“Just 66 percent of millennials firmly believe that the Earth is round,” read the summary from the pollster YouGov. Kids today, right? But it’s not only curmudgeons eager to complain about the younger generation who ought to find the survey of interest. For despite the recent prominence of flat-earthery among musicians and athletes, YouGov’s survey seems to have been the first systematic attempt to assess the American population’s views on the shape of the Earth.
Moreover, the results raised a number of compelling questions that deserve attention. For example, why is the scientifically established view on the shape of the Earth less popular among younger respondents (according to YouGov) when the scientifically established view on the history of life and on the cause of global warming have been, in poll after poll, more popular among younger respondents?
So, anyone concerned about the understanding and acceptance of science in contemporary society—like us, a psychology professor at the Air Force Academy and a long-time staffer at the National Center for Science Education—might be expected to be fascinated by the YouGov survey. Unfortunately, when we investigated the details, the result was as much confusion as clarity and as many questions as answers.
When we asked YouGov for the actual response frequencies categorized by age, a public relations representative provided a spreadsheet with data. But it was impossible to reconcile the data with the original report’s results for a number of technical reasons, most importantly because the spreadsheet’s data were more numerous, reflecting 10,374 respondents as opposed to the report’s 8,215.
Puzzled but undeterred, we used the information in the spreadsheet to calculate acceptance of the round Earth by age groups and found that only about 82.5 percent of millennials (as YouGov called 18–24-year-olds) agreed with “I have always believed the world is round.” That’s still dismayingly low, of course, but it’s not as dismayingly low as 66 percent. And those aged 25–34 turned out to fare a tad worse, with only about 81.8 percent agreeing.
The discrepancy between the data underlying YouGov’s original report and the data provided in the spreadsheet undermined our understanding of both data sets. Frustratingly, YouGov was unable or unwilling to provide further assistance. Although there are transparency standards in survey research, such as the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls, they are, regrettably, not universally followed.
In the absence of further information, what can we conclude? Clearly, despite the discrepancy between the results, younger people are less likely to agree with the scientifically established view of the shape of the Earth. Yet, B.o.B. and Kyrie Irving notwithstanding, the spreadsheet data indicate that they are not substantially more likely to agree that the Earth is flat. Indeed, firm belief in a flat Earth was rare, with less than a 2 percent acceptance rate in all age groups.
Rather, according to the spreadsheet data, younger people were more likely to be uncertain or ambivalent about the shape of the Earth, either agreeing that they have recently entertained doubts that the Earth is round or opting for the “Other/Not Sure” choice on the questionnaire. Importantly, these responses weren’t distinctive to those aged 18 to 24 but were comparably prevalent among those aged 25 to 34 and those aged 35 to 44.
Why, then, are younger people more likely to be uncertain or ambivalent? Perhaps they are more likely to offer frivolous or ironic responses, as Earther’s Brian Kahn suggests; perhaps they have not learned science as well as their elders did; perhaps they are more religious, as YouGov’s claim that more than half of flat-earthers considered themselves very religious hints; perhaps they are moving in social circles that encourage mistrust of authority.
Existing data helps: the fact that younger people are more likely to accept the scientifically established views on the history of life and the cause of global warming suggests that they have learned science at least as well as their elders did, and the fact that younger people are less likely to be as religious as their elders suggests that their lower levels of round-earthery are not driven only by a higher degree of religiosity.
But further survey research will be necessary to winnow the possible explanations. There is a critical lesson to be learned here: the results of a single public opinion survey are by no means authoritative. Differences in the phrasing of questions, variance in the methods of polling, randomness and error and (rarely but sadly) misconduct: all of these guarantee that a single survey should never be taken as the last word.
Nevertheless, reliable and transparent survey research is crucial in considering public understanding and acceptance of science. Without it, we would be in the position of relying on individual experience and intuition alone in forming our opinions. And that’s not such a good idea. If we did so with respect to the shape of the Earth, then—since the planet superficially looks flat on a local scale—we might find ourselves in the company of the flat-earthers!