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Polling Opinion about Evolution

Science and the Media

Matt Nisbet

March 1, 2005

Low Information Public Underscores Importance of Communication Strategy

Tensions in American society over religious and scientific accounts of human origins are centuries old, and the divide between the two contending worldviews continues today as part of a growing political conflict over science education standards. At the local, state, and national level, religiously-motivated activists are working to change curriculum standards to allow for divine accounts of human origins, while teachers, parents, lawyers, and scientists labor to defend existing science-based standards.

The ongoing political struggle has been catapulted sporadically by the media into the wider public eye, usually in reaction to proposed changes that have reached a policy agenda, such as the decision in 1999 by the Kansas State Board of Education to eliminate Darwinian evolution from the state curriculum. More recently, the Kansas controversy has been followed with efforts in Georgia, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and other states to include evolution “disclaimers” in textbooks, or mandate that so-called alternative theories to evolution be discussed by teachers. (For more, see the newly launched CreationWatch site).

These efforts are spearheaded by the intelligent design (ID) movement, a well-coordinated coalition of lawyers, theologians, philosophers, elected officials, and maverick scientists who contend that evolutionary theory is riddled with holes, and that in order to explain the complexity of life and the universe, some type of supernatural force must be at work. More savvy and politically sophisticated than traditional young earth creationists, a key target of the ID movement is the public. Via books, magazine articles, videos, public speeches, direct mail campaigns, Web sites, and media appearances, the ID movement seeks to mold public opinion, building political pressure on elected officials to amend science education standards to include ID as an alternative to Darwinian evolution (For more on the ID movement, see here).

Given the importance of public opinion to the evolution-creation debate, in this column I review existing poll trends relative to public understanding, beliefs, and policy preferences.

Why Do Polls Matter in the Creation-Evolution Debate?

When it comes to controversies involving science and public policy, public opinion as reflected in survey results serve several important functions. Polls are one way for decision-makers to consult the public about policy, reassuring the public that at some level their opinion counts, and that science-related decision making is not simply dominated by technocrats and scientists. In this sense, polls about science policy reinforce the purpose of democracy, namely that elected officials, interest groups, and (even) scientists need public support for their purposed actions.

Surveys also provide important governing information for elected officials, sometimes serving as a possible catalyst for policy change, or at other times helping to set the boundaries for what elected officials can and cannot do. Interest groups often take advantage of ambiguous poll results to claim that the public is on their side. At other times they commission their own less-than-rigorous surveys in order to obtain poll results that appear to favor their preferred policy positions on stem cell research, see here.)

For journalists, surveys offer an independent means for making sense of public preferences, behaviors, and attitudes. When news organizations sponsor surveys, journalists can compare the results against the claims of advocates, and reach their own decisions about where the public stands on an issue. For public opinion researchers, reviewing previous polls provides clues about how the public makes up its mind about a complex policy matter, and the range of social influences, including the mass media, that drive public sentiment. Finally, as I will discuss in this column, analyzing survey results also provides important feedback for science advocates in formulating public communication strategies.

Understanding Poll Trends

I summarize results primarily from surveys sponsored by news organizations, the government, or academic researchers. Unless otherwise noted, many of the results are derived from nationally representative samples of adults, with these results readily retrieved from various polling databases. Where available, I include poll items from state or local samples in evolution “battleground” states such as Ohio.

In examining poll trends, it is important to consider results with reliability and validity in mind. Given variations in question wording, we can be more confident about where the public stands if there is some consistency in poll findings. In terms of validity, scrutinizing the language of the polls, along with other indicators, such as the correlation with education, allows for a better idea if the poll items are actually reflecting “true” opinion when it comes to the debate. As I will discuss, some of the poll questions are not perfect, and the fact that the public arrives at the issue with very limited knowledge and familiarity means that responses can be highly sensitive to word choice, making accurate measurement of opinion that much more difficult.

What Does the Public Know?

Not surprisingly, poll results indicate a “low information” public when it comes to both the science and the politics involved, and there is some evidence that science knowledge is fragmented, with little integrated understanding of how human origins might be connected to other dimensions of natural history.

Fragmented factual knowledge. The National Science Foundation has tracked the public’s knowledge of basic scientific facts since the 1970s. The most recent data available from 2001 includes four true or false questions intended to measure understanding of natural history and human origins. Results indicate that a third (33%) of Americans believe that “The universe began with a huge explosion,” nearly eight out of ten (79%) believe that “The continents on which we live have been moving their location for millions of years and will continue to move in the future,” and a slight majority (53%) agree with the statement that: “Human beings as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” Scores on these items are strongly positively correlated with education. However, it is unclear whether these items are actually capturing “factual” understanding of science, or rather in some cases; reflect the ongoing political contest pitting scientific knowledge against religious beliefs.

A respondent, for example, may know that scientific research concludes that humans evolved from earlier species, but disagree with the statement because it is inconsistent with his or her religious beliefs. The finding that 79% of all adults correctly answer that continents have drifted over millions of years, but only 48% indicate that humans evolved from earlier species is perhaps indicative of the tension in choosing between scientific knowledge versus religious doctrine.

In other words, it is likely that few respondents recognize that accepting the notion of continental drift is inconsistent with their religious opposition to the notion that humans evolved from earlier species. Education not only informs the individual, providing a greater integration of knowledge, but also likely cultivates a stronger commitment to the scientific worldview, easing some of the tension in choosing between scientifically and religiously correct answers.

Evidence from a 2002 survey of Ohio residents sponsored by the Cleveland Plain Dealer reflects, in part, the deep ambivalence that the public might feel in choosing between the competing worldviews encountered at church and at school. When asked: “Which of the following is the principal source of your views on the development of life on Earth?,” more than half (54%) of Ohioans surveyed answered “religious teachings,” compared to 15% who answered “science classes in school,” 10% “the work of scientists,” and 5% the news media. In contrast, when asked “Which of the following is the primary basis for your opinion about what should be taught in science class about human development?,” 44% of Ohioans answered their “personal education,” compared to 29% their “religious beliefs.”

Knowledge of scientific consensus. Beyond factual knowledge, the public appears to underestimate the scientific evidence supporting the theory of evolution. In a November 2004 Gallup poll, respondents were asked: “Just your opinion, do you think that Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution is: a scientific theory that has been well supported by evidence, or just one of many theories and one that has not been well-supported by evidence, or don’t you know enough to say?” Only 35% of Americans indicated a scientific theory supported by evidence, whereas 35% indicated that evolution was just one among many theories, and 29% answered they didn’t know. A similar result was found when the same question was asked by Gallup in February 2001.

Newsweek presented the question slightly differently in a December 2004 poll. Respondents were 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?” Posed in this way, 45% of respondents indicated that evolution was well supported, compared to 42% who believed that scientists had serious doubts, with 13% answering they didn’t know.

The public’s lack of appreciation for the strong evidence in support of evolution turns up in response to other types of survey questions. In one example, respondents were asked in a 1998 Newsweek poll: “In the next century, which one of the following current scientific beliefs do you think is most likely to be proved wrong, the theory of evolution, that high-fat food is bad for you, that the human life span cannot be extended much beyond one hundred years, or that the Earth’s resources are in danger of running out?” Among the choices, 17% answered the theory of evolution, compared to 28% questioning the danger to Earth’s resources, 26% doubting limits on life extension, and 16% choosing to believe that high fat food is not that bad after all. A similar finding was reported in a 1997 Newsweek survey.

A 1999 survey sponsored by the pro-science advocacy group The People for the American Way (PFAW) turns up other dimensions of public doubt. When asked “which best describes your view of evolution?,” only 27% of Americans answered that they believed evolution to “be a completely or mostly accurate account of how humans were created,” compared to 36% who indicated “might or might not be accurate, you can never know for sure” and 29% who answered either “mostly” or “completely not accurate.”

In the same survey, three quarters of Americans (74%) agreed that “evolution is commonly referred to as the theory of evolution because it has not yet been proven scientifically,” and 49% of respondents said that evolution is “far from being proven scientifically,” compared to 42% who said either “close to being proven” or “proven.” As a point of comparison, when asked about the theory of relativity, which for most respondents does not call to mind immediate religious objections, 68% of Americans indicated that the theory is “close to being proven” or “proven.”

When PFAW asked about creationism, nearly half of Americans (47%) had never heard of the term. However, among the 53% of respondents indicating familiarity, more than half (52%) believed creationism to “be a completely or mostly accurate account of how humans were created,” compared to 29% who answered “might or might not be accurate, you can never know for sure” and 15% who answered either “mostly” or “completely not accurate.”

In the dark about intelligent design. In a 2002 survey of Ohio residents by University of Cincinnati political scientist George Bishop, very few Ohioans indicated familiarity with the concept of intelligent design, despite significant statewide media attention to the debate over including ID as part of the state’s science curriculum. In the Bishop survey, when asked “Do you happen to know anything about the concept of ‘intelligent design’?,” 84% of respondents did not recognize the term, compared to 14% who indicated familiarity. Given the strong correlation between news media use and education, familiarity with the term was highest among the college educated (28%).

Regardless of their answer, in the Bishop survey, respondents were next provided the following description: “The concept of ‘intelligent design’ is that life is too complex to have developed by chance and that a purposeful being or force is guiding development of life.” Respondents were then asked: “What is your opinion—do you think the concept of intelligent design is a valid scientific account of how human life developed, or is it basically a religious explanation of the development of human life?” A majority of Ohio residents (54%) considered it a religious explanation, compared to 23% who believed it was a valid scientific account, 7% who believed it was a mix of religious and scientific accounts; and 17% who said they were “not sure.”

Bishop compared the survey results from the sample of Ohio residents with the views of a sample of Ohio university scientists. The overwhelming majority of Ohio scientists (91%) considered intelligent design to be a religious explanation, and a similar proportion (93%) said that they were not aware of “any scientifically valid evidence for an alternate scientific theory that challenges the fundamental principles of the theory of evolution.” In addition, 90% believed there was no scientific evidence at all for the idea of intelligent design.

If question wording about intelligent design is changed slightly, very different poll results appear. In a 2002 survey sponsored by the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Ohio residents were asked: “The concept of intelligent design is that life is too complex to have developed by chance, and a purposeful being or force is guiding the development of life. Which of the following best describes your view of intelligent design?” In response, 23% answered a “completely valid account of how humans developed;” 48% answered a “somewhat valid account;” 22% “not a valid account;” and 2% were not sure.

Notice that the Cleveland Plain Dealer poll did not ask respondents to distinguish intelligent design as either a scientific or religious account. For the public, in this instance the stand alone term “valid” probably evokes a different standard for evaluation than “scientifically valid.” Again, in this question, the tension between scientific and religious worldviews is likely triggered. The fact that ID is not a scientific theory may not matter to the public’s judgment of its overall “validity.”

What Does the Public Believe?

Across several surveys, the Gallup Organization has measured the public’s beliefs specific to the view that humans developed over millions of years with no role played by God, the “theistic evolutionist” view that humans developed over millions of years but God guided the process, or the creationist view that God created humans pretty much in their present form at some time in the last 10,000 years. A divided public on the role of God in evolution would not be surprising, given that a 1997 survey of U.S. scientists finds that only 55% subscribe to the idea that humans developed with no role played by God, compared to 40% who agree with the theistic evolutionist account. What is surprising, however, is the increase over the past two decades in public support for the creationist viewpoint, with young earth creationist beliefs reaching near majority levels.

When the Gallup Organization first asked the public in 1982 about their views on the matter, 38% indicated they believed in the creationist explanation, 33% believed in the theistic evolutionist explanation, and 9% chose the “no God” account. Beliefs changed slightly over the next ten years, trending towards the creationist explanation. In a 1991 Gallup poll, 47% chose the creationist explanation, compared to 40% for the theistic view, and 9% for the “no God” account. Gallup administered the question again in November 2004, with beliefs little changed, as 45% chose the creationist explanation, 38% the theistic evolutionist account, and 13% the “no God” explanation. A December 2004 Newsweek poll replicates the Gallup result within the margin of error (47%, 36%, 11%).

The only comparable survey item I was able to find tapping the public’s beliefs about evolution was administered by Gallup in 2001. Specifically, respondents were asked: “Would you say that you believe more in—the theory of evolution or the theory of creationism to explain the origin of human beings, or are you unsure?” Nearly half of the public (48%) chose the theory of creationism versus just 28% for the theory of evolution, with 14% unsure.

Where Does the Public Stand Relative to Science Education Standards?

Though it might be difficult for some science educators to imagine even posing the question, polls indicate that when queried generally about the possibility of teaching creationism instead of evolutionary theory, only a slight majority of the public opposes such a move. When asked generally about teaching both creationism and evolutionary theory in public schools, the public is also remarkably consistent in favoring teaching both.

In a December 2004 Newsweek survey that asked” “Do you favor or oppose teaching creation science instead of evolution in public schools?,” 44% said they opposed teaching creationism instead of evolution, compared to 40% who favored the move, and 16% who said they didn’t know. A November CBS News poll measured slight majority opposition to teaching creationism instead of evolution (51%,) with 37% favoring the proposal, and 12% saying they didn’t know. A similar majority finding was produced in a 1999 Gallup poll, with 55% opposing teaching creationism instead of evolution, 40% favoring, and 5% undecided.

When respondents were asked in the same December 2004 Newsweek poll if “In general do you favor or oppose teaching creation science in addition to evolution in public schools?,” 60% favored the idea, 28% opposed, and 12% were undecided. The November 2004 CBS News poll found a similar result, with 65% favoring, 29% opposed, and 6% undecided. A 1999 Gallup poll registered an almost identical finding, with 68% in favor, 29% opposed, and 3% undecided. Going back to 1981, the available polling record indicates across question wording that a majority or near majority of the public favors teaching both creationism in addition to evolutionary theory in public schools.

For much of the public, support for teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools stems from their religious orientations. For others, however, it likely resides in a lack of appreciation for the strong scientific consensus that supports evolutionary theory. For these individuals, this lack of understanding probably connects to a “fair minded” but misguided and low information sense of relativism: no specific belief, no matter how scientific, can be the complete answer. Based on this reasoning, teaching both evolution and creationism makes sense. This likely sizable segment of the public believes rightly that students should be exposed to multiple points of view, and be allowed to make up their own minds. However, where they are misguided and misinformed is in believing that either ID or creation science passes the standards of epistemological rigor that merit inclusion in science textbooks and teaching standards.

Both religious and misguided relativist orientations not only channel the public’s views on offering creationism as an alternative in schools, but they also likely impact the opinions of high school science teachers. Surveys of teachers sampled across multiple states finds that about a third of teachers favor equal time for creationism in science classes.

Opposition to Kansas decision. The public’s preferences grow even more complex when asked about specific measures. When national protest erupted in reaction to the 1999 Kansas decision to delete evolution from the state science standards, a strong majority of Americans opposed such a move. For example, the PFAW survey asked respondents, “The Kansas State Board of Education has recently voted to delete evolution from their new state science standards. Do you support or oppose this decision?,” 60% of sampled adults nationally opposed the move compared to 28% support, with 12% unsure. A 1999 Fox News survey found similar results, with 57% of registered voters nationally disagreeing with the decision, 33% agreeing, and 10% not sure.

Conclusion: The Importance of Communication Strategy

The available poll indicators reflect a “low information” public when it comes to the debate over evolution and science education. Few citizens possess both the motivation and the ability to understand the science and politics behind the evolution-creation controversy, and to actively deliberate the merits of proposed policies. Instead, the low information public is likely to rely heavily on their pre-existing views and only the information most readily available to them in the media as the fuzzy material from which to focus their opinions. As I have discussed, religious values are especially important since these values serve as powerful filters for accepting or rejecting arguments about evolution. Complementing religious values is the misguided tendency for many citizens to place creationism or intelligent design on equal footing with the scientific theory of evolution; defaulting to their belief that students should be taught all points of view.

A low-information public requires that there be a well-coordinated and well financed public communication strategy in defense of science education. ID activists working to eliminate evolution from the science curriculum or pair it with so-called alternative views prey upon the public’s lack of knowledge, the public’s religious orientations, and the public’s tendency towards misguided relativism. These activists emphasize in campaign materials, sound bites, and media coverage that evolution is akin to a layman’s “theory”: a hunch or idea riddled with many holes. What is the harm then in offering alternative viewpoints and letting students decide? And these same activists take advantage of the public’s religious orientations by arguing that humans are so complex that they could not have developed through natural selection alone, instead some supernatural force must have been involved. Repeated over and over again, and magnified in media coverage, the creationist mantra could shape public opinion in powerful ways.

In the short term, in order to counter the ID movement, the scientific community needs to address the issue head on with a major national advertising and media campaign. As I detailed in a previous column, proponents of embryonic stem cell research over the past few years have successfully coordinated campaign activities to boost support for research to majority levels. Similar campaign tactics can be applied in the evolution-creation debate. These short term campaign tactics are the ideal complement to the longer term institutional investment in improving science education.

The scientific community’s efforts should match the simplicity of the ID argument with an equally crafty critique of ID and defense of evolution. Campaign messages and sound bites should emphasize that evolution is one of the strongest and most useful theories in science, highlighting the theory as the primary tool for a host of important discoveries and breakthroughs. Evolution should be compared to theories in science, economics, sociology, literature and other fields that are far less supported by evidence, yet commonly accepted. Critiques of ID need to emphasize that there is no body of scientific research to support ID, nor is there any credible research currently under way. Why teach an alternative to Darwinian evolution when there is no alternative scientific theory? If ID is offered in biology, should UFOs be taught in physics, and Atlantis covered in Earth Science?

The public’s clear opposition to the 1999 Kansas decision is a likely result of the strong media campaign work of science advocates at the time. Following the Kansas decision, the low information public was exposed to increased media attention to the evolution-creation debate, media coverage that featured strong arguments against eliminating evolution from the state curriculum.

Scientists are difficult to mobilize politically, and some scientists have been reluctant to speak out against intelligent design for fear that simply addressing the topic might lend it credibility. This is a mistake. A low information public means that if the scientific community is silent on the topic of the evolution-creation debate, while the ID movement carries on with its media outreach efforts and closed door political maneuverings, then the threat to science education standards is likely to only grow.

Matt Nisbet

Matthew C. Nisbet, Ph.D, is a professor in the School of Communication at American University. From 1997 to 1999, he worked as public relations director for CSICOP and Skeptical Inquirer.