The Evolution Polling Numbers Have *Nudged* A Little

By Chris Mooney | December 21, 2010 11:12 am

For many years, Gallup has been asking the same survey question about belief in evolution. And it has been consistently finding that an alarming percentage of the public (more than 40 %) believes that “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so.” Technically speaking, this is young-Earth creationism. (The other two choices in the poll are a type of God-guided evolution and an atheistic or non-guided evolution. I would argue that both are pro-evolution responses.)

Anyway, we now have new Gallup results, and while it shouldn’t be over-emphasized, it’s starting to look like there’s some slight movement. The young Earthers are now at just 40 %; they’d been as high as 47 % at various points in the 1990s. Meanwhile, the non-guided evolution camp has gone up to 16 % (from as low as 9 % in the 1990s). Here’s an image from Gallup, showing responses to the same polling question over time:

Gallup Data

Gallup headlined these results by emphasizing that 4 in 10 Americans reject evolution; but might it not also have said that more than half now accept it?

Anyways, in a discussion of these data, Gallup notes how they’ve drifted in recent years, but also puts that fact in its needed context–it’s not a very big change:

[Americans’] views have been generally stable over the last 28 years. Acceptance of the creationist viewpoint has decreased slightly over time, with a concomitant rise in acceptance of a secular evolution perspective. But these shifts have not been large, and the basic structure of beliefs about human beings’ origins is generally the same as it was in the early 1980s.

Fair enough. Still, I can’t help thinking about the arguments of Barry Kosmin, who will be my next guest on Point of Inquiry and is the chief expert on the growing number of non-religiously affiliated Americans (the “Nones”). I’m no pollster, but I wonder, could we be starting to see their growing prevalence in these data?

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Science and Religion

Comments (11)

  1. TTT

    Certainly there’s no sign of any harm done by “New Atheists”.

  2. “God created human beings pretty much in their present form within the last 10,000 years or so” isn’t definitely the young-earth creationist option, since, after all, it’s compatible with the scientifically ascertained age of the earth (at about 4.5 billion years). There are old-earth creationists who think that God created Adam and Eve about 50,000 years ago or so; although I don’t know of any actual data bearing on the point, I think that it’s quite plausible that they would favor the creationist option among Gallup’s three options if forced to choose.

  3. David W

    What does it mean though? Does this indicate “science literacy” or something else? Even lf it’s scilit, what does that mean given that there is no agreement in the scicomm community as to what that represents?

    Frankly, the survey I interesting, but it doesn’t really tell us anything about how people think about reality, science or evidence.

  4. Chris Mooney

    @1 sure. but these polling data are not a controlled experiment of that, obviously

    @4 goes far beyond the scope of this post…i’m just saying it’s a very slight positive polling result in the context of past results.

    @3 glenn…gotcha. it’s the young humans option, not the young earth option. point taken.

  5. MT-LA

    Seriously…three different graph lines, but all green? I know that this wasn’t Mr. Mooney’s choice, but it’s still irritating to try to discern. Even MS Excel would default to three distinct (ugly) colors.
    [/gripe]

  6. RichNau

    Let’s deconstruct this a little.
    This is a highly scientific country with almost everyone having easy access to the most advanced scientific thought if they so choose. Life is no longer a mystery, with DNA unraveled, life chemistry understood, artificial life created…
    The creation story is not essential to belief systems. Science does not deny religion; but religion imperils itself and the intellectual integrity of its followers by denying science, which over time brings overwhelming evidence to make nonbelievers actors in a “the Emperor’s New Clothes” reenactment.
    I tended to believe it was the fault of the scientific community being too esoteric and separate from mainstream thought. That our schools and media tend to educate on the trivial and give too little guidance to development of critical thinking and understanding scientific principals.
    But perhaps it’s deeper than that. I would rather be lucky than good. Why shouldn’t I prefer a magical outcome in the face of an actuarial table? As an example, the time to cut carbon emissions to avoid global warming passed more than 100 years ago and the informed among us only debate reducing the rate of increase and the rest appear to be waiting for acidification to make the oceans uninhabitable by the current crew of species.
    Having a belief is good, but proffering beliefs that can be proven wrong jeopardizes the long-term devotion of the flock as well as interfering with their education and ability to think.

  7. Brian

    Evolution is a fact. The evidence in support is just too overwhelming for anyone aware of it to select option 3 of this survey.

    I strongly urge anyone who adheres to option 3 to read some scientific books about the evidence for evolution and I guarantee you that you will be quite surprised at the vast number of logical reasons evolution has been accepted as strongly as it is.

  8. Steve Greene

    Hi Chris – Just so you’re aware of this, that particular Gallup poll has always suffered from a critical ambiguity that renders its relevance specifically to young earth creationism to be impossible. It is because of the ambiguity of the wording that it is simply incorrect to state, “Technically speaking, this is young-Earth creationism.” Well, no, it *encompasses* young earth creationists, but it includes more than that. This is because it also encompasses “old earth creationists” (in former decades these were referred to by the term “progressive creationists”).

    For ezample, Bernard Ramm (died in 1992 at the age of 76) was a Baptist theologian who was the author of the book *The Christian View of Science and Scripture*, published in 1954, was an old earth creationist (progressive creationist). He believed that humans were specially created by God within 10,000 years, but at the same time agreed with the geological age of the earth and was also a known critic of young earth creationism and “flood geology”. Hugh N. Ross and Gerald L. Schroeder (both physicists) are contemporary examples of old earth creationists.

    You’re not the only one – I’ve been seeing other blog posts and media articles describing this 40% as referring to “strict creationism” or young earth creationism, but that is simply not correct because old earth creationists would give the same answer.

    Now, I *suspect* that the small decrease in the percentage is mostly attributable to a decrease in young earth creationist rather than old earth creationists, but the Gallup poll information tell us nothing about it because when the poll questions were originally written they failed to distinguish between the two, and Gallup has intentionally retained the original wording over the decades so that the poll results could be reasonable compared over time. It’s just a shame that they didn’t do the wording properly to begin with to be able to distinguish between young earth creationists and old earth creationists.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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