White People Have Trouble Accepting Pangaea

By Sean Carroll | August 7, 2009 8:25 am

White Americans, anyway. That seems to be the result from this poll at Daily Kos (via Tom Levenson’s Twitter feed).

Research 2000 for Daily Kos. 7/27-30. Likely voters. MoE 2% (No trend lines)

Do you believe that America and Africa were once part of the same continent?

         Yes    No  Not Sure

All       42    26    32

Dem       51    16    33
Rep       24    47    29
Ind       44    23    33

Northeast 50    18    32
South     32    37    31
Midwest   46    22    32
West      43    24    33

White     35    30    35
Black     63    13    24
Latino    55    19    26
Other     56    19    25

Probably readers of this blog are not a representative sample of Americans, and most or you — even the white people! — know that Pangaea was the supercontinent that existed about 250 million years ago, before plate tectonics worked its magic and broke it apart.

Now, some of my best friends are white folks, so I don’t want to make any grand generalizations about their intelligence or education. But this is a good illustration of a point made by Jerry Coyne — the problem of scientific illiteracy is not a simple one, and in particular it’s not just a matter of better outreach and more Carl Sagans. Which is not to say that more and better outreach and science journalism isn’t important or useful — it clearly is, and I’m in favor of making structural changes to provide much better incentives for making sure that it happens. But there are also factors at work for which outreach isn’t the answer — political and social forces that push people away from science. Those have to be confronted if we want to really address the problem.

(I don’t know who was the mischievous person who thought of asking this poll question in the first place, but it was an inspired idea.)

Update: Aaron Golas in comments points to a post by Devilstower laying out that the question was worded in an intentionally provocative way, to illustrate how bad questions can fail to correctly gauge scientific understanding. Which is completely true, and a point worth making. But I argue that the poll does reveal something, namely the extent to which underlying cultural attitudes can influence one’s stance toward purportedly scientific questions. Thus, “White People Have Trouble Accepting Pangaea,” not “White People Don’t Know About Pangaea.” As a measure of what percentage of Americans truly understand continental drift, the poll is pretty useless; as an indication of how culture affects that understanding, it’s very illuminating.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Society
  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/badastronomy Phil Plait

    Well… If we had a good science communicator like Sagan, someone who became part of the zeitgeist, then social norms might shift. After all, media has played a huge role over the past few decades in shining a light on embarrassing societal mores… and has been an enormous boon in decreasing racism and other forms of prejudice. They are still out there, to be sure, but I suspect that having more and better communication is playing a big role in this change.

  • Prem

    Although something like Pangaea is within reason, I have no reason to believe or disbelieve in it.

    I know enough about geology to understand and believe in plate tectonics, but I think it’s a bit of a stretch to accept (obviously from authority since I don’t know all that much about geology) this idea, and this is probably true of most people.

    Whatever happened to withholding a belief until presented with the appropriate evidence?

    I haven’t been presented with that evidence yet, and before accepting such a theory I’d need the answers to many other questions like: is the total landmass not currently under the ocean the same amount, more or less, than when Pangaea existed?

  • Jason

    The Republican numbers are no big surprise for me, but the Democrat ones are shocking.

    For one, how many of these don’t believe it due to religious convictions or how many don’t believe it due to a simple lack of information?

    How much is a racial irritation? For instance if the question had asked the same, except if it was connected to Europe instead?

  • CW

    My first reaction was simultaneous shock and the urge to punch a wall. I still remember my geography teacher telling me this, and thinking how interesting a one continent world would have been….

    No wonder so many people turn to supernatural/pseudo-science nonsense.

    @ Prem – I believe it’s been proven both by studying the Earth’s Crust and Fossil Records.

  • Jonzard

    I saw this poll back when it was posted and it made me wonder how much the wording of the poll played here. “America” and “Africa” are certainly more loaded terms than Pangaea or another descriptive term. It made me wonder if this caused some racial bias (to what degree, we’d need another poll to tell).

  • Durnett

    I think that we have to keep in mind the specific knowledge that people have about plate tectonics. People who may understand that the continents have shifted around and were all part of larger continents at sometime may not be be sure that this particular continent was unified in a super-continent with that particular continent.

    Before drawing conclusions about general knowledge, we also need to know more about the specifics of the survey – the other questions asked, length of the survey, number of people questioned, where this question fell in relation to other questions, etc. If the question before this one was “Do all Republicans hate science?”, then pissed off Republicans may have just checked no to all of the other questions.

  • Metre

    I would like to see if the people who answered “no” to the poll could point out America and Africa on a world map. I suspect the answer to that is also “no”!

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Phil, my point was that beliefs about science do not exist in isolation; they are embedded in, and heavily influenced by, a matrix of other cultural and political attitudes. Therefore (if that’s correct), simply doing a better job at explaining scientific concepts is not going to really solve the problem (although it obviously doesn’t hurt). Good communication may very well be part of the solution, but it will have to go far beyond simple scientific pedagogy.

  • http://www.aarongolas.com Aaron Golas

    No, no, no. Kos has it all wrong, and appears not to be reading his own site. Devilstower reported on this poll on DK last week. He explained that the poll question was “intentionally idiotic” and “written to press emotional hot buttons,” to illustrate the problems with a Gallup poll about evolution.

  • -dan z-

    Since whites have the highest “unsure” rating and are about evenly split otherwise, I think that indicates that whites are the most open-minded about the subject.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Aaron, I agree that the question was (perhaps intentionally) not worded in a sensible way if the goal was to survey the understanding of certain basic scientific facts. Nevertheless, there certainly is something that the results teach us: that non-scientific attitudes influence the answers people will give to what should be a scientific question. Which was exactly my point. There is a lesson here for opinion pollsters, but also an important lesson for those of us who care about attitudes toward science.

  • Hugo

    Those results show two import things:

    First, the answers people give to a poll are biased by the way the question are formulated, this bias depending on the socio-cultural and politic alignment of the public.

    Second: due to this bias, the results of the poll appear different from what we would expect in an honest analysis and enable one to manipulate the public opinion by showing results that are not obtained in bona fide.

    We should be aware of that, but it is hard to convince people about the “truth” when it implies that they are not superior to other people or animals (like in immigration and racial problems, Darwin’s evolution) or that they need to pay for something (like in the green house gases question or the financial crisis).

  • rata

    Souther, white, republicans, of course they don’t, they don’t believe in evolution, why would they believe any other field of science?

  • Emilie

    Rata, that kind of generalization demonstrates your own cultural bias and does nothing to help solve the problem. Examine your own dismissive attitude.

  • http://www.aarongolas.com Aaron Golas

    Yet the title of your post is “White People Have Trouble Accepting Pangaea,” which claim is unsupported by this poll. What we CAN say is that white Americans appear to tend to have cognitive difficulty associating America with Africa.

    Clearly this poll is evidence that emotional attitudes influence how people respond to poll questions. However, less clear is the extent to which emotional attitudes influence people’s understanding of science. If we really want to contribute to science communication, we need to honestly address the latter without the interfering sensationalism of poorly-designed surveys.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    I think “have trouble accepting” is exactly what is supported by this poll. Otherwise I would have written “don’t know about.”

  • Walt

    As much fun: Were Adam & Eve black?

  • Bo

    @ Prem: In my opinion, this is mainly the fault of our educational system. There is good and clear evidence (as CW said), but it isn’t frequently shared. People are just given the concept of Pangaea and tectonic activity and expected to accept it.

    Essentially, we can see the path of stationary volcanic hot-spots on the Earth’s crust where plates moved OVER lava vents. The Deccan Steppes in India is one, and Yellowstone is another, as are the Hawaiian islands. We can also see the rifts and faults where the plates grind against one another or pull apart, such as the Great Rift of Africa (visible from space!). In other words, it’s like watching someone mush and pull clay in slow motion. You can see the effects of the motion left on the surface. Also, fossil evidence… but the geological stuff is my fave part!

    I learned this information on my own and through my parents, but I didn’t encounter it in school until I took a college-level, optional geology course. The maps are simple enough (and fun enough, in my opinion) that elementary school students could understand them. We make kids color in the states… why aren’t we making them color in tectonic plates and their paths? Who knows. There is a massive problem with the way America teaches science, for the most part. It is left so esoteric and portrayed as being “too much to understand if you aren’t really, really smart” and I just don’t think that’s true.

  • http://kandeezie.com Kandeezie

    @Aaron – “What we CAN say is that white Americans appear to tend to have cognitive difficulty associating America with Africa.” – exactly. More cultural/racial/historical than rejection of science or lack of education. Their racial understanding of the world (America=Good/Africa=Bad) interferes with their understanding. This seems more like a racial question rather than a scientific one, based on the way the question was framed.

  • Albert Bakker

    Clearly from the polling data you can see a political bias. Republicans more than any other category don’t like to be associated with Africans in the now, future or even 6000 years ago.

    #17 Nope, they were transparent. Before they put on a leaf (somehow) only a special kind of snake could sense them in the IR.

  • http://www.aarongolas.com Aaron Golas

    Hm… perhaps. But in my mind, the poll doesn’t really address acceptance of Pangaea per se. Many respondents may have gotten hung up on America + Africa and never even got to the point of thinking about the supercontinent from which the association is derived. It says a lot about communication and cognitive dissonance, but not as much about actual science understanding.

    (Sorry if I’m coming across as overly critical, by the way. I’m a fan of the blog, I just sometimes have a bad habit of lurking until I find something I disagree with.)

  • Fraser

    Yes, Minister has something to say about such poll questions.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Aaron, nothing wrong with being critical. I completely agree that if the purpose of the poll were to measure scientific knowledge, the wording of the question would be ridiculous. But it measures something, and not just the fickleness of polls. My point is that “communication and cognitive dissonance” are part of scientific understanding, not separate from it, and that’s a crucial point to keep in mind if we want to improve scientific understanding. You can’t really understand and accept the idea of Pangaea if you don’t believe that America and Africa were once part of the same continent.

  • Metre

    When it comes to education, people remember what’s important to them and what’s relevant to their lives. Let’s face it, the fact that NA and Africa were physically connected 250M years ago is not a fact that most people find either interesting or useful. I don’t think improvements in science education will alter the basic psychological fact that people forget stuff they don’t use or aren’t interested in. Heck, I took years of English and I’ll be darned if I remember what a gerund is (OK, I do remember).

  • http://fullof.bs/ John Haugeland

    I find amazing that you guys are attributing so much importance to an informal study with such a small sample. Clusters that small are easily explained by a single person of low education or religiously guided beliefs passing a survey around to their buddies.

    Please stop engaging in such melodrama. It isn’t journalism.

  • Giotis

    The poll doesn’t make sense. I would understand it if native Americans had a problem with that but white Americans are European emigrants. Why they would even care?

    On the other hand if they just wanted to measure any hidden racism in America they could simply ask: Do you believe that the origin of human species is in Africa?

  • Xalem

    As someone who is simultaneously non-American, and North American, I note that the claim is false. America is a country that has only existed since 1776, and at no time in its existence was it part of a continent that also contained Africa. NORTH America is a continent as is Africa, and these two continents formed from a previously existing continent we call Pangaea. Only an American would refer to North America as America. Just last week, I caught a New Scientist website labeling a location in Alberta as being part of the US. ( the spot on the map was clearly above the 49th parallel) If science journalists can’t tell the difference between North America and America…God help us.

  • bad Jim

    Xalem, there is a bit of the U.S. north of the 49th parallel which is contiguous with Manitoba: the Northwest Angle.

  • Jason A.

    Prem, it’s not necessarily wrong to accept a claim on authority. An understanding of the scientific process, mainly that it’s ideologically neutral and self correcting, is enough to conclude that whatever the consensus is in a field is probably correct. Enough so that I can say it’s true, provisionally speaking only, but that also applies to the subjects I do know. It’s a case where the conclusions of the experts in the field become the default position. It’s a stretch to say I should withhold judgement until I understand it myself. I’ve always pointed out the value of ‘withholding judgement’ on subjects that nobody really knows about, like the existence of extraterrestrial life for example, but that doesn’t mean to withhold judgement on things simply because I myself don’t understand them. That’s dangerously close to an argument from personal incredulity/ignorance.

  • uncle sam

    There is only a little merit in the comments here on pros and cons of the survey. Most commenters are dancing around the core insight – which is perhaps more about Republicans than white people, once you realize their greater numbers among whites. Yadda yadda, people may be confused over Pangea as a whole v. “America” and Africa, “America” can mean either the nation or the continent, some white people are scared about America-Africa connections, etc. (But that bit about 1776 – hey, the correct name for this nation is “The United States of America” and a person should appreciate that it also refers to a land mass. And I saw the sample size, it was around 1,000 and big enough.) All that tap dancing, but folks: how come all those Democrats and black people correctly got the point, and didn’t get confused about nations versus continents, etc. – and so many whites/ and Republicans didn’t? If that is more about prejudice than science education, well that still tells us something worth knowing anyway – it doesn’t make the poll “bad.”

    I think Devilstower had it all wrong. The question wasn’t silly and was not “intentionally idiotic”, the results of the poll did not “appear different from what we would expect in an honest analysis and enable one to manipulate the public opinion by showing results that are not.” It was an honest analysis. It just showed us another parameter. If it showed that certain groups can’t accept the connection between America and Africa, that is what we learn. So then don’t call it, “know”, and Sean got it right in the title. Like I said, that all those people *can’t accept* the continental connection is bad enough, maybe worse, than if they didn’t realize it. Time to face the implications and do some soul-(or intellect)-searching.

  • The Sine

    According to Sagan’s biography, one of his old friends said, “You only meet people like Carl, maybe, once every two generations.” Current events appear to match the historical conditions at Sagan’s birth. Maybe he’s already among us. 😮

    (I fear I’ll regret making that comment when some nut takes it seriously and accuses me and everyone here of worshiping Sagan.)

  • Xalem

    Good point Bad Jim. The Northwest angle is the northern bit of America that isn’t Alaska. It is in the Lake-of-the-Woods area. I have been to the Canadian side of that lake (Kenora area). It is beautiful. It is not terribly far from the geographic center of North America, (which is in North Dakota). (I remember pumping water for sheep that had strayed into the tourist area there) …wait, what were we talking about again?

  • bad Jim

    It’s probably not wrong to ascribe to racism the refusal of 3/4 of Southern whites to accept Obama’s legitimacy, but that so many could hold such a view in the face of overwhelming evidence shouldn’t be surprising. The average person regards scientific claims as the views of one authority and not necessarily superior to those of other authorities, and doesn’t necessarily notice when different claims conflict.

    There’s a bit of a pedagogical paradox involved in teaching that arguments from authority are illegitimate to students who have yet to master algebra. Too many are likely to conclude that all beliefs are equally valid. That probably isn’t the attitude we’re confronting in this case, but the epistemology in evidence is not much more robust: Rush or my pastor said it, and I trust them more than some pointy-headed professor in a lab coat.

  • Sam Gralla

    The post arguing against this poll would be a lot more convincing if it presented examples of how to do better.

  • Michael Kingsford Gray

    It is my opinion that it is criminally insane to have self-identified ‘race’ as a question in such a survey.
    Why on earth would a person’s self-proclaimed ‘race’ (whatever the f*** that is) possibly be of any relevance?

  • http://scienceontap.blogspot.com ARJ

    The results of course are disappointing, but it is true that wording of a polling question is all-important — so much so that I believe it virtually impossible to do actual scientific polling… impossible to construct truly objectively-worded questions that carry the identical meaning for all respondents. So, interesting (and polls are always fun to play with), but probably more sound and fury than any real significance, except to say once again there’s a lot of scientific illiteracy out there.

  • http://viXra.org/ PhilG

    There are many reasons why people would answer “no” to this question. It might be because racial bias makes them deny the association, it might be that their religious beliefs make them reject the fact that the Earth is more than 6000 years old, it might just be pure ignorance of the theory of plate tectonics, it might even be because they like spoiling surveys by giving the wrong answer. I would answer “no” for the (admittedly pedantic) reason that I don’t think it is correct to say that Pangaea was a combination of future continents just because it was made from the rocks that form those continents now.

    With all those different influences on the survey answers, I don’t see how anyone could expect to draw a meaningful conclusion from the result. Even the fairly weak conclusion proposed by Sean.

  • Patrick

    My rather unscientific survey of this comment thread suggests that most people do not understand survey procedure. The sample size was not small, it was sufficient for a 2% margin of error. The fact that people might have multiple reasons for answering “no” doesn’t mean you can’t draw meaningful conclusions from the result- for example, if people enjoy spoiling surveys by giving the wrong answer, that would only create a racial disparity in the final outcome if white people spoil surveys by giving the wrong answer more frequently than do members of other races, and I doubt there is any evidence to support that assumption. The point of the survey wasn’t to objectively measure how many people understand plate tectonics, it was to measure how different types of people respond to a particular question, and to see if different types of people would in fact respond differently, and if so how. I could go on here, but I won’t. The survey is what it is.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com Eugene

    To be honest, I’d rather not have Daily Kos polls dissected in CV.com…..

  • spyder

    Now careful with that axe, Eugene (as you seem to have one to grind).

    Perhaps we might want to take into account another stark reality of the population in the US, a stunning percentage stay within 250 miles of their homes for their lives. Only 12% have passports, which restricts international travel to a number roughly equal to the percent that graduate universities. More than 1/3 never extend their lives past 100 miles from home. For nearly 25 years i lived in the Sierra Nevada and knew whole families who hadn’t traveled, either north nor south, along the range (swaths of kids never visiting Yosemite or Lake Tahoe yet lived less than 50 miles away). Without some sense of the geologic diversity, and little TV programming that links aspects of continental chunks to one another, many US citizens prefer to believe some deity threw it all together as is.

  • Svaals

    This certainly is a loaded question with implications relating to evolution and race. Messages of racial and scientific intolerance are spread everyday from the religious right. So, the results of the poll are not really surprising to me.

    What’s sad for those advancing scientific literacy in America, is that when the facts are the clearest the pundits are at their loudest. When fundamentalists cannot dismiss facts, they simply dismiss science as a whole, which is in many ways more damaging to science education.

    I think it’s important that scientists don’t start shouting like those on a right. While that works when you’re preaching messages of intolerance, it certainly won’t work for education. To me this is a transition period, in which the focus of scientific literacy should be youth. Science writers and educators have to maintain a collected approach, despite the shouts of scientific intolerance. With time, those voices and those listeners will die out, and scientific attitudes will further advance.

    Until then we must stay focused on science education from the bottom up, starting by teaching scientific principles and most importantly, by teaching the structure of the scientific community and the scientific process at a young age. We must instill in young Americans a respect for the field of science, rather than teaching just facts and conclusions. Scientific ideas may change, but acceptance of science in the community requires Americans to understand how scientific ideas change and why, and that what you learn in 4th grade science may no longer be true.

  • C.LeMasters

    I would like to submit an0ther possibility for your consideration. I am college educated and well past fifty but I was very dumbstruck by this theory, that was in plane sight, but never considered until recently. Or it is known and the implications are too frightening. I hope this is not considered off topic. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7kL7qDeI05U . Maybe you who disallow it will still be curious.

  • http://whenindoubtdo.blogspot.com Eugene

    @40 Spyder : I don’t know where you get the idea that I have an axe to grind, but okay.

    Also, saying that people don’t travel a lot hence they are more susceptible to a creationist belief is a false premise. Most people in China never leave their country, but they don’t seem to follow a creationist belief system.

  • E.Whead

    Intriguing poll and analyses (by both the author and commenters). I think there are many possible conclusions, many of which are worthy of further, more detailed polling and analysis. As a U.S. citizen, I believe the average citizen here suffers from a myopia when it comes to the country, let alone the world. As a black American cultural observer, I think willingness to link Western Europe to Africa in any way shape form or fashion other than colonially is probably a decent proxy for ‘liberal’ worldviews, and to a lesser extent, liberal politics. As someone who’s trained in geoscience, the overall numbers are saddening as plate tectonic theory is probably one of THE best supported of all the major, core scientific theories currently taught. As such, it’s not a matter of belief…but the way it’s discussed clearly highlights a general misunderstanding of what a theory is.

  • Ja Muller


    He probably just couldn’t pass up an opportunity to use that line :)


  • http://magicdragon.com Jonathan Vos Post

    Exactly. I was so startled by what students thought that they knew, when I was an Astronomy Professor, and when I taught Evolution by Natural Selection in High School Biology, and in Anatomy & Physiology… It is a FACT that the continents “drift” and that the cosmos expands (regardless of what Theory you hold). Darwin emphasized that his 2 big contributions were to Evolution as a FACT and, independent, that Evolution is a THEORY. The intentionally ignorant do not grasp the word “theory” as used in Science.

  • Pingback: Sólo 4 de cada 10 estadounidenses acepta que América y África fueron parte de un mismo continente « La Singularidad Desnuda()

  • Shaun

    At the risk of sounding silly, what would have been a better way to word the question? I can see how the word “belief” might muck things up a little. I could also see how specifically saying “North America” over just “America” would have been better. But isn’t belief a necessary part of scientific literacy? For example, most of those polled probably know that “scientists” claim that the Americas and Africa were once joined together in Pangaea, but if they don’t “believe” that, what difference does it make? Wouldn’t the important thing to know not be whether the average American is aware of various scientific claims, but rather if they “believe” it? I realize any rewording of the question can be picked apart by someone for bias, but I’m honestly not sure how it “should” have been worded.

  • hyper38

    Can we drop the facade for once—we get it sean—you want to make fun of those inbred red state white trash yokels that you resent so much for not holding your political positions. Perhaps we can ask Holdren about a large scale sterilization program.

    Any scientist worth his salt would have asked why the categories weren’t divided up by education level as well. High School Grads/GED recipients who barely spent a day or two on continental drift or plate tectonics clearly should constitute a interesting distinguishable sample from college grads or advanced degree recipients.

  • toasterhead

    49. hyper38 Says:
    August 12th, 2009 at 8:07 am

    Any scientist worth his salt would have asked why the categories weren’t divided up by education level as well. High School Grads/GED recipients who barely spent a day or two on continental drift or plate tectonics clearly should constitute a interesting distinguishable sample from college grads or advanced degree recipients.

    Plate tectonics is something every student should learn in elementary school science. It’s not a difficult concept. And since 87% of Americans have graduated high school and well over 90% have at least an 8th grade education, that means 9 in 10 Americans have no excuse for not knowing that the continents were joined.

    Except, of course, for willful ignorance.

  • b

    Do these white americans realize/know they’re not actually from America? I mean, every white person in America is an immigrant from Europe. Or is that too “provoking” and “unproven”. I heard about pangea when I was very young, I had just read the lord of the rings and one of my friends informed me that once there had been pangea and it looked an awful lot like Tolkiens map of middle earth. I though that was cool at the time.

    And I agree, “everyone” knows that there was once pangea thus the study doesn’t reflect whether one knows that or not. Instead it reflects amazingly narrow minds. It’s actually kinda shocking.



  • http://tispaquin.blogspot.com Doug Watts

    I think this poll is a riot and agree fully with what Sean says. And sorry, poll after poll after poll after poll shows a marked lack of basic scientific knowledge a) in the South and b) among self-identified Republicans. This poll is simply re-confirming what many other polls and studies have shown. And as for the racial breakdown, you can either explain it by lots of whites are stupid or lots of whites are racist, or both. There is no other rational explanation for the breakdown.

    I was taught continental drift/plate tectonics in 6th grade in 1976 at a public school. And it is not a “theory.” It is one of the most thoroughly proven facts in all of science.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .


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