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 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?
It is no secret that our book, Unscientific America, which will soon release in paperback, displeased many New Atheists. They didn’t much like the argument that science and religion can work together, rather than always being at odds; that constant warfare between the two isn’t necessary, and can be destructive.
But don’t forget that there is another side in this debate that is also devoted to incompatibility, rather than reconciliation–the anti-science “intelligent design” types. Here is none other than Casey Luskin of the Discovery Institute criticizing those like myself, or Michael Ruse, who are atheists but also take a compatibilist stance:
So it turns out that atheists like Ruse and Mooney promote compatibility between God and evolution out of constitutional concerns. They fear that if atheism and evolution become too closely linked, this could make the teaching of evolution unconstitutional. Thus, they feel they’d better fix the problem by going around preaching that God and evolution are compatible.
Now they might genuinely believe it’s possible to reconcile God and evolution, but then again, don’t forget we’re talking about ardent evolutionists and atheists who personally reject belief in God and expressly admit legally / politically oriented motives for pushing the compatibilist perspective. Isn’t that at least a little suspicious?
In any case, this could explain the curious crusade of atheists who go around preaching on the compatibility of God and evolution.
The website where this appears, by the way, is bibleprophecyupdate.com. Wow.
Luskin is wrong about my motives and beliefs…for instance, the main thing that has made me more aware of the possibility of science-religion compatibility is probably getting to know people who exhibit such compatibilism in their own lives and seem to do very well with it. Such folks seem to me to be eminent allies in the defense of science and reason.
As for my views being motivated by constitutional concerns–well, yeah, I’m definitely concerned that incorrect arguments about science and religion, such as those propounded by the Discovery Institute, might lead to strikes against the teaching of evolution.
But anyways. This just goes to show you that it isn’t always easy taking the middle ground.
A few months back, when I read Chapter 7 of the latest NSF Science and Engineering Indicators report (PDF), I noticed that the standard section detailing Americans’ dismal views about evolution and the Big Bang was missing. But I wasn’t sure what to make of that fact, so I shrugged and moved on.
But now, Science magazine has investigated, and in turns out a lot of folks are extremely upset at this omission. That includes the National Center for Science Education and even the White House. There are charges of a whitewash–that these data were cut precisely because evolution and the Big Bang are the subjects where Americans appear the most “scientifically illiterate” in comparison with citizens from other countries:
The deleted text, obtained by ScienceInsider, does not differ radically from what has appeared in previous Indicators. The section, which was part of the unedited chapter on public attitudes toward science and technology, notes that 45% of Americans in 2008 answered true to the statement, “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” The figure is similar to previous years and much lower than in Japan (78%), Europe (70%), China (69%), and South Korea (64%). The same gap exists for the response to a second statement, “The universe began with a big explosion,” with which only 33% of Americans agreed.
The alleged justification for cutting the section, according to Science, is that Americans’ responses to questions about evolution and the Big Bang cannot be easily disentangled from their religious beliefs, making any results misleading or confounded. But I must say, I don’t buy it. I mean, yeah, we get these appalling results because of a certain breed of American religiosity. But that doesn’t make the results any less significant or important to highlight–and this is coming from someone who thinks science and religion ought to get along better, not worse.
More generally, I did get the feeling that the 2010 Science and Engineering Indicators‘ Chapter 7 presented an overly rosy picture of the relationship between science and the American public. It’s certainly true that not all the data are as bad as folks sometimes say. But omitting the worst data hardly leads to a balanced picture.
In the science world, if there is an overwhelming complaint about the media, it is that journalists tend to be too “balanced”–in other words, they give roughly 50-50 time to opposing viewpoints even when one side lacks credibility, as in the creationism-evolution battle.
In 2004 in Columbia Journalism Review, I did a major article critiquing this problem in science coverage–an article that I guess a lot of people read and liked, since it is still mentioned to me regularly. Recently, in fact, John Fleck emailed to ask why it wasn’t available online–and I decided to do something about that.
So here it is, “Blinded by Science,” a kind of classic critique of “phony balance” in science coverage:
BLINDED BY SCIENCE: How ‘Balanced’ Coverage Lets the Scientific Fringe Hijack Reality
Columbia Journalism Review, Nov/Dec2004, Vol. 43, Issue 4
On May 22, 2003, the Los Angeles Times printed a front-page story by Scott Gold, its respected Houston bureau chief, about the passage of a law in Texas requiring abortion doctors to warn women that the procedure might cause breast cancer. Virtually no mainstream scientist believes that the so-called ABC link actually exists — only anti-abortion activists do. Accordingly, Gold’s article noted right off the bat that the American Cancer Society discounts the “alleged link” and that anti-abortionists have pushed for “so-called counseling” laws only after failing in their attempts to have abortion banned. Gold also reported that the National Cancer Institute had convened “more than a hundred of the world’s experts” to assess the ABC theory, which they rejected. In comparison to these scientists, Gold noted, the author of the Texas counseling bill — who called the ABC issue “still disputed” — had “a professional background in property management.”
Gold’s piece was hard-hitting but accurate. The scientific consensus is quite firm that abortion does not cause breast cancer. If reporters want to take science and its conclusions seriously, their reporting should reflect this reality — no matter what antiabortionists say.
But what happened next illustrates one reason journalists have such a hard time calling it like they see it on science issues. Read More
Joe Romm has an important post about the folks down in Texas who are constantly trying to bring the textbooks into line with ideology. This is something we usually think of as affecting the evolution issue, but no–climate change is also a topic that is being watched closely by the watchers of educational content.
Romm himself is linking a Washington Monthly piece called “Revisionaries,” which reports the following:
A similar scenario played out during the battle over science standards, which reached a crescendo in early 2009. Despite the overwhelming consensus among scientists that climate change exists, the group rammed through a last-minute amendment requiring students to “analyze and evaluate different views on the existence of global warming.” This, in essence, mandates the teaching of climate-change denial. What’s more, they scrubbed the standards of any reference to the fact that the universe is roughly fourteen billion years old, because this timeline conflicts with biblical accounts of creation.
The strategy is identical, isn’t it? “Critically analyze” evolution, “critically analyze” climate change…and smuggle bad science into the classroom to sow doubt and confuse the kids. Frankly, I am wondering these days if climate denial may not be growing into an even more massive phenomenon than evolution denial in the US. I doubt it has the potential to be as long-lived. But the intensity of it, which I feel every day now, simply dwarfs what’s going on in the evolution fight….
Things have been so nuts for me over the past few days, I haven’t even been able to blog my Washington Post Outlook piece from Sunday about the need for better science communication in the wake of the devastating blow dealt by the ClimateGate scandal. The piece has been drawing tons of supportive private emails, as well as lots of online critiques and reactions, and fully 800 plus comments on the Post’s website, many of them from climate deniers.
Anyway, the article starts like this:
The battle over the science of global warming has long been a street fight between mainstream researchers and skeptics. But never have the scientists received such a deep wound as when, in late November, a large trove of e-mails and documents stolen from the Climatic Research Unit at Britain’s University of East Anglia were released onto the Web.
In the ensuing “Climategate” scandal, scientists were accused of withholding information, suppressing dissent, manipulating data and more. But while the controversy has receded, it may have done lasting damage to science’s reputation: Last month, a Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 40 percent of Americans distrust what scientists say about the environment, a considerable increase from April 2007. Meanwhile, public belief in the science of global warming is in decline.
The central lesson of Climategate is not that climate science is corrupt. The leaked e-mails do nothing to disprove the scientific consensus on global warming. Instead, the controversy highlights that in a world of blogs, cable news and talk radio, scientists are poorly equipped to communicate their knowledge and, especially, to respond when science comes under attack.
A few scientists answered the Climategate charges almost instantly. Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University, whose e-mails were among those made public, made a number of television and radio appearances. A blog to which Mann contributes, RealClimate.org, also launched a quick response showing that the e-mails had been taken out of context. But they were largely alone. “I haven’t had all that many other scientists helping in that effort,” Mann told me recently.
This isn’t a new problem….
Read here, there’s much more….on science communication strategies, how to fight the evolution war, and so forth. In essence, the piece builds on some of the central arguments of Unscientific America, but strained through the new example of ClimateGate, which is surely the number one reason yet that scientists have got to mobilize in the way that we recommended in the book. Hope you enjoy…
Today I’m at the University of Virginia where I’ve met some terrific grad students involved in evolution and genetics. While wandering around, I also can’t help but also notice so many undergraduate women are wearing colorful rubber boots and it got me thinking about cultural evolution. I’ve yet to notice the trend at Duke, although perhaps it’s already making the commute 200 miles south. All of this makes me wonder about the distribution of popular styles and accessories and how interesting it would be to map the persistence of trends (perhaps using GIS?) over time. That said, I’ve a hunch that a quick scan of the literature would reveal some kind of related social models given we’re modeling everything these days from fisheries population dynamics to gene expression. I’ve no doubt the social scientists are on top of this one.
Still, I wonder how a new trend is born and what determines its boundaries. Surely there are always outliers, but many fads remain relatively localized as we shift latitude and longitude. For example, in Maine I expect to encounter Renys and Carhartts while in DC, long black coats and high heels are the norm. And how do such shifts occur temporally? What led to the end the Parachute pants phenomenon and how did emo get started and then go mainstream?
I’ve no real thesis with this post, nor the time to search the library here at Gilmer Hall on the UVA campus for data on population demographics. Yet it’s interesting to ponder on a rainy afternoon while waiting for a 3:30 lecture on plant genetics…