Jun 26 2008

New Gallup Poll on Creation and Evolution

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The Gallup polling organization has been collecting data for over 20 years about American attitudes toward creation and evolution. They have just published their latest data, and it is not surprising in that the numbers are basically unchanged from previous surveys. Here they are:

As you can see, those lines are pretty flat. This suggests that we have not been making much progress in the last two decades improving public understanding of and acceptance of evolutionary theory. However, the situation may not be as bad as it at first seems.

The most important thing to keep in mind is that the way in which questions are asked has a dramatic effect on the answer. This Gallup poll has been critiqued in the past (and this still applies) because it asks the question in such a way that affirming evolution is equated to rejecting God. The phrase “God had no part” is likely to mean to many people of faith as being equivalent to there being no God or that God is entirely uninvolved. This is therefore likely to inflate the number of people saying that evolution is “God guided” – even among those who have a good understanding and acceptance of evolutionary theory. Although this category will also contain Intelligent Design proponents who believe that evolution could not have happened without the hand of God (sorry, I mean “ID”) pushing it along. This survey does not allow us to distinguish.

A separate poll by Gallup asked about belief in the bible.

Here we can see that over the same period of time belief in the literal truth of the bible decreased from 38% to 31%. This is interesting because it shows a change not reflected in the numbers for belief in a recent creation, and also because the numbers are much lower – 31% believe in the literal truth of the bible but 44% in a recent creation. I would think that these numbers would be closer. This means that there are factors influencing the poll numbers that are not immediately apparent.

Here is a Harris poll from 2005 showing very similar numbers to the Gallup poll with a slightly different question. The statement, “Yes, I believe plants and animals have evolved from some other species” was agreed to by 49% of Americans and the statement, “No, I do not believe plants and animals have evolved from some other species” was agreed to by 45%. This is interesting because it eliminated mention of God, but yielded very similar numbers.

A 2004 Newsweek poll asked: “Do you think the scientific theory of evolution is well-supported by evidence and widely accepted within the scientific community, or that it is not well-supported by evidence and many scientists have serious doubts about it?” The results – 45% say it is accepted, 42% say there are doubts. Again – very similar numbers to the other polls.

What I take from all this is that there is a solid 42-44% of Americans who are full-blown creationists. They believe God created life as is and they do not accept evolution. These people likely are filled with misinformation and propaganda about evolution and simply do not understand the modern scientific theory of evolution or the lines of evidence for it. These are the, “If humans evolved from apes why are there still apes” crowd.

The other 56% of Americans range the spectrum of acceptance of evolution. Most probably generally accept evolution but either are not well educated about it or are trying to accommodate their religious faith to it.

Another aspect of the new Gallup poll, and one that was widely reported given that it is an election year, is the difference in attitudes among political parties. Belief in creation without evolution was 60% for Republicans, 38% for Democrats, and 40% for Independents. I did not find this result terribly surprising or interesting – conservatives tend to be religiously conservative. I don’t think we can infer much else from these numbers, given all the variables that were not tracked by the poll.

I don’t think as skeptics and scientists who have been promoting understanding of evolution we should be too pessimistic about the numbers. The 44% of Americans who are creationists are likely out of our reach – as long as they are being taught from the pulpit that evolution is evil. How we are doing with the other 56% isn’t really being measured by this poll. The only number that may suggest how we are doing is those who accept evolution without any roll for God, and that number was up from 9% to 14%.

Also – even though we may not be able to nudge the 44%, all of the efforts by the Discovery Institute, the Creation Museum, and the other creationist kooks in the world have not increased the number either. I think that is in large part due to the strength of evolutionary theory (it helps that it is scientifically rock solid) and to the efforts of skeptics opposing the creationists at every turn. Special mention has to go to Eugenie Scott at the National Center for Science Education who has been tirelessly on the front lines of this struggle for years.

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