Thursday, February 12, 2009

Evolution Polls

Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce writes in (this is only part of the email, but gets the point across):
I actually think polling on belief in evolution is not credible, for a few reasons.

1) no one ever seems to define "evolution" in the polling. It's beyond obvious that the world is more than 6000 years old. It's slightly less obvious (but still beyond obvious) that "beaks of finches" is true and that natural selection occurs. It's somewhat less obvious (but still obvious) that man has a common ancestry with other mammals. It's not particularly obvious how the first living creates appeared on Earth. And it's even less obvious if God exists.

The point is that when people answer the evolution question in polls, they are answering one of the above questions. We just don't which one. It irks me to no end that we do polling on evolution, report the answers, but fail to report that some people thought we asked if the earth was created 6000 yeras ago, some thought we asked if natural selection exists, some thought we meant human evolution, and some thought we were talking about whether there's a God. The whole topic has been hopelessly transformed into an implicit argument about God. Which is dumb.

I agree that polls can be quite misleading, especially based on how the question is phrased, so I dug around and found some other polls that might shed some light on this. For example, a Gallup poll from last year asked:
"Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings? (1) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process. (2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process. (3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so."

Notice how the word 'evolution' doesn't appear in the question. "Guided by God" scored 36%, "God had no part" got 14%, and "God created in present form" got 44%. Of course, by focusing on God's role, this poll muddies the water in the exact way that Soapy (and I) thinks is dumb. But other polls on that site phrase the question in other ways as well, so in aggregate one can certainly say that the percentage of Americans who believe in evolution is still pretty small, certainly smaller than a fillibuster-proof majority. This is a problem because this is not a question where there's room for disagreement, any more than there is room for disagreement about the structure of the atom or the laws of gravity.

I'll readily admit that there is room for debate about the mechanism of how life got started. And in all honesty, that is somewhat of an academic argument. But the fact that humans share common ancestors with monkeys, worms and fungus is not up for debate, and the acceptance of that fact has profound implications in all sorts of non-academic pursuits (you're entitled to you own opinions, but not your own facts).