It is common knowledge that most Americans are creationists, and prefer creationist stories of human origins and evolution in general over the findings of evolutionary biology. But this is only true if you ask the questions a certain way, and a new study shows very different results.
This is a new survey of 1,000 likely voters across the U.S. reported in an editorial in the journal of The Federation of the American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB). The survey, reported here, found that most respondents “accepted that life evolved, many accepted that it evolved through natural processes, and more favored teaching evolution than creationism or intelligent design in science classes.”
The study addresses the issue of how polling regarding opinions of evolution are asked, noting that there have been variable results in previous polls that could be explained as a function of wording. The present study divided the sample into two halves, providing each with slightly different questions:
We asked half of the respondents about their views on the evolution of “all living things” and found that 61% accepted that “all living things have evolved over time.” Of those, 36% thought all living things “evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection,” and 25% thought “a supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating life in the form it exists today.” We asked the remaining respondents to consider human evolution and found that 53% accepted that “humans and other living things” evolved. This majority included 32% who accepted that humans and other living things evolved through natural processes and 21% who thought they had evolved with guidance. Compared with other surveys, we found weaker overall support for creationism: 28% and 31% agreed with statements that “all living things” or “humans and other living things,” respectively, were created in their present form. Sixteen percent of respondents who were asked about the evolution of “humans and other living things” and 11% of those asked about the evolution of “all living things” did not know or would not disclose their views.
The shift in both attitude and certainly between these two sets of questions is also shown in this graphic from the paper:
Of special interest is the following set of results:
Thirty-two percent of respondents in our study were unsure about teaching creationism, and 41% were uncertain about teaching intelligent design. By comparison, 22% expressed uncertainty about teaching evolution. Consistent with other studies, however, more respondents favored teaching evolution (53%) than creationism (36%) or intelligent design (27%) in public school science classes. These data show that a majority of people favors–and even more may be open to–teaching evolution in science classes.
The study also examined scientific literacy, though in a somewhat cursory way.
Although 69% of survey participants had some college education (27% were college graduates, and 14% had attended graduate school), only 23% gave correct responses to all three of the following statements: the continents or land masses on which we live have been moving for millions of years and will continue to move in the future (79% correctly agreed); antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria (43% correctly disagreed); the earliest humans lived at the same time as the dinosaurs (53% correctly disagreed).
And, not surprisingly, but very importantly, there was a strong link between scientific literacy and attitudes about teaching evolution vs. creationism in schools.
Respondents who answered all three questions correctly were much more likely to respond that humans and other living things evolved (78%) rather than that they were created in their present form (11%), and more favored teaching evolution (78%) than creationism (27%) or intelligent design (24%). In contrast, respondents who answered fewer than two questions correctly were less likely to accept that life evolved (36%) rather than to believe it was created in its present form (47%), and they were about as likely to favor teaching evolution (36%) as creationism (38%) and intelligent design (29%).
And these results in graphic form look like this:
Respondents were also asked about the role of science in such critical areas as heatlh, education, and economic competitiveness. Sixty-three percent ranked developments in medicine as the most important type of scientific contribution. Interestingly, this ranking did not vary across those who supported evolution vs. creationism vs. intelligent design in schools.
People also appear to value the relationship between evolutionary science and medicine. Among a sample of respondents, 61% thought that understanding the contribution that evolution makes to modern medical science, including understanding and treating diseases such as avian influenza, was a convincing reason to teach evolution in science classes. This finding, together with Americans’ consistently strong support of medical research , suggests that making the connection between evolutionary biology and advancing other areas of medical research (e.g., understanding human gene function or the mechanisms by which antibiotic resistance develops) might be equally compelling.
In other words, this study provides a recipe for framing evolution.
The survey also provides an interesting window into the attitudes of the general public (of likely voters) towards those involved in research and science education.
Sixty-nine percent of respondents had favorable feelings toward scientists, and even more viewed medical researchers (72%) and doctors (76%) favorably. While fewer people (59%) rated public school science teachers highly, public school teachers in general were the most widely favored group (79%).
When it comes to scientific issues, the scientific community commands the attention of the public. Among respondents presented with a list of people who might explain science to the public, 88% expressed interest in hearing from a scientist, and almost as many were interested in hearing from a science teacher (85%) or a doctor or nurse (84%). On the topics of evolution, creationism, and intelligent design, most respondents expressed interest in hearing from scientists (77%), science teachers (76%), and clergy (62%).
Fewer people were interested in hearing from Supreme Court Justices on evolution (37%) or from school board members and celebrities on science (34% and 16%, respectively) and evolution (30% and 11%, respectively). These data indicate that Americans respect the expertise of science and education professionals and also look to clergy for guidance on scientific issues of potential relevance to religion. The value of encouraging each of these groups–including scientists who hold religious beliefs–to become involved in promoting quality science education cannot be overstated.
American Association of Physics Teachers, American Astronomical Society, American Chemical Society, American Institute of Biological Sciences, American Institute of Physics, American Physical Society, American Physiological Society, American Society for Investigative Pathology, American Society for Pharmacology and Experimental Therapeutics, American Society of Human Genetics, Biophysical Society, Consortium of Social Science Associations, Geological Society of America, Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, National Academy of Sciences, National Science Teachers Association, and Society for Developmental Biology. (2008) Evolution and Its Discontents: A Role for Scientists in Science Education. The FASEB Journal. 2008;22:1-4.