The Pine Island Glacier, twice the size of Atlanta, is calving away from Antarctica.
The Pine Island Glacier, twice the size of Atlanta, is calving away from Antarctica. NASA

Americans Flunk Science—Again

Apr 22, 2014

Shhh! Listen! Hear that steady thumping? That's the sound of scientists—particularly climate scientists—across the country pounding their heads against their desks. And at this point, that's perfectly understandable, given a new poll released by Gallup concerning Americans' beliefs about climate change.

The United States breaks down into three camps on the question of whether the Earth is warming and human activities are playing a significant role, according to Gallup: 39% are "concerned believers," 36% are part of the "mixed middle," and 25% are "cool skeptics." And the contrarian camp is growing: The 39% concerned believer figure is the same as it was in 2001; the mixed middle group has tumbled from 49% to 36%; and that 13% difference was completely gobbled up by the naysayers, who went from 12% to 25%.

Worse, the "cool" part of the cool-skeptics rubric misstates the unanimity and intensity of their beliefs. When the respondents were asked more granular questions—exactly how much they worry about climate change; if they believe that the dangers are understated, overstated or are being fairly described; if they believe climate change poses a threat to their lives—the believers and the mixed group generally had a range of opinions, but the skeptics move in lockstep. Is climate change exaggerated? 100% say yes. Does it pose a serious threat? 100% say no. That's the stuff of a Crimean referendum.

Look, for the 12 millionth time, nobody pretends that climate science has been completely figured out—there are plenty of holes in the models and unanswered questions. But what's settled is that the Earth is warming, the climate is becoming dangerously volatile and human activity is a meaningful part of the cause. The mere fact that the deniers are flat wrong on this score doesn't mean that the concerned believers are entirely correct. Fully 58% of them believe that the dangers of climate change have actually been understated—a hard case to make given some of the apocalyptic visions that come out of the louder factions of the green movement. But they're a whole lot righter than the faction that wants to put its fingers in its ears, make a cheap and easy Al Gore joke and move on.

That, frankly, is as far as we need to go down the false equivalency road—the obligatory hedge that both sides play the misinformation game. The fact is, it's conservatives (65% of the cool skeptic group), Republicans (80%) and men (66%) who are on the wrong side of the science, and there's no mystery as to how we've gotten here. Global warming denial has become one of the core beliefs of conservative and Republican ideology, along with a handful of other positions including opposition to gun control legislation and tax increases and a near-fetishistic obsession with overturning the Affordable Care Act. If you want to play in the GOP poker game, those are the table stakes.

Tuesday's Gallup poll comes just a day after an AP/GfK poll showing even higher rates of global warming skepticism—a dispiriting 40%. Another 51% of respondents question the Big Bang, and 15% doubt the safety and efficacy of vaccines. That last is a deadly figure—literally—because vaccination rates of up 95% are required to create the so-called herd immunity that protects entire communities. It doesn't take much math to see the harm a 15% opt-out will do.

It ought to be a poor time to have such counterfactual beliefs. Just last month, a landmark study out of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics provided some of the strongest evidence yet for the Big Bang. Just this season, New York City and Columbus, Ohio are suffering from outbreaks of measles and mumps as increasing numbers of parents refuse vaccines for their kids. And just on Tuesday—Earth Day—an iceberg twice as big as Atlanta was calving away from Antarctica, one more dramatic step in the slow thaw of the planet's ice cover.

There's a lot of blame to go around for our stubbornly misinformed beliefs. All it takes is a know-nothing with a megaphone like Jenny McCarthy or oil-rich sugar daddies like the Koch brothers to spread nonsense about vaccines or global warming. But it's facile to point the finger at them entirely. Yes, they're peddling junk, but too many of us are still buying. Until we stop, they'll never go away.

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