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What Should We Think about Americans’ Beliefs Regarding Evolution?


Lawrence S. Lerner

Skeptical Inquirer Volume 29.6, November / December 2005

In interpreting poll results, we should be careful about their underlying meaning.

The 2005 Harris Poll #52, summarized on pages 56—58, is in general agreement with other polls taken over the years: Many or most American adults believe that the universe (or at least Earth’s biosphere) was created by fiat of the God of the Old Testament in pretty much the form we see it today. In particular, they believe that humans are not related to anthropoid apes, let alone other forms of life. Not surprisingly, a fairly strong correlation between these beliefs and the respondent’s education, religious and political affiliation, and geographic location is superimposed on this general consensus. But few respondents hold that evolution should not be taught in public schools, even if they do not believe in its validity. How does one understand these apparently contradictory attitudes?

In interpreting such polls, one must be careful about their underlying meaning. What does it mean to “believe” in evolution or creationism (or, for that matter, both at once)? Scientific thinking of any kind plays a very small role in the daily lives of most Americans. Since their beliefs on scientific matters have little or no bearing on anything they do, they feel free to “believe” whatever is convenient and comfortable. Because many persons have come to believe that creationist notions are consistent with other social, political, and religious views they hold, they will respond with creationist opinions when asked by a pollster.

Unlike scientists, the general public does not understand that belief takes no part in scientific thinking. It is always the preponderance of evidence that takes precedence over personal feelings, no matter how strong they may be. (As T. H. Huxley put it, “The great tragedy of Science [is] the slaying of a beautiful hypothesis by an ugly fact.”) And scientists are well aware of how extraordinarily preponderant the evidence is in favor of evolution, including human evolution. What is more, the scientist whose work is in the life sciences finds the tools that evolutionary fact and theory provide absolutely indispensable to making any real contribution.

Unfortunately, most Americans have little or no idea of the mass of evidence that substantiates evolution. Thus, when an eloquent proponent of creationism who possesses apparent scientific credentials tells them that evolution is false, or inadequate, or blindly accepted dogma, they do not recognize him as a crank or a pseudoscientist or a religious polemicist.

Many scientists, philosophers, and theologians have written extensively about all the forms of creationism, from young-earthism to Intelligent Design Creationism. They have demolished the scientific pretensions of the creationists, demonstrated clearly their sectarian religious agendas, and exposed their ultimately political aims. But these exposés are not widely known to the general public. Not knowing that a creationist has contributed nothing to the science he claims to represent, they can give his statements equal weight with those of working scientists who actually contribute to the progress of the life sciences.

Even those persons who “believe in” evolution generally do so on flimsy grounds. Not long ago, a man whose contact with science was typical of the general public was doing some work for me. He assured me that he “believed in evolution.” Knowing something about my work, he may have been trying to please me. But I cannot put much weight on his views in the matter.

Of course, most Americans have studied at least some science at the elementary-school and high-school levels. Most high-school students, indeed, have taken some sort of biology course. Have they learned nothing at all? My own experience in teaching university-level physics casts some light on this question. Students in the introductory level course soon find that much of what they must learn is counterintuitive. Very early, they are exposed to Newton’s first law of motion, which asserts that a body on which no force is acting maintains the speed and direction of its motion indefinitely. But this conflicts with the experience they had that very morning while driving their cars to campus. To keep the car going at a constant speed, they had to keep a foot on the gas pedal, thus supplying force to the wheels. And when they wanted to slow down, they removed the foot and thus the force.

In the “real world,” that is, objects on which no force is acting soon come to rest; force is required to keep them moving. The contradiction of Newton’s first law is evident. Of course, the better students come to understand that the coasting car is not an example of an object on which no force is acting, and they reconcile the two experiences in a consistent manner. Certainly, all students who want to become physicists must do so. But an awful lot of students who solve enough homework problems to pass the course come to believe that the real world and the “physics-class world” operate according to different laws. It is their obligation, of course, to learn enough about the “physics-class world” to pass the course (and maybe to become computer engineers or physicians or X-ray technicians.) But they feel no need to reconcile that world with the one in which they drive their cars and generally live their lives. And many of them never do so.

I am sure that biology teachers can tell similar stories. One can see why citizens who don’t “believe” in evolution are nevertheless quite happy to have it taught in schools. After all, the biology class is the realm of the biology teacher and the “biology-class world,” and most citizens are perfectly happy to let that world have whatever laws it may have. They want their children to get good grades and do not think the results will have much bearing on their “real” lives.

Committed creationists, of course, dissent sharply from this view. They believe exposure to evolutionary ideas can lead a young person to all sorts of immoral views and acts, which they list in frightening detail. But such zealots are a small minority. Most Americans don’t think that a little evolution will pervert their children. Still, they have no objection to having a little creationism taught in class as well. After all, it will keep the evangelical preachers happy and won’t make much difference in their children’s education. And it’s only “fair” to give everyone his due.

Does this mean I am complacent about the results of the poll? By no means! I am deeply concerned about the extent of scientific illiteracy in the American public. I am certain that many small improvements in the process of education can improve matters somewhat. But I am not convinced that we can expect a radical change in the scientific literacy of the American populace any time soon. What is perhaps more important, and more useful, is to convince the public that creationism is religion masquerading as science, and that teaching religion as science is unhealthy for religion, for science, and for education in general.

Lawrence S. Lerner

Lawrence S. Lerner is Professor Emeritus, College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, California State University, Long Beach.