most Americans know the Earth travels around the sun but aren’t familiar with the basics of the scientific method.
A Pew Research Center survey of 3,278 adults found most Americans have a decent understanding of basic scientific information, such as the Earth’s core is the hottest layer. Other complicated concepts, like why the boiling point of water in higher altitudes occurs at a lower temperature, are tougher for them to grasp.
These are subjects that should be covered in high school. New ideas, findings, or technology, however, are even harder to permeate society.
Adam Ruben, Ph.D., a molecular biologist and author who has taught classes on the public’s perception of science at Johns Hopkins University, said issues like in vitro fertilization and genetically modified crops are often wrought with misunderstanding —as if scientists are making Frankenstein’s monster.
“It’s true people don’t understand science. The great thing about science is that it doesn’t require belief,” Ruben told Healthline. “There’s always going to be a contingent of society, no matter the technology, that views changes made to the way nature functions as bad.”
Science requires a certain level of skepticism in the name of discovery, but it also involves not ignoring data and facts to come to a conclusion.
“When you hear a new discovery, your reaction shouldn’t be to immediately dismiss it, and no scientist would want you to blindly accept it,” Ruben said. “Your reaction should be to want to learn more about it.”
Of all the science fallacies out there, Ruben assures people vaccines do not cause autism. He should know; he works on a vaccine for malaria.
But the discomfort of watching a stranger (i.e. nurse or doctor) stabbing his kids with needles does make him feel like a rotten dad.
“Now as a parent, I can see why people wouldn’t want to vaccinate their kids,” he said.
John Pellino, associate director of the Talcott Mountain Science Center, says there are a slew of issues at play in the public’s view of science.
These include authority, shortcuts in translation in the media, how humans like to reduce complexity, and that people prefer a familiar problem to a novel solution.
“That goes for science, relationships, cars, pets, all sorts of things,” Pellino told Healthline. “Change is hard. Change involves mental and physical work, and according to models of brain physiology, you actually re-wire neural networks in your brain matter to do this. No small task biologically, but we can actually do this sort of amazing brain morphing thing.”
All of these factors create a perfect storm of assumptions, comfort, and simplification, Pellino added.
“If you leave it at that, you can live a simple life with some potential disasters from false assumptions. If you push beyond it — something humans are famous for — you can live an amazingly exhilarating life with new discoveries around every bend,” he said. “That’s the feeling that makes it worth it all for people in science, nature, and engineering — that chance that you’ll be the first to the new, really new, thing.”
Anca Ioviţă, a physician in Romania, said when people have an opportunity to learn, formal or not, they can become “addicted to illusions” as a way to deal with their own mortality.
“That is why afterlife stories or get-rich-quick scams are so popular. Or alternative medicine that promises you a cancer cure that is one check apart,” she told Healthline. “And no matter how much science and medicine will progress, mortality and our own awareness of it will always exist. Hence, quacks will always have a job.”
For some, it’s overwhelming to grasp the Earth is actually billions of years old or that humans share a common ancestor with apes.
David Bell — a Catholic, licensed counselor, and former Air Force researcher — says ego may play into the disbelief we were created just as random bits in the universe.
“We are obviously special in some way, as evidenced by all of the things we have accomplished in this world, both bad and good. No other species has even come close,” he told Healthline. “This does make us special. This naturally leads one to wonder, why are we special? What made us special? The non-believer will simply say it was luck, but the believer will say that our Creator made us special.”
Bell says there are numerous psychological issues at play when people don’t believe certain things to be true. That includes confirmation bias, where we only seek knowledge that supports our pre-existing beliefs.
The existence of God, Bell says, is one thing science will never be able to answer because it’s not something that can be measured.
“Science is about how things work and change. Religion is about why things exist in the first place,” he said. “They are complementary areas of study, where each can inform the other, but neither can dismiss the other.”
Besides improving science education in schools, scientific communication is crucial.
New scientific research reaches the public through the filter of the media, which scientists feel often sensationalizes findings in headlines.
In a 2009 survey of more than 2,500 scientists, about three-quarters say the news does a poor job of distinguishing well-founded science, while about half say media oversimplification of scientific findings is a major problem.
Outspoken scientists like Tyson, Bill Nye, and Michio Kaku have inspired generations of new scientists through science education in the media.
Ruben, who watched “Mr. Wizard” growing up and now co-hosts the Science Channel’s “Outrageous Acts of Science,” said more scientists need to communicate more with those outside of scientific research.
“We do have a shortage of scientists who are watched by non-scientists,” he said.
Also, Ruben noted, is the capability for inaccurate information to spread easily via social media without verifying its accuracy.
“We can share with one click,” he said. “Reading takes time.”
Non-scientists’ influence in the media continues to get air time like Fox News host Bill O’Reilly saying there’s no way to explain tides. Or, as Tyson alluded to, presidential candidate Donald Trump spreading inaccurate information on issues from global warming to the Ebola virus.
Many experts, including Bell and Pellino, say these kinds of debates in the media are merely attention-seeking grabs at fame.
In the case of the flat Earth theory, who’s the better source of information? A rapper who dropped out of school in the ninth grade or the guy studying astrophysics since high school?