Earlier this week, the Associated Press found that 51% of Americans are “not too/not at all confident” that “[t]he universe began 13.8 billion years ago with a big bang.” The result is being touted as evidence of widespread scientific illiteracy. While it’s tempting to read the result as evidence that Americans are simply bad at dates—until recently, many scientists would have replied “not too confident” because they believed the universe began 13.7 billion years ago, not 13.8—it corresponds with decades of poll data suggesting that a majority of Americans do not believe that the universe began with a big explosion.
Edwin Hubble essentially proved that everything in the universe was rocketing away from a big explosion in 1929. The Science Channel explains what Hubble accomplished, and why it is so important, here:
But did the universe begin with this explosion? Even astrophysicists tend to hem and haw a little bit on this question, arguing that the universe as we know it began with the Big Bang. The argument that the universe in its entirety never existed prior to the Big Bang is, for practical reasons, untestable and unfalsifiable. It’s the best explanation for the available evidence, but there is still a world of difference between saying that the Big Bang happened and saying that nothing happened in this universe before it did. Add in the fact that the average American does not distinguish between “universe” and “cosmos,” and it’s easy to imagine how many scientifically literate people could still find themselves among that 51%.
This wrinkle can be ironed out by simply rewording the question. If we were to ask whether the universe began in its present form with the Big Bang, or even whether the Big Bang occurred 13.8 billion years ago, we would be able to more clearly distinguish between scientific illiteracy and a simple willingness to accept metaphysical ambiguity.