Did you know the universe began with a huge explosion? If not, you’re an idiot. So says Dan M. Kahan. He has sought to measure people’s “Ordinary Science Intelligence” by asking questions like:
According to astronomers, the universe began with a huge explosion. (True/false)
And expecting people to give the idiotic answer of: True.
It’s amazing how many things are wrong with this question. As anyone who knows anything about the Big Bang theory can tell you, there was no explosion. The Big Bang theory says the entire universe existed in a single point of infinite density approximately 14 billion years ago.* The universe then expanded from this single point and began growing in size. Eventually, it reached the size it is today (though it is still expanding).
There was no explosion involved. Even if there had been an explosion, there certainly couldn’t have been a huge explosion. The entire universe was compressed into a single, infinitely small point. It couldn’t possibly have been smaller. Even if there was an explosion, that explosion would have had to be incredibly tiny. It would have been so small the naked eye couldn’t see it (assuming there was an eye outside the universe to observe the Big Bang).
And then there’s the somewhat trivial error of saying “astronomers” all support the idea of the Big Bang. The Big Bang is only one cosmological model. Astronomers and physicists have put forth other models. Scientists don’t know which (if any) is right.
The only reason to believe the Big Bang theory involved a “huge explosion” is the name itself. “Big” translates into “huge.” “Bang” translates into “explosion.” That’s it. If you think like that, you show scientific intelligence. If you don’t, instead thinking about what the Big Bang theory actually says, you show low intelligence.
Fortunately, Kahan decided to exclude this item from his measure of scientific intelligence. According to him:
analysis shows that the Indicators’ Evolution and Bigbang items are both biased with respect to individuals who display a relatively high degree of religiosity (Figure 3, top two panels). As the form of science comprehension measured by OSI_2.0 increased, the probability of a correct response to the items increased substantially more for relatively non-religious individuals than for relatively religious ones.
You can see Figure 3 below:
The paragraph I quoted just above refers to a variant of the question I quoted at the beginning. The difference is immaterial. As you can see, in both variants of the question, religious views make one less like to give an answer showing the respondent has no idea what the Big Bang theory states. The more educated and less religious you are, the less likely you are to understand the Big Bang theory. We could assume scientifically literate religious folk better understand the Big Bang because of how it relates to their religion.
Of course, we might be wrong. These people may give the right answer for the wrong reason – because it is contrary to their religious views. We can’t tell. All we can really tell is Kahan’s question is incredibly stupid, and his analysis of his results shows he is in a poor position to judge people’s knowledge of science.
And it’s not just that one question. His question about evolution was poorly phrased:
“According to the theory of evolution, human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” (True/false)
A human being does not evolve. A species does not develop. The immediate predecessor to the human species was several species of humanoids, humanoids which were only “animals” in the sense that humans are also animals. None of this is wrong, per se, but it does make for a very awkward question.
Some of his other questions are worse than awkward. For instance, he used one question about global warming to indicate political influences on scientific views:
But look at that question:
“[Is the earth] getting warmer (a) mostly because of human activity such as burning fossil fuelsor (b) mostly because of natural patterns in the earth’s environment?”
The primary temperature indexes used in the global warming debate indicate there hasn’t been any noticeable warming in over a deacde. Given that, how can we ask people what is causing the planet to get warmer? The question is built upon a false premise. There is no right answer.
I can forgive poorly phrased questions. I can forgive questions which are wrong as stated, but can kind of be understood given their implications.
I can’t, however, forgive questions which show a complete and total lack of knowledge of fundamental facts of subjects being discussed. There is no excuse for Kahan’s question about the Big Bang. There is no excuse for his commentary about how people responded to it. And given the fact he cited several other papers in reference to it, there’s probably no excuse for other people making the same stupid mistakes he made.
Five minute swith Google would have been enough to teach Kahan better. He could have just looked on Wikipedia. It wouldn’t have been hard. Anyone who made even the slightest effort to understand the Big Bang theory would have known better than to ask the stupid question he asked.
If he never bothered to put the slightest effort into understanding a topic he asked thousands of people about and wrote paragraphs discussing, how can he be in a position to tell us who is and is not scientifically intelligent?
*Technically, the Big Bang model does not discuss the point at which the entire universe existed in a single point of infinite density (singularity). It describes what happened immediately after that point.