Dispatches from the Creation Wars

Steve Sanders has an interesting post about a recent poll on many of the items on the social conservative agenda. I won’t go through all of the numbers he lists, but I agree firmly with his conclusion as it pertains to the election results and the so-cons misreading of them:

The Republican base was energized by its religious righteousness and muscle, its pathological obsession with gay people, and its authoritarian disdain for judges willing to enforce the Constitution. But as anyone who took freshman political science learned, political bases are always more extreme, doctrinaire, and motivated than the voters they help turn out to the polls. As many times as Sean Hannity will shove his finger in your face and tell you otherwise, the NYT/CBS poll makes clear that Bush’s 51% victory was hardly a referendum for the agendas of opportunistic theocrats like Falwell (he’s b-a-a-c-k) and the American “Family” Association, who — giddy, vainglorious, and ready to push people around since November 2 — are almost certain to overreach.

It’s probably also worth noting one particularly disturbing number that sticks out from this poll. 55% believe “God created human beings in their present form”; 27% think humans evolved but that “God guided this process”; 13% think humans “evolved from less advanced life forms over millions of years, and God did not directly guide this process.” 65% support teaching both evolution and creationism in public schools. Most frightening, 37% favor taking evolution out of the science classes entirely and teaching nothing but creationism. That is a very disconcerting result, but it is consistent with the polling data over the last couple decades and it hasn’t changed much at all.

I would bet that there is no other major idea taught in public schools that a majority of people disagree with as adults. They don’t doubt the germ theory of disease or the atomic theory in such numbers. Surely they don’t doubt that Lincoln was President during the civil war, or that we declared independence from the British in 1776. Why on this one idea, almost universally accepted in the relevant fields of science, do we find the public disagreeing? We know that the answer cannot be a substantive one; not 1 in 20 Americans, at most, are likely to have even a basic understanding of evolutionary theory. But perhaps therein lies the answer. We’re so busy defending evolution against the political and public relations onslaught thrown against it that we don’t realize how badly our schools do at teaching this idea to students overall. One of my colleagues with Michigan Citizens for Science, who is on a committee that helps shape the state MEAP testing requirements for public schools in the state, says that in our state assessment tests, there are only 4 questions that deal with evolutionary history at all, and 3 of them are about dinosaurs. We require that it be taught, it’s in all of the curricular standards, but we barely test for it. And if you don’t test for it, it won’t be taught well because the schools will teach to the test as their funding relies upon it. So perhaps rather than being merely reactive to attacks upon quality science education, we need to be more proactive in making sure that the schools do a better job of teaching this concept and the vast amounts of evidence it explains. If we do that, perhaps those polls results will be different next time.

Comments

  1. #1 pat
    November 27, 2004

    I would hazard a guess that only 1 in 20 (or something close) Americans understand SCIENCE in general; how it works and the force it exercises upon reason. The reason that germ theory and atomic theory are unopposed is not that the populace understands anything about microbes or quantum mechanics. Rather, religious beliefs need to show less elasticity to deal with them than they do for evolution, because evolution says something about human beings, and because the public “knows” that medicines are used against germs, and that atomic bombs have gone off, and nuclear reactors have been used to generate power. So I would guess that the problem is a systemic misunderstanding of science and a distrust towards scientists that needs to be addressed, rather than understanding of a particular theory.

  2. #2 Ed Brayton
    November 27, 2004

    So I would guess that the problem is a systemic misunderstanding of science and a distrust towards scientists that needs to be addressed, rather than understanding of a particular theory.

    I’d say it’s some of both. We do an abysmal job of teaching philosophy of science in particular, which sets the framework for everything that follows.