“One in six young people think the earth is flat”? Not too fast!

Lots of noise for nothing? An Ifop poll for the Jean-Jaurès foundation and the Reboot foundation published Thursday warned about young people’s links to science and certain conspiracy theories. The findings are worrying. According to this document, six in ten young people think it is possible that the Earth is flat, more than one in four believe in creationism and nearly one in two think astrology is a science. Ifop even talks about “beat generation”. While these results were widely reported in the media, on social networks, much criticism of the survey’s methodology and objectives appeared to suggest the data were ultimately not very scientific.

What does this research actually say? Why is he being criticized? To Marie Peltier, historian specializing in conspiracies, history teacher and writer Obsession, behind the scenes conspiracy narrative contacted by 20 minutes, this survey “is a tool to support the thesis that young people are increasingly tainted by conspiracies” while “existing [son] experience [lui] shows otherwise.

What do the polls say?

Hence the result at least alarming if not dramatic. Surveys of young people aged 11 and 24 ask various questions related to science, history or current events and tend to show that there has been a decline in young people’s confidence in science since 2017.

Thus, several statements were proposed, in which the respondents answered “agree” or “disagree”. Among them, we find: “humans are not the product of a long evolution from another species such as monkeys, but were created by spiritual powers” ​​(27% agree); “in ancient times, the Egyptian pyramids were built by extraterrestrials” (19%); “Americans have never been to the moon” (20%); “maybe the Earth is flat and not round as taught since school” (16%); “in Ukraine, the massacre of civilians in Boutcha was perpetrated by the Ukrainian authorities” (26%). So-called “parascientific” theories are also discussed, such as magic, fortune-telling, astrology or divination. But also spirits, ghosts, reincarnations, etc.

In addition, of the 2,003 people questioned, the survey highlighted differences in the selected age group, especially those aged 18-24 years (942 people questioned). Religious panels, political affiliations or users of different social networks, with TikTok at the forefront, are also under scrutiny. Muslims seem, according to the results, to be very sensitive to non-scientific claims. They will 71% think that “humans are not the fruit of a long evolution”, far behind Catholics, Protestants and atheists.

Why is this method so criticized?

If it’s not immediately obvious, there’s a first problem with this surprising poll. The sample of interviewees was small, and this is especially what the author emphasizes: 942 young people aged 18-24 were interviewed. It was one of the first reviews to start pouring in after its publication and coverage in the media. According to Marie Peltier, it was primarily the intent of the questionnaire that created the difficulty: “Upstream of the method, there is a problem of vision and purpose, because this highly oriented study is a tool to support the thesis that young people are increasingly contaminated by conspiracies, in addition to having an Islamophobic bias. “Then behind this survey there will be political ambition and” a pretext to serve an ideological vision, a justification for anti-conspiracy initiatives because that too has become a posture, a business, a profession,” said Marie Peltier who said she was “angry” at this investigation that “sticks on conspiracy clichés.”

Between magic, platism, extraterrestrials, some of the questions in the survey did revolve around the most extravagant conspiracy theories and thus toyed with this notion that “the conspirators were all idiots”, much to the anguish of historians. But he also plays on the cliches associated with young people, especially young people who will be in dire straits, in the logic of separatism, all because of social networks and especially TikTok. “This is a stigmatizing and highly reactionary caricature of youth”, annoyed Marie Peltier.

And about the method, there, too, historians have something to say: the sample in question, the binary answer, the age group selected between 11 and 24 years, “we grew a lot”. Finally, the survey does not respond to “scientific attitudes because social science is not black or white”. “I’m not against polls, but you have to make an analysis, put it in context, not just scare the population,” he still gets carried away.

Counter-productive polls?

Demonstrating a will to fight against conspiracies, isn’t this survey counterproductive in the end? While young people will never discover or pay special attention to it, it contributes “to the stigmatization of youth, and that is the worst thing to do, especially because all my experience has shown me that it is the other way around, young people are increasingly aware,” stressed Marie Peltier, also a professor at the Haute École Galilee in Brussels.

Rather than pointing fingers, he recommends “reestablishing a link, listening, respecting” rather than “amplifying divisions. “You have to stay humble, it’s very complicated to judge the level of trust in science” but “unfortunately, there’s no magic recipe” to fight misinformation. It is a mission that is supported by educators in general, by teachers who “have done an outstanding job of educating young people about information”, and for historians specializing in conspiracies, “substantial progress has been made over the past ten years and we must recognize it. our progress”.

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