Stranger Fruit

More on polls

Over at Uncommon Descent, both Dembski and Dave Springer are highlighting this Harris poll from July of last year (you got to hand it to the ID supporters, they keep up with the literature). Dembski merely makes a number of observations (belief in ID increases with education and is more common in Democrats and in the NE and West of the country) while Springer practically passes out with excitement (“Wow! … Amazing. I recall Bill Dembski months ago writing ID has the momentum and Evolution has the inertia. How right he was!”). However, one needs to look at the actual poll results before one can get carried away.

Some definitions to get out of the way. It appears that the poll defined evolution as the belief that “human beings evolved from earlier stages of animals” (we will ignore the use of the concept of ‘belief’ here). Creationism is the belief that “human beings were created directly by God,” while ID holds that “human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them.” One thing to note is that by using humans as the point of reference (dare I say species of reference), the pollsters are playing into our native anthropomorphism. As we see below, many are fine with animals evolving but resist human evolution (bringing to mind the words of Lady Ashley, “Let’s hope that it’s not true; but if it is true, let’s hope that it doesn’t become widely known.”)

First observation is that 54% (v. 38%) of those polled felt that humans did not develop from earlier species (compared to 45 & 49% when asked about “all plants and animals”). Now one one level this makes sense … people are more willing to allow evolution of non-human organisms, but note the wording of the question “Do you believe all plants and animals have evolved from other species or not?” (emphasis mine). Yup, logically, if you hold all plants and animals evolved (49%), you should feel that humans evolved, unless you see humans as not being “animals” in the biological sense. But that’s a minor point as all it shows is that people are not afraid of contradicting themselves logically when answering polls.

Looking at Table 4, we have a typically badly worded question: “Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: Darwin’s theory of evolution is proven by fossil discoveries.” What exactly is “Darwin’s theory of evolution”? Is it common descent (yes, demonstrated by fossil record)? Is it natural selection (perhaps, demonstrated in fossil record)? Can the public make that distinction? Does the public understand the fossil record? In any case, for this question we get 46% agreeing and 48% disagreeing. But get this, according to Table 7, over 40% of the respondents had “High School of less” education, leading one to question how much – if anything – they know about the fossil record or indead evolution beyond perhaps a class or two they slept through over twentry years before (~75% of those polled were 35 or over).

Table 5 is interesting: “Which of the following do you believe about how human beings came to be?” 22% say evolved from earlier species, 64% said created directly by God, 10% appealed to a “powerful force or intelligent being” (umm, isn’t that God?). Now, I’m betting that if you asked ID supporters they’d take door #2. As Chris noted about the BBC poll I mentioned below, false options are being created by the pollsters.

On to Table 6: “Regardless of what you may personally believe, which of these do you believe should be taught in public schools?”

  • Evolution only: 12%
  • Creationism only: 23%
  • ID only: 4%
  • All the above: 55%
  • None of the above: 3%

Now, If the rhetoric of ID is true -that it’s all about good science education – this should worry the IDists. If 23% want to solely teach that “God did it” (and given that previous polls indicate that ~45% of Americans appear to be Young Earthers), can we expect the Discovery Institute to decry this as “bad”? Don’t think so.

On to Table 7, the table which has Dembski and Springer so happy. We have known for a long time that education level maps to acceptance of evolution. So, bearing in mind that 40.7% of those polled have no college education & 33.9% did not graduate college, here’s what we get:

  • Support for human evolution rises from 32% to 60%
  • Support for organismal evolution rises from 44% to 65%
  • Support for human/ape common ancestry rises from 46% to 57%
  • Support for the fossil record “proving” Darwin’s theory rises from 40% to 64%

None of this is surprising. Given the definitions above and the question of “Which of the following do you believe about how human beings came to be?” we get:

  • Support for evolution rises from 17% to 35%
  • Support for creationism drops from 73% to 42%, with the key drop (18%) occurring with college graduates
  • Support for ID rises from 6% to 17%

A couple of important things seem obvious (to me at least). No attempt is made to distinguish between individuals with degrees in relevent disciplines (organismal biology, anthropology, etc) and those with degrees in irrelevent disciplines (english, philosophy, engineering, political science, law, etc), the latter being particularly prevalent among the supporters and fellows of the Discovery Institute. In other words, the fact that 17% of those with postgraduate education support ID is meaningless when one considers how few of these could possible hold any relevent background. (And I will add that support for ID among the “highly educated” only just meets the support for evolution among the “least educated” … that must indicate something).

Despite Springer’s claim, nothing in the data supports evolutionary “interia” and design “momentum”. The data simply points to the fact that as education increases, so too does rejection of creationism (“scientific”, “young earth” or otherwise). Within the more educated, ID is still a minority position, and no amount of spinning is going to change that.

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