Americans have no question that smoking can cause cancer. However, a bigger portion of Americans still the question basic concepts from which modern science is derived upon, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.
Conducting a survey with a sample of 1,012 general population adults age 18 orolder, respondents were asked to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.
What the survey revealed was surprising. Overall, more Americans show more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and have the most trouble believing that scientific belief that a Big Bang created the universe. The most broadly accepted statement was that smoking caused cancer with a whopping 82 percent of respondents saying they were extremely confident that it did.
Despite what data and studies may be proving otherwise, views on science may be tied to what people see with their own eyes. The closer an issue is to their bodies and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, explained John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit Mercy.
About four in ten people said that they were not too confident in the average temperature of the world rising; the Earth was 4.5 billion years old; or that life on Earth evolved through natural selection, but most were somewhat confident in the concepts. However, 51 percent questioned the Big Bang theory.
Political and religious values play an important role in a person's belief in science, the AP noted. Democrats were more likely than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change. As faith in a supreme being rises, confidence in the Big Bang, global warming and the age of the Earth decline, according to the poll.
"When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can't argue against faith," said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. "It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable."
Daniel Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, says that humans have beliefs to coordinate with the reality out there in the world. People do understand that scientists produce information "that ought to be believed," but there are other motivations for such strict adherence to their beliefs, such as social norms or fear of the unknown.
"They believe them for social reasons -- you have been maintaining your relationships with people; holding certain beliefs is part of that," Willingham told CBS News. "When you're arguing with someone, no one ever says 'No, I just won't believe that because it's too damn frightening to believe' -- they're going to give you rational reasons...[It's] very difficult to persuade someone when that's their motivation."
People who take the word of the Bible literally are even less likely to believe in evolution, the age of the Earth or Big Bang, notes Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine. Other experts agreed, adding that most religious believers are aware that these three scientific concepts are compatible to the belief in God.
Willingham says that some scientific findings -- such as smoking causes cancer -- does not directly contradict a person's beliefs, but when science directly contradicts their beliefs -- such as evolution versus creationism -- they're more likely to find it upsetting.
Andrew Shtulman, professor of psychology at Occidental College says people may not believe in science because it draws on evidence that they don't experience in their everyday lives.
"Everyone draws conclusions about the world around them - scientists and non-scientists alike - but non-scientists base those conclusions on much weaker evidence: a single observation, a gut feeling, hearsay from others," Shtulman told CBS News via email. "When those 'homespun' conclusions contradict the conclusions of science, it's difficult to recognize that they rest on much flimsier grounds."
Scientists are upset over the recent poll, saying it highlights "the iron triangle of science, religion and politics," according to Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.
"Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts," said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.
Ignorance of science could also prove to be dangerous for America as well, as Willingham notes that parents' reluctance towards vaccines can harm others. Science is not meant to dictate policy, he says. Rather, it is used to tell others what the state of the world is, and how officials respond to that is a statement of values.
Interest groups -- political, business and religious -- can also play a role in the public's scientific beliefs, with campaigns being waged against vaccines, climate change and evolution, according to Duke's Lefkowitz. Yale's Leiserowitz agreed, but added that sometimes science wins against the most well-financed and loud opposition.
The widespread belief that smoking causes cancer -- noted in the study -- can be said to be a result of "very public, very focused public health campaigns," according to Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world's largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science. A former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Leshner said he was encouraged by the public's acceptance that mental illness is a brain disease, something few believed 25 years ago, before just such a campaign.
"Science, in its really pure form, is just telling you what the state of the world is," Willingham said. "The more in-tune with reality your beliefs are, the more you are in a position to make a wise decision."
Shtulman says scientists can help people understand science by explaining their findings with everyday terms, and spent time clarifying much of the misinformation that gets spread in the media.
"Many people get hung up on buzzwords like 'evolution,' 'cloning,' 'stem cell,' or 'climate change,' which they do not necessarily understand, but have formed opinions about nonetheless," Shtulman said.
"These opinions effectively block the reception of new information, even when that information is not itself controversial. The more scientists (and the media) can avoid sensationalizing scientific findings, the better.
Danielle Elliot contributed reporting to this piece.