Flat Earth, astrology… The credulity of young people reaches new heights

RNationalists, science popularizers and teachers of Earth sciences and life, beware, this article may depress you. The Jean Jaurès Foundation and the Foundation Reboot commissioned Ifop to conduct a survey* of young people “aimed at measuring their porosity to scientific untruths with regard to their use of social networks”.

The results, appalling, show “the secession of a part of the youth with the scientific consensus”, write the authors. In this age group of 11-24 years, more than one in four respondents (27% exactly) subscribes to the idea that “human beings are not the fruit of a long evolution from other species” but that they were “created by a spiritual force (eg God)”, with a peak of 71% among those who call themselves Muslims.

Marginal among seniors (3%), flat earth theory attracts one in six young people (16%), a proportion that doubles (29%) among TikTok regulars! Who built the pyramids of Egypt? Aliens, answer 19% of respondents. They are 5% among seniors. A roughly equal proportion (20%) believe that “Americans have never been to the moon”. Here again, young people who call themselves Muslims are the most credulous (46%), but the other believers, Catholics or Protestants (often evangelists, specifies Ifop), are only a few points behind.

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Unsurprisingly at this stage, 49% of young people believe that “astrology is a science”, compared to 43% in 1999. Belief in spirits has gained 8 points since 2004, to 48%, and reincarnation has progressed by 16 points in the same time interval, to 35% in 2022. The gap between generations is considerable when it comes to the paranormal: 44% of 18-24 year olds believe in the evil eye, compared to 10% of the oldest. Ditto for ghosts: 23% belief on one side, 4% on the other.

The irrational is particularly strong among those who use social networks a lot. Unsurprisingly, there are many of them. 69% of respondents consulted social networks in the month preceding the survey. Only one in ten has opened a newspaper or looked at an online print media news site.

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Abortion by plants

The study highlights the risks of multiple confirmation biases organized by algorithm, the scope of which young people do not seem to perceive. Thus, 41% of respondents who use TikTok as a search engine adhere to the statement that “an influencer who has a large number of subscribers tends to be a reliable source”. Even when these influencers talk nonsense? Apparently yes. Authoritative voices on social media are promoting herbal remedies, like mugwort, for “naturally” abortion. A quarter of young people believe it. It’s even a third (36%) among “several daily users of microblogging social networks”, and half (48%) among Telegram users!

The correlation between the frequency of consultation of TikTok and the rate of belief is obvious, for astrology, witchcraft or fortune-telling. Those who never go to the social network are systematically less gullible than those who go there every day, with a difference of up to 13 points in terms of spells. The other networks seem a little less harmful, without being insignificant.

The rationalists in the minority

At only 31%, the young people polled who reject all these outlandish beliefs are clearly in the minority. Girls are a bit more gullible than boys. 73% of them adhere to at least one scientific untruth, against “only” 66% of boys. The social environment seems to play a lot. Rationalists remain in the majority in the well-to-do categories, with 54% of those polled being neither flat-earners, nor conspirators, nor followers of spiritualism, etc. On the other hand, studies do not immunize against crazy beliefs. 59% of respondents with a master’s degree admit at least one.

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Is it an age effect which may fade over time or a generation effect which is intended to last? Maybe a bit of both, say the authors. “With the informational disorders of the Internet era undoubtedly accentuating the traditional permeability of the younger generations to these supernatural beliefs”, their lack of discernment has reached record levels. The situation will improve over time… or not.

These worrying results are prompting the Reboot Foundation (which aims to develop critical thinking) to call for drastic measures. According to its spokeswoman Helen Lee Bouygues, it is time to “make transparency on the development and deployment of algorithms, and in particular the content recommendations that are made”. The foundation would welcome “a ban on the sponsorship of disinformation”, “before it is too late”.

*Survey by self-administered questionnaire carried out at the end of October and the beginning of November, among 2003 young people aged 11 to 24 representative of French society.

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Flat Earth, astrology… The credulity of young people reaches new heights

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