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

Discover's Newsletter

Sign up to get the latest science news delivered weekly right to your inbox!

Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

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 .


See More

Collapse bottom bar