Editorial: The challenge of understanding the Big Bang

Wednesday, April 30, 2014
What are we to make of the Associated Press poll about American attitudes toward science? According to the survey, when pondering concepts scientists consider truths, Americans are more skeptical about ideas that deal with remote things: global warming, the age of the Earth, evolution and, especially, the Big Bang 13.81 billion years ago.

Rather than testing scientific knowledge, the AP survey asked people to rate their confidence in statements about science and medicine.

On matters like smoking’s link to cancer, the origins of mental illness or the efficacy of childhood vaccines there is a broad consensus.

But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory. Many Americans find the Big Bang confusing and rightly so. It raises difficult questions concerning evolution and cosmology.

The Big Bang is what some scientists call the most comprehensive theory of the universe’s beginning. The theory posits that the universe was at one time (around 13.81 billion years ago) smaller than an atom. In a millisecond, the theory goes, it blew up, cooled and expanded faster than a speeding bullet and the speed of light combined — and then some.

The Big Bang theory is considered the most fundamental discovery of 20th century physics. All but a few of the 2,000 members of the National Academies of Sciences believe it to be true.

As with most polls, it’s wise to look deeper at the way questions are framed. In this instance, the poll combined responses from those who do not believe the theory with those who did not understand it.

Other public opinion surveys suggest Americans’ views on science have not changed over the years. The National Science Board has issued a yearly report since the 1980s of beliefs about science called the Science and Engineering Indicators. Up until 2010, it asked the following question: “True or false, the universe began with a huge explosion.”

Since 1990, the number of people answering true to that question has ranged between 32 and 38 percent.

Two years ago, the board added “according to astronomers” into the Big Bang question for half the survey respondents: “According to astronomers, the universe began with a big explosion.”

This time, 60 percent of Americans said this statement was true, versus 39 percent who said so when the “according to astronomers” phrase was not present.

The board’s 2014 report also had this to say: “The public’s level of factual knowledge about science has not changed much over the past two decades.”

This in itself is actually encouraging. It seems to us that most Americans can sift through the political noise over such scientifically established matters as climate change and the Big Bang.

The 2014 report also stated that Americans’ general understanding of science is comparable to people in other countries.

For example, the board notes that in a 22-question 2011 survey conducted in 10 European countries and the U.S., the American mean was 14.3 correct answers, ranking behind Denmark (15.6), the Netherlands (15.3), Germany (14.8), and the Czech Republic (14.6) but ahead of Austria (14.2), the UK (14.1) and France (13.8).

Here’s what we take from the latest poll about scientific attitudes: It’s human nature to feel more confident about scientific issues when you can touch and feel them. And we sure can’t touch and feel the 18.31 billion-year-old Big Bang.

But that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.