By SETH BORENSTEIN and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Few Americans question that smoking causes cancer. But they express bigger doubts as concepts that scientists consider to be truths get further from our own experiences and the present time, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.

 Americans have more skepticism than confidence in global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and have the most trouble believing a Big Bang created the universe 13.8 billion years ago.

 Rather than quizzing scientific knowledge, the survey asked people to rate their confidence in several statements about science and medicine.

On some, there’s broad acceptance. Just 4 percent doubt that smoking causes cancer, 6 percent question whether mental illness is a medical condition that affects the brain and 8 percent are skeptical there’s a genetic code inside our cells. More — 15 percent — have doubts about the safety and efficacy of childhood vaccines.

About 4 in 10 say they are not too confident or outright disbelieve that the earth is warming, mostly a result of man-made heat-trapping gases, that the Earth is 4.5 billion years old or that life on Earth evolved through a process of natural selection, though most were at least somewhat confident in each of those concepts. But a narrow majority — 51 percent — questions the Big Bang theory.

Those results depress and upset some of America’s top scientists, including several Nobel Prize winners, who vouched for the science in the statements tested, calling them settled scientific facts.

“Science ignorance is pervasive in our society, and these attitudes are reinforced when some of our leaders are openly antagonistic to established facts,” said 2013 Nobel Prize in medicine winner Randy Schekman of the University of California, Berkeley.

The poll highlights “the iron triangle of science, religion and politics,” said Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication.

And scientists know they’ve got the shakiest leg in the triangle.

To the public “most often values and beliefs trump science” when they conflict, said Alan Leshner, chief executive of the world’s largest scientific society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

Political values were closely tied to views on science in the poll, with Democrats more apt than Republicans to express confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change.

Religious values are similarly important.

Confidence in evolution, the Big Bang, the age of the Earth and climate change decline sharply as faith in a supreme being rises, according to the poll. Likewise, those who regularly attend religious services or are evangelical Christians express much greater doubts about scientific concepts they may see as contradictory to their faith.

“When you are putting up facts against faith, facts can’t argue against faith,” said 2012 Nobel Prize winning biochemistry professor Robert Lefkowitz of Duke University. “It makes sense now that science would have made no headway because faith is untestable.”

But evolution, the age of the Earth and the Big Bang are all compatible with God, except to Bible literalists, said Francisco Ayala, a former priest and professor of biology, philosophy and logic at the University of California, Irvine. And Darrel Falk, a biology professor at Point Loma Nazarene University and an evangelical Christian, agreed, adding: “The story of the cosmos and the Big Bang of creation is not inconsistent with the message of Genesis 1, and there is much profound biblical scholarship to demonstrate this.”

Beyond religious belief, views on science may be tied to what we see with our own eyes. The closer an issue is to our bodies and the less complicated, the easier it is for people to believe, said John Staudenmaier, a Jesuit priest and historian of technology at the University of Detroit Mercy.

Marsha Brooks, a 59-year-old nanny who lives in Washington, D.C., said she’s certain smoking causes cancer because she saw her mother, aunts and uncles, all smokers, die of cancer. But when it comes to the universe beginning with a Big Bang or the Earth being about 4.5 billion years old, she has doubts. She explained: “It could be a lack of knowledge. It seems so far” away.

Jorge Delarosa, a 39-year-old architect from Bridgewater, N.J., pointed to a warm 2012 without a winter and said, “I feel the change. There must be a reason.” But when it came to Earth’s beginnings 4.5 billion years ago, he has doubts simply because “I wasn’t there.”

Experience and faith aren’t the only things affecting people’s views on science. Duke University’s Lefkowitz sees “the force of concerted campaigns to discredit scientific fact” as a more striking factor, citing significant interest groups — political, business and religious — campaigning against scientific truths on vaccines, climate change and evolution.

Yale’s Leiserowitz agreed but noted sometimes science wins out even against well-financed and loud opposition, as with smoking.

Widespread belief that smoking causes cancer “has come about because of very public, very focused public health campaigns,” AAAS’s Leshner said. A former acting director of the National Institute of Mental Health, Leshner said he was encouraged by the public’s acceptance that mental illness is a brain disease, something few believed 25 years ago, before just such a campaign.

That gives Leiserowitz hope for a greater public acceptance of climate change, but he fears it may be too late to do anything about it.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted March 20-24, 2014, using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,012 adults and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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On Twitter, follow AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein at http://twitter.com/borenbears and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta at http://www.twitter.com/JennAgiesta .

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

AP-GfK Poll: No agreement on how to pay for highways

By JOAN LOWY and JENNIFER AGIESTA, Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) — Small wonder Congress has kept federal highway and transit programs teetering on the edge of insolvency for years, unable to find a politically acceptable long-term source of funds. The public can’t make up its mind on how to pay for them either.

Six in 10 Americans think the economic benefits of good highways, railroads and airports outweigh the cost to taxpayers. Yet there is scant support for some of the most frequently discussed options for paying for construction of new roads or the upkeep of existing ones, according to a new Associated Press-GfK poll.

Among those who drive places multiple times per week, 62 percent say the benefits outweigh the costs. Among those who drive less than once a week or not at all, 55 percent say the costs of road improvement are worthwhile.

Yet a majority of all Americans — 58 percent — oppose raising federal gasoline taxes to fund transportation projects such as the repair, replacement or expansion of roads and bridges. Only 14 percent support an increase. And by a better than 2-to-1 margin, Americans oppose having private companies pay for construction of new roads and bridges in exchange for the right to charge tolls. Moving to a usage tax based on how many miles a vehicle drives also draws more opposition than support — 40 percent oppose it, while 20 percent support it.

Support for shifting more responsibility for paying for such projects to state and local government is a tepid 30 percent.

“Congress is actually reflecting what people want,” said Joshua Schank, president and CEO of the Eno Center for Transportation, a transportation think tank. “People want to have a federal (transportation) program and they don’t want to pay for it.”

Last week, Congress cobbled together $10.8 billion to keep transportation aid flowing to states by changing how employers fund worker pension programs, extending customs user fees and transferring money from a fund to repair leaking underground fuel storage tanks. The money was needed to make up a shortfall between aid promised to states and revenue raised by the federal 18.4 cents-per-gallon gas tax and the 24.4 cents-per-gallon diesel tax, which haven’t been increased in more than 20 years.

It’s the fifth time in the last six years that Congress has patched a hole in the federal Highway Trust Fund that pays for highway and transit aid. Each time it gets more difficult for lawmakers to find the money without increasing the federal budget deficit. Critics described the pension funding changes used this time as budget gimmicks that would cost the government more in the long run and undermine employee pension programs.

The latest patch cleared Congress about three hours before midnight last Thursday, the day before the Transportation Department said it would begin cutting back aid payments to states. The current fix is only expected to cover the revenue gap through next May, when Congress will be back where it started unless lawmakers act sooner.

The most direct solution would be to raise fuel taxes. That’s what three blue-ribbon federal commissions have recommended. But opposition to a gas tax increase cuts across party lines, although Republicans are more apt to oppose an increase, 70 percent, than Democrats, 52 percent.

“Every time we turn around there’s another tax, and our gas taxes are so high now,” said James Lane, 52, of Henry County in rural south-central Virginia, who described himself as leaning toward the GOP.

Lane favors allowing companies to pay for the construction of new or expanded roads and bridges in exchange for the right impose tolls on motorists, often for many decades. There have been projects like that in Virginia, but since those roads are in more populated areas of the state where he doesn’t drive it makes sense to have the people who use them pay for them, he said.

But Michael Murphy, 63, a data services contractor who lives near San Antonio, Texas, where a high-speed public-private toll road is scheduled to open this fall, said he’d rather see gas taxes increased than tolls imposed on drivers. Roads benefit everyone, even if indirectly, so it’s only fair that everyone who drives pays something toward their cost, he said.

A majority of those surveyed, 56 percent, say traffic in the area where they live has gotten worse in the last five years. Only 6 percent say traffic has improved in their area, and 33 percent that it’s stayed about the same.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults. It has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents, larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com

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Follow Joan Lowy on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/AP_Joan_Lowy


AP-GfK poll: Americans ready to close the book on wars in Iraq, Afghanistan

By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press

 WASHINGTON (AP) — Three in four Americans think history will judge the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as failures, according to an Associated Press-GfK poll that shows that about the same percentage think it was right to pull forces from the two countries.

Americans surveyed in last month’s poll were not optimistic about the chance that a stable democratic government will be established in either country. Seventy-eight percent said it was either not too likely or not at all likely in Afghanistan and 80 percent said the same about Iraq.

Roughly three out of four Americans polled think that in hindsight, each war will be deemed as an outright “complete failure” or “more of a failure than success.”

A majority of those polled, or 70 percent, said the United States was right to withdraw American troops from Iraq in 2011 and pull most U.S. forces out of Afghanistan by December. The two conflicts have consumed the nation for more than a decade and claimed the lives of 6,800 U.S. troops.

Nelson Philip, 73, of Oswego, Illinois, is of two minds. He judges the Afghan war a failure, but wants U.S. troops to stay in countries that remain in turmoil.

“What’s so successful about it? We didn’t do anything there. The Taliban. They’re still there. We haven’t done anything and now we’re pulling everybody out of there,” Philip said. “And now this Islamic group is over there taking over Iraq.”

The situations in Afghanistan and Iraq are distinct. But in each, the U.S. has spent more than a decade trying to set up democratic governments that could effectively police their own territories and stamp out threats to the American homeland. And in both countries that objective is in peril — their futures threatened by a combination of poor leadership, weak institutions, interethnic rivalry, insurgencies and extremist rebellions.

Americans surveyed in the poll think more bad news is on the horizon.

Fifty percent — up 18 points in the past seven months — think the situation in Afghanistan will get worse. Fifty-eight percent — up from 16 percent in December 2009 — expect conditions in Iraq will worsen. The poll was conducted shortly after Sunni extremists conducted an offensive that shattered security in Iraq.

The rapid advance by the extremist Islamic State group, which captured Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul, and overran much of northern and western Iraq, has plunged the country into its worst crisis since the withdrawal of U.S. troops at the end of 2011.

Melody Fisher, a 58-year-old midwife from Prescott, Ariz., was among the roughly 25 percent who didn’t think it was time yet for American troops to return from Afghanistan, where about 2,340 U.S. servicemen and women have been killed. She said she wasn’t convinced that the U.S. had finished its work there.

“I used to work with refuges so I’m very aware of the conditions that people have to live in,” said Fisher, a midwife who spent time helping resettle Cambodian refugees. “Our country, our nation, has no idea about the day-to-day things that people have to go through in many places.”

People over 50 expressed far more pessimism about the ultimate outcome of the two conflicts than their younger counterparts.

Sixty-two percent of those over 50 said the situation in Afghanistan would get worse in the coming year, compared with 40 percent of younger Americans. On Iraq, that gap is even larger, with 72 percent age 50 or older expecting things to get worse compared with 47 percent of those under age 50.

Older Americans also are more likely to think the U.S. war in Afghanistan will be judged a failure in the future; 86 percent of those 50 or older feel that way, compared with 64 percent among those under age 50. They are also more likely to doubt that a stable democratic government will be established there; 88 percent age 50 or older say it’s unlikely to happen compared with 70 percent age 18 to 49.

The AP-GfK Poll was conducted July 24-28, 2014 using KnowledgePanel, GfK’s probability-based online panel designed to be representative of the U.S. population. It involved online interviews with 1,044 adults, and has a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 3.4 percentage points for all respondents. It is larger for subgroups.

Respondents were first selected randomly using phone or mail survey methods, and were later interviewed online. People selected for KnowledgePanel who didn’t otherwise have access to the Internet were provided with the ability to access the Internet at no cost to them.

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Associated Press director of polling Jennifer Agiesta in Washington contributed to this report.

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com