Oct 28 2014

What Americans Believe

Surveys are always problematic because they are subject to interpretation, the precise phrasing of questions, sampling bias, and perhaps hidden assumptions on the part of those taking the survey. The results of any single survey, therefore, should be taken with a grain of salt. Still, they can provide a useful snapshot (if done well) of the current culture. 

Skeptics are always interested in what the general public “believes.” The term “belief” is itself problematic, and when used in a survey it is subject to interpretation by those taking the survey. I am not one of those who object to ever using the term “belief.” It is a reasonable short hand for, “I find the totality of available evidence to be compelling,” or “I accept the scientific consensus on this issue,” at least in informal writing or conversation.

In a survey, however, I would prefer any questions about what people “believe” to be replaced by, or at least supplemented by, statements about what the scientific evidence says.

In any case, we have another recent survey about what Americans believe, from Chapman University. The survey covers a lot of territory, from religious affiliation and practice, to what people fear, to what they believe about scientific and paranormal topics. You can download the entire 73-page report of the results from the link above.

There are some interesting results in there, such as 18.2% of Americans are at least somewhat afraid of zombies. With these types of questions you have to wonder if 18.2% of Americans really just like to give fun answers on surveys.

Religious beliefs seem to be largely unchanged over recent decades. About 35% of people believe the world will end in a biblical armageddon. Meanwhile, 45% of people believe we will one day develop spaceships that can travel faster than the speed of light. This might explain why Star Trek is more popular then Left Behind. 

About 76% of those taking the survey fear that a major pandemic or major epidemic will hit sometime in the next 25 years. That is not an unreasonable fear in itself. Major epidemics occur with fair regularity. The survey does not say anything about dying in an epidemic, just that one will happen. The same amount, 76%, fear a major nuclear or biological attack in the next 25 years.

Of those surveyed, 46% are worried that a devastating asteroid strike will occur in the US in the next 25 years. I guess people have been reading Phil Plait’s book, Death from the Skies. They asked about an EMP attack (66% worried) but not about a coronal mass ejection, which I think is more likely.

Another survey from this year comes from the AP who published a survey in March. The Washington Post made a nice graphic of some of the results:

This is disturbing. Some of the classic pseudoscientific beliefs, such as bigfoot and astrology, still linger in our culture but down below 20%. Other oldies but goodies, like Atlantis, remain strong. I suspect the History Channel has something to do with this.

Topping the list is, essentially, The Secret / Oprah / Chopra style nonsense, that simply wishing can make something come true. These types of beliefs, those at the top of that chart, seem to correlate with beliefs that are being pushed by major media outlets and popular books.

Even more troubling though, in my opinion, is that confidence in major scientific discoveries – evolution, global warming, the Big Bang, vaccines, and the age of the earth, are so far down that list. I think what we are seeing here is ideology and world view. There are no implications for any political party whether Bigfoot is real or not. Those beliefs that have political or religious implications, however, are all below 50%.

While Republicans were less likely to accept evolution, global warming, and the age of the earth/universe, Democrats were more accepting of The Secret, haunted houses, fortune telling, and astrology. (Atlantis and Bigfoot are politically neutral.)

I think what we are seeing here are essentially cultural and ideological differences between the left and right, but not necessarily any clear difference between overall acceptance of science or critical thinking.


Some Americans continue to believe many things that are not based upon science or evidence and essentially represent magical thinking. Meanwhile, many Americans reject the findings of science when they conflict with their ideological beliefs.

Fears and beliefs seem to be more driven by popular culture and mass media than scientific evidence. Clearly we have our work cut out for us.

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