Respectful Insolence

Ignorance, thy name has become Republican

Many of my fellow SBers have blogged about the Gallup poll showing just how scientifically ignorant Americans, and in particular Republicans, are:

PRINCETON, NJ – The majority of Republicans in the United States do not believe the theory of evolution is true and do not believe that humans evolved over millions of years from less advanced forms of life. This suggests that when three Republican presidential candidates at a May debate stated they did not believe in evolution, they were generally in sync with the bulk of the rank-and-file Republicans whose nomination they are seeking to obtain.

Independents and Democrats are more likely than Republicans to believe in the theory of evolution. But even among non-Republicans there appears to be a significant minority who doubt that evolution adequately explains where humans came from.

The data from several recent Gallup studies suggest that Americans’ religious behavior is highly correlated with beliefs about evolution. Those who attend church frequently are much less likely to believe in evolution than are those who seldom or never attend. That Republicans tend to be frequent churchgoers helps explain their doubts about evolution.

Here’s a summary of the results:


Not surprisingly, the correlation between not accepting the science of evolution and churchgoing was stronger than the correlation between being Republican and not accepting evolution. As the poll points out:

Being religious in America today is strongly related to partisanship, with more religious Americans in general much more likely to be Republicans than to be independents or Democrats. This relationship helps explain the finding that Republicans are significantly more likely than independents or Democrats to say they do not believe in evolution. When three Republican presidential candidates said in a May debate that they did not believe in evolution, the current analysis suggests that many Republicans across the country no doubt agreed.

As one of the more conservative-leaning of the ScienceBlogs crowd (which means that my politics tend to be rather centrist, which around here is conservative), I actually used to vote mostly Republican until the reign of our current President. If there’s one thing that’s driven me away from the Republican Party more than anything else, it’s its embrace of religious fundamentalists and its increasing preference for religious dogma over reason and science. The really depressing thing about this poll, however, is not that 68% of Republicans reject evolution. Given the Christian conservative base of the Republican Party in 2007, that figure is only somewhat higher than I would have guessed. What’s really depressing is that 37% of Independents and 40% of Democrats also reject evolution. Either way, I’m with John Cole in sentiment if not on the specifics on this one: “People who reject scientific evidence in favor of fantasy and myth are not ‘deeply religious,’ they are stupid.” In reality, they are not stupid. They are either ignorant or simply care far more about what their religion says than what science says.

Either way, their judgment on all matters scientific should be considered suspect at best and fatally flawed at worst.

I’ve referenced this post before, and I’ll link to it again: I miss Republicans.


  1. #1 SLC
    June 12, 2007

    To quote Richard Dawkins, one who refuses to accept the theory of evolution is either ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked (but he didn’t want to consider that).

  2. #2 Tim F
    June 12, 2007

    Hi Orac,

    As much as Juan Cole and John Cole see eye-to-eye on most issues these days, I doubt that Juan would share John’s exact feelings about this. John tends to be the more dyspeptic of those two when it comes to religion.

  3. #3 Johann Thorsson
    June 12, 2007

    I don´t think the problem is Republicans especially. Look at Democrats with 40% saying they don´t believe in evolution.

    I think the problem here is Americans in general. I think it would be safe to say that more than 40% don´t believe in evolution. In one of the most scientifically advanced nations in the world.

    No need to focus just on Republicans as far as this is concerned.

  4. #4 K Too
    June 12, 2007

    Orac, I had no idea there was someone else in science who had ever voted Republican! Well, I exaggerate, but my own centrist views do put me quite out of political step with most of my colleagues.

    Looking at the Gallup survey results, I found it interesting that many participants both 1) agreed that humans have evolved over millions of years AND 2) endorsed the statement that humans were created sometime in the past 10,000 years. Also, 80% or more either believed humans were created outright or that a creator was involved in the evolutionary process.

    To me, this apparent inconsistency results from religious people (and most in our society would describe themselves as religious) who don’t know much about science (and most don’t) trying to reconcile what they think their religious beliefs are supposed to be with what they think science has found. Kind of reasonable, really, if not quite acceptable to you or me.

    Although I mostly agree with you on this, I have difficulty getting too exercised about the subject of evolution. I see the evidence for it all the time, but I could care less whether members of my extended family, or Republicans or Democrats “believe” in it completely or think their God was somehow involved, too.

    I’m much more worried about the tendency of Republicans and other conservatives to subscribe to medical woo that can have concrete and very negative effects, unlike their pet fantasies about evolution: drug therapies are bad, government-sponsored research is bad, HIV is a “gay disease,” drug-resistant TB doesn’t exist, etc. As long as a conservative is willing to let scientists do science and to respect the expertise of doctors in prescribing effective drugs, I don’t care if they think we all evolved from paper-clip dispensers.

  5. #5 anon
    June 12, 2007

    Here’s a post that uses better data than the Gallup poll to show how scientific knowledge (e.g., of heliocentrism, cosmology, evolution, basic experimental design) varies by religion & level of fundamentalism. See “a href=””>here

    Johann: although it may be true that Americans are in general ill-informed about science, this doesn’t explain away, or reduce the importance, of party or religious differences in level of ignorance.

  6. #6 Koray
    June 12, 2007

    What’s with “believing in evolution” anyway? You don’t “believe” in a scientific theory. You either accept it personally if you are able to judge it for yourself, or you acknowledge that it’s accepted by those who are capable in the scientific community.

    Asking whether someone believes in a theory is to task that person to take a wild guess at assessing the theory’s likelihood. This is a most irrelevant question as I would be surprised if a random Joe’s gut feeling about almost anything scientific wasn’t wrong.

    If you google for Intuitor’s Incredibly Stupid Movie Physics, you’ll see at that website that most movies violate the laws of physics left and right (e.g. sound in space, etc.), and most people walk out of the theater not having seen anything wrong. So who cares what in physics they “believe” in?

  7. #7 sailor
    June 12, 2007

    “What’s with “believing in evolution” anyway? You don’t “believe” in a scientific theory.”
    Well said Koray! I hate it when people talk about believing in evolution it puts it right down there with telepathy, virgin births, flying sucers, bleeding stones and various gods.
    Science is not about belief, it is about understanding and judgement.

  8. #8 Keanus
    June 12, 2007

    I’m with Koray and sailor in grinding my teeth at using “believe” to describe the rational acceptance of evolution or any other well grounded scientific theory. To me it’s unpardonable that the Gallup Poll and competing organizations can’t get their language straight either when the ask the question or when they discuss the interpretation. I don’t believe in evolution any more than I believe in the tooth fairy. I accept it for the reasons Koray articulated.

    And Orac, your’re not alone as a rejected Republican. When I first voted in 1960, in the the Texas of the then solidly Democratic South, I registered as a Republican (the Texas Dems there were all scoundrels and as corrupt as they came then). But in 2004 I changed my registration to Democratic, no longer being able to stomach the reactionary, theocratic drift of today’s Republicans. And, although I majored in physics in college, I did not become a scientist, but a text book editor and marketing executive. But whatever my registration I’ve remained a social liberal and an economic conservative and look for that mix in those candidates whom I’ll support.

  9. #9 James
    June 13, 2007

    Not only is the highly religious bent of the US populace depressing, its also anomalous.

    Countires grow more secular as they get richer. By rights, the US should be more secular than Europe.

    If there are any sociologists or historians out there, I recommend spending some time tyring to work out why the US has retined its religiousity in the face of rapidly increasing standards of living.

    It seems to me that Bush’s biggest problem is that he is a man of faith. Not merely in the religious sense,, but he seems to beleive that stong personal conviction is a substitute for analytical ability. I see the same flaw in the “deep green” environmentalists.

    Government functions on cynicism and there seems to be a shortage of it on both sides of US politics. I find that troubling.

  10. #10 JS
    June 13, 2007

    Countires grow more secular as they get richer. By rights, the US should be more secular than Europe.

    That very much depends on the nature and the distribution of the wealth. I very much doubt that you’d consider Saudi Arabia or Kuwait less religious than Sweden and Denmark, even though they have higher GDP pro capita. An inverse correlation between wealth and religion that can be observed in Europe does not necessarily translate across the Pond.

    Further, the picture in Europe is not one of an anti-correlation between wealth and religion – by some measures Britain is more wealthy than Scandinavia, but it’s also more religious. The inverse correlation is between income equality and religion and education and religion.

    It is tempting, in fact, to conclude that religiosity is more closely tied to the lack of higher education for the poor and the existence of traditional missionary organisations like the Salvation Army, who, in the old Roman style of bread-and-circus give aid to the poor in return for their attention to whatever sectarian agenda they push.

    A civilised welfare state both provides equal opportunity for higher education and renders missionary pseudo charities obsolescent.

    Another hypothesis is that in Europe and Japan (which is basically the rest of the statistic you cite), there is much tighter government control of education. That can be a good thing or a bad one w.r.t. science education (and education in general), but historically a strong government involvement in education has (in the cases I know of) tended to serve as a back stopper for the most idiotic fantasies like creationism. Which is probably why the American Taliban fight tooth and nail to prevent federal oversight of your public school system…

    - JS

  11. #11 Joseph Hertzlinger
    June 13, 2007

    After looking at some of the anti-immigration rants elsewhere in the blogosphere, it looks like there might be a mass exodus of Know-Nothings from the Republican Party soon.

  12. #12 Jaz-Michael King
    June 13, 2007

    Just a thought, but if I were asked “do you believe in evolution?” I would probably say “no”. This does not mean that I believe in creation, I’m just generally unlikely to say I “believe” in *anything* at the expense of any and every other possibility.

    The question posed seems extremely, and unnecessarily, binary.

    I would wager that if Americans were asked “which do you find more plausible, evolution or creationism”, your numbers in the second two charts (Ind and Dem) would change dramatically.

    Of course, this coming from a country that has managed to slot every inhabitant into one of only two political teams or “other”, so the apparent binary fascination with evolution/creationism fits well with the masses I’m guessing.

  13. #13 wrg
    June 15, 2007

    Good luck trying to get informed agreement with fundamental scientific theories from the populace. I like to think I’m a relatively educated individual, but I’m not familiar with the evidence supporting most science. Indeed, I’m chagrined to admit that I’m probably unable to give a truly convincing argument for any.

    I believe in evolution, Newton’s laws, and atomic chemistry, where I use “believe” as a handy shortcut for acknowledging scientific expertise enough to consider them generally valid. I say that I believe because, when I’m carrying something in a bag that’s too small and the straps are nearly horizontal, I reason that my hands are uncomfortable because the tension is large through a bit of basic mechanics. When I’m thinking about substances, I expect them to have certain properties, in accordance with what I’ve been taught about chemistry. When I read about antibiotic-resistant bacteria, I imagine that they evolve resistance, not that some god is using microscopic tools to tinker with bacteria because of some grudge against humanity.

    A quick peek at Google shows the American Heritage Dictionary with several meanings for believe, including “To have confidence in the truth or value of something”. I think I can quite safely say that I have confidence in the truth or value of evolution. The connotation of “belief”, especially with the popularity of nonsensical claims that science is just a religion, isn’t ideal, but I believe that the meaning is valid.

    K Too, evolution often comes up in these matters because that’s where American organized religion is currently pressing hard against evidence and reason. You may not be too worried about the consequences should they win this one, but the more it’s publicly accepted that religious imaginings are more reliable than theory based on evidence, the more easily the public and government will be convinced to ignore inconvenient parts of reality.

  14. #14 James
    June 15, 2007

    JS – sorry, I should have said wealth and secularism are correlated ceteris paribus. Culture matters too, so a Kuwiat – Europe comparison won’t hold water, but a US – Europe one should be pretty good.

    I’ve seen research from the global values survey (I wrote the cite down, but I can’t find it :( ). The other factor that matters apparently is how wealth is created. Gulf states tend to be highly oil based. The oil is controlled by a few people so those people have all the wealth. This creates a client state in a similar vein to feudal Europe. A welfare state can help this, but I worry that too much welfare can just recreate the client problem. I don’t have a firm opinion on how much is too much, but I ssupect some of the social problem in France are a product of very generous welfare and inflexible labour markets.

    Government contol of education is surely correlated with less fundie-friendly education, but I”m not sure the causal arrow is what you suspect. In the long run democratic governments tend to reflect the snetiments of their people. When education is centrally controlled in a secular country then education is secular. When education is centrally controlled in a country where the fundies are a real political force? That might not end well.

  15. #15 Scott
    June 17, 2007

    Here’s one more ex-Republican. My education is in engineering, applied science rather than “pure” science, but I understand the concepts well enough. I didn’t so much leave the Republican party, but that they left me.

    When did “fiscally responsible” and “rational” fall out favor? When did, “reality based” become a dirty word that one heaps with scorn and contempt upon one’s opponents? When did cult of personality supersede competence? When did the Bill of Rights and the entire Constitution become a quaint impediment to the acquisition of power? When did “history” change?

    Ignorance and irrationality are now prized and valued. It’s just plain scary.