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WASHINGTON (AP) -- While scientists believe the universe began with a Big Bang, most Americans put a big question mark on the concept, an Associated Press-GfK poll found.

Yet when it comes to smoking causing cancer or that a genetic code determines who we are, the doubts disappear.

When considering concepts scientists consider truths, Americans have more skepticism than confidence in those that are farther away from our bodies in scope and time: global warming, the age of the Earth and evolution and especially the Big Bang from 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 and religious 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.

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.

Beyond religious belief, views on science may be tied to what we see with our own eyes. The closer an issue is to ourselves 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.

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 atHTTP://TWITTER.COM/BORENBEARS and AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta atHTTP://WWW.TWITTER.COM/JENNAGIESTA .

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Online:

AP-GfK Poll: HTTP://WWW.AP-GFKPOLL.COM

© 2014 THE ASSOCIATED PRESS. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED. Learn more about ourPRIVACY POLICY and TERMS OF USE.

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WASHINGTON (AP) — A measure of the U.S. economy's health rose in March for the third consecutive month, a sign of stronger growth after harsh winter weather caused the economy's pace to slow.

The Conference Board said Monday that its index of leading indicators increased 0.8 percent in March after a 0.5 percent rise in February and modest 0.2 percent gain in January. It was the best showing since a 0.9 percent gain in November.

Both hiring and consumer outlooks have improved, which along with interest rates fueled much of the index's improvement. That offset a negative contribution from building permits. The index looks at a series of different indicators to spot peaks and troughs in economic growth.

Conference Board economists say the gains last month point to "accelerated growth for the remainder of the spring and the summer," although it remains to be seen whether employers continue to hire at their March and February pace of almost 200,000 workers a month.

"The economy is rebounding from widespread inclement weather and the strengthening in the labor market is beginning to have a positive impact on growth," said Ken Goldstein, an economist at The Conference Board. "Overall, this is an optimistic report."

Many economists expect the overall growth rate in the January-March quarter will dip below 2 percent because of the weather disruptions but they are forecasting a rebound in coming quarters to growth of around 3 percent.

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A look at the 118th running of the Boston Marathon.

TAKING BACK RACE: The elite men and first wave of amateur runners have started.

Boston Marathon race director Dave McGillivray told them: "We're taking back our race. We're taking back the finish line."

The race's field is the second largest in its history. There are 35,755 confirmed entrants — 19,648 men and 16,107 women — far more than the typical 27,000. Organizers invited back more than 5,000 entrants who were still on the course last year when the bombs went off and made room for runners who submitted essays.

To accommodate everyone, the field is starting in four waves of about 9,000 people each. The biggest Boston Marathon was the 100th edition, in 1996, when there were 38,708 entrants. At the time it was the biggest marathon in history.

___

KEEPING WATCH: More than 250 personnel from law enforcement agencies, emergency medical services, state and federal agencies and the National Guard were monitoring the race from a coordination center set up at the Framingham headquarters of the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency.

Radios crackled throughout the sprawling underground facility as officials watched feeds from security cameras, television coverage and helicopters. A list of "significant events"— including start times, street shutdowns and reports of unauthorized vehicles — scrolled across large monitors.

— Amy Crawford — https://twitter.com/amymcrawf

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NOT NORMAL: As the crowd in Hopkinton waited for the elite men to start, the race announcer thanked the crowd for obeying the no-backpack policy: "Maybe some time in the future some normalcy will return."

After the national anthem was played, there was a flyover by Air National Guard helicopters.

— Bob Salsberg

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AMERICAN DROUGHT: A huge cheer went up when Shalane Flanagan, of Marblehead, Mass., was introduced before the elite women started their race.

It's been nearly 30 years since an American woman won. That came in 1985 when Michigan's Lisa Larsen Weidenbach ran uncontested to capture the title in 2:34:06.

For the men, it's been a longer drought: Massachusetts' own Greg Meyer broke the tape in 1983 in a time of 2:09.

Since 1991, a runner from Kenya has won the men's race 19 times. The women's side has been more diverse. Since 1991, 10 Kenyan runners have captured the title, followed by Ethiopia with five and Russia with four.

— Rik Stevens — https://twitter.com/RikStevensAP

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FATHER-SON FINALE: Dick and Rick Hoyt are among the most recognizable faces at the Boston Marathon. Rick has cerebral palsy and his father, Dick, pushes him along the course in a wheelchair every year. They've completed Boston 30 times.

They're so beloved that there's a statue in their honor in Hopkinton, where the race starts. They didn't get to finish last year because of the bombing. This will be their last time doing the marathon together — Dick is 74 — though Rick plans to continue with someone else pushing him.

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SAFE RETURNS: John Stuart, 57, has run Boston 19 times and lives about three blocks from the finish line. He had a 16-race streak going and planned to run this year until he got a bug and was told not to by his doctor Friday.

Instead, he's scratching something off his bucket list, watching the elite runners cross the finish line for the first time and cheering on friends.

Stuart was running the race last year for the BAA team and finished about half an hour before the explosions. His wife, daughter and son were still in the finish line area when the bombs went off. His wife, Kathy, was knocked down. But none were seriously hurt.

They're sitting just a few feet away from the place where they watched last year. Kathy says she figures they were lucky in that spot last year, so why not come back?

A bomb-sniffing police dog earlier checked his family's chairs and the bags of people sitting nearby.

"It's sad that it's come to this," Kathy said. "You can't just walk and go to a race. It costs the city a whole lot of money. I'd rather have it be this way: safe."

— Michelle R. Smith — www.twitter.com/MRSmithAP

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ALL THE WAY BACK: Among the returning runners is 58-year-old Carol Downing, of Monkton, Md. Daughters Erika Brannock and Nicole Gross were badly hurt last year as they waited for her to finish. Downing was stopped about a half-mile from the end of the race.

Both daughters will be in Boston this year to see their mom run, but they're still debating whether they will return to the finish line.

"I'm trying not to think about last year and just looking forward to getting to the finish line and seeing my family," Downing said. "This time having a better ending."

— Paige Sutherland — https://twitter.com/psutherland458

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AND WE'RE OFF: The 118th Boston Marathon has begun. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick set off the first entrants in the mobility impaired division, who crossed the starting line at 8:50 a.m.

Minutes earlier, Hopkinton fell silent as a moment of remembrance was held. The only sounds on the streets of Hopkinton were the soft drone of helicopters circling overhead.

The wheelchair division starts at 9:17. Then the handcycles begin at 9:22, and the elite women at 9:32.

The elite men and the first wave of amateur runners go at 10. There are four waves in total, the last starting at 11:25.

— Bob Salsberg

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CHANNEL GUIDE: National television coverage of the Boston Marathon will have an expanded reach but still won't be available to many viewers.

The race is broadcast on the Universal Sports network outside New England. It is offering a free preview to all customers of cable and satellite services that offer the channel, which is generally carried only on sports tiers. But nearly half the country's homes with televisions won't be able to watch the marathon because Universal Sports doesn't have deals with big providers such as Comcast and Cablevision.

Dean Walker, the network's senior vice president for production, said this month that Universal Sports, as a sports channel, would focus its coverage on the competition but celebrate the resilience of the city.

"This race will go on forever, and we want to show the entire nation that, despite what anybody tried to do, it is now stronger and more determined," he said.

— Rachel Cohen — https://twitter.com/rachelcohenap

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READY TO RUN: Thousands of runners are gathering at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, one year after a pair of homemade pressure-cooker bombs killed three people and wounded more than 260 others.

State and local police officers were everywhere Monday morning, even on the rooftops of some buildings. But rather than a tense situation, everyone appeared relaxed. Some runners even thanked the police officers for making them feel safe.

Near the finish line, spontaneous applause and whoops broke out in the crowd as a group of Boston police officers walked down the center of Boylston Street.

About 36,000 runners have registered for the race — the second-largest field in its history, many of them coming to show support for the event and the city that was shocked by the attack on its signature sporting event.

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