On reading evolution polls

A couple weeks ago, Fox News released a new poll asking about evolution and creationism. It didn’t strike me as especially noteworthy, though it does show a statistically significant rise in acceptance of evolution (21% think “the theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin and other scientist” is “more likely to be the explanation for the origin of human life on earth”) since they last asked the same question in 1999 (when it was just 15%).

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That matches the small but statistically significant rise in support for unguided evolution seen in the nearly 30 years that Gallup has been polling on evolution, where support for evolution without divine involvement has risen from 9% in 1999 to 16% in 2010. The question was asked differently, so the results can’t be directly compared, but we see the same shift in opinion over the same range.
When I see a new poll on evolution, I always compare it to that Gallup trend, and to the trend from National Science Board surveys conducted since 1985 (the dotted green line in the graph above). Those two long-term datasets give us a context for most other polls, giving a baseline for comparison. Gallup’s question is hardly perfect – as it conflates several issues: evolution, God, age of the earth – and it has three options, with the middle option encompassing theologies that set themselves at odds with sceince (such as old earth creationism or intelligent design creationism) and theologies that embrace scientific findings, such as theistic evolution.

Alas, we can’t just plug the new Fox poll into that graph, because their question is worded differently, and because it’s conducted by a different pollster. Indeed, you should never blindly compare results from two pollsters, even if they ask exactly the same question. Different pollsters use different techniques for identifying folks to call, they train their surveytakers differently, and place questions about evolution in different contexts. If you just asked a series of science questions, then a question about evolution, you’ll get different results than if you just asked a series of questions about politics, or about religion. An individual pollster often makes efforts to control those effects, while different pollsters will vary in consistent ways.

Furthermore, as George Bishop shows convincingly, subtle differences in question wording have big effects on polls of attitudes on evolution. Fox uses the word “evolution,” and the word “Darwin,” both of which tend to shift people’s responses compared to polls using “develop” as Gallup and the NSB both do. Fox explicitly contrasts “the theory of evolution as outlined by Darwin and other scientists” with “the Biblical account of creation as told in the Bible,” and allowed people to say they “are both true.” Gallup contrasts development by natural processes with “God created human beings…within the last 10,000 years.” The NSB just asks whether human evolution is true. The NSB survey thus isn’t explicitly contrasting science and religion, while Gallup and Fox are doing so, but to different extents. Fox’s question is about the Bible, while Gallup’s is about God. Gallup puts a timeframe on creation and evolution, while Fox doesn’t.

Fox’s wording explicitly contrasts evolution – a “theory” – with “the Biblical account,” and “Darwin and other scientists” against “the Bible.” Not surprisingly, Fox gets more people taking the creationist option, 45% in 2011 vs 39% from Gallup in 2010, and because they draw such a sharp contrast, they get fewer people choosing the middle ground option, only 27%, compared to 40% for Gallup’s middle ground option (“Humans developed…but God guided the process”). You get essentially the same amount of movement from the middle ground option to each other option (5% switch to the pro-evolution view, 6% go to the creationist view).

Indeed, it’s a bit surprising that so many people took Fox’s evolution-only option: 21% compared to 16% in Gallup. I’d guess that’s partly a result of people switching from the less-appealing middle ground option to the evolution-only option, and also from Fox’s heavier weighting of Democrats in their sample. Fox has about 41% Democrats in their sample, while Gallup only finds 31% in their 2010 samples. Fox has 36% Republicans compared to 29% in Gallup’s survey, and Fox has 19% Independents, relative to 38% in Gallup. Fox seems to be pushing Independents harder to pick a party, but even ignoring independents, the ratio of Democrats to Republicans is higher in Fox’s sample than in Gallup’s. That would mean more evolution-supporters, on average.

So what does Fox’s poll tell us? It can help guide us toward better framings of the issue, but since they made so many changes relative to Gallup’s question, it’s hard to separate out the effect of any one change in framing. It confirms the increase in acceptance for naturalistic evolution seen in Gallup, but not seen in the NSB data. If we combine both pro-evolution answers, Gallup’s survey shows a much weaker trend (no change at all relative to 1999, which is a low outlier in Gallup’s data), while we still see a shift towards evolution in the Fox data. There are various ways to interpret that (Gallup’s vague middle ground may be obscuring a shift within the pro-evolution theists), but I don’t think we have enough data to make a firm interpretation.

Part of my motive for delving into this is that Allen MacNeill, a sharp observer of the creation/evolution landscape, put forward a rather mangled interpretation of the Fox poll, a misreading that the excellent John Farrell repeated. MacNeill argues:

The questions asked in the poll are very similar to those in the periodic polls on this question conducted by the Gallup organization…

I find the Fox News poll results surprisingly encouraging. Although the fraction of the American public that agrees with the Young Earth Creationist position hasn’t changed significantly for almost half a century, the fraction that agrees with the position taken by evolutionary biologists has increased very significantly since the Gallup organization first polled Americans on this question in 1982.

He also has a graph, tacking the 2011 Fox result on to the Gallup time series, as if it were directly comparable, and writing:

From 9% to 21% in only twenty-nine years (i.e. less than two generations)! If you plot the data, the increase is clearly exponential, with the inflection point at around 2006 (i.e. following the Kitzmiller-Dover decision). At the current exponential rate of increase, the “evolutionary biology” position should be the majority position within another generation.

NONONONONO! You cannot extrapolate like that, and you cannot just tack the Fox and Gallup data together. The only thing that makes this look exponential (which he also claims in the title of his post), is that he is comparing apples and oranges. The Fox and Gallup questions are not “very similar.” And in order for the pro-evolution stance to become a majority position, you’d need to have some movement in the creationist view, and the Gallup polls show no such movement.

Farrell writes, correctly:

At first, I wasn’t that excited by the recent Fox News poll on Creationism. It shows that 45% of Americans take the Human Origins story in the Book of Genesis literally.

This is consistent with past polls.

But then he buys into MacNeill’s apples-to-oranges comparison, taking a small change and inflating it into a major shift. A small shift – 6 points in 12 years – is in line with other polling groups, but a half point per year is hardly news, and a sharper rise than Gallup’s 7 points in 28 years (a quarter point per year), but hard to get excited about. Plus, the only increase is within the naturalistic evolution option, none of that shift coming from the creationist group, only from the theistic evolution group. In terms of the political debate, then, no substantive change in how many people endorse evolutionary explanations (matched by the NSB data, which show no trend over 25 years).

Comments

  1. #1 theot58
    September 22, 2011

    Opinion polls are unreliable because there is confusion about the term “Evolution”

    “Evolution” is a vague word which needs increased definition. Micro evolution is minor changes within a species, this is real and observable and uncontested. The conflict pertains to Darwinian/Macro evolution asserts that: 1) all living things had a common ancestor. 2) The observable world has come into existence by totally natural, unguided processes and specifically WITHOUT the involvement of an intelligent creator

    Do a YouTube search on “kansas evolution hearings” to hear real, credible scientists, present powerful arguments which debunk Darwinian/Macro evolution.

    Dr John Sanford (Geneticists and inventor of the GeneGun) said .
    ” The bottom line is that the primary axiom [of Darwinian/Macro evolution] is categorically false, you can’t create information with misspellings, not even if you use natural selection.”

    Also consider;
    “Atheists all over the world have . . . called upon science as their crown witness against the existence of God. But as they try, with arrogant abuse of scientific reasoning, to render proof there is no God, the simple and enlightening truth is that their arguments boomerang.
    For one of the most fundamental laws of natural science is that nothing in the physical world ever happens without a cause. There simply cannot be a creation without some kind of Spiritual Creator . . . In the world around us we can behold the obvious manifestations of the Divine plan of the Creator.”
    •— Dr. Wernher von Braun (1912-1977),
    NASA director and father of the American space program

  2. #2 Richard Simons
    September 22, 2011

    theot58: It seems to me that your comment has nothing to do with the topic of comparing opinion polls, but I will respond and let Josh delete both comments if he wishes.

    The conflict pertains to Darwinian/Macro evolution asserts that: 1) all living things had a common ancestor. 2) The observable world has come into existence by totally natural, unguided processes and specifically WITHOUT the involvement of an intelligent creator

    This is wrong. First, all the evidence so far is that all life does have a common ancestor, but that conclusion comes from the evidence and is not an assertion of the theory. Secondly, the process of evolution is not completely unguided. It is guided by natural selection. Thirdly, nowhere in the theory does it state that an intelligent creator is not involved. Rather, it just makes no reference to an intelligent creator and has no need for one, just like the germ theory of disease.

    you can’t create information with misspellings

    How does Sanford define ‘information’? If he is trying to say that you never get new variants of organisms as a result of mutation, then he is, of course, completely wrong.

    For one of the most fundamental laws of natural science is that nothing in the physical world ever happens without a cause.

    As von Braun was neither a philosopher nor a scientist, and certainly not a biologist, I am not sure why you are quoting him.

  3. #3 Mike Magee
    September 22, 2011

    I thought creationists always claimed Nazis were incorrigible atheists and Darwinists. Von Braun was a Nazi Hero, and allegedly a devout Lutheran. So that is another creationist theory disproved. The fact is, of course, they say just what suits them, and it does not have to be coherent.

    As to the polls, I suppose the gains, small as they are, from a small base, are encouraging, but they discourage me.

    It seems to me that the American system promotes ignorance and depends on it. A large number of US people are ignorant about almost everything, and the media and politicians, especially the right, feed it. These creationists disparage evolution while knowing next to nothing about it, but US Christians as a whole, a recent poll showed, know little more about their own religion than my cat. In fact, when an adjustment is made to discount anyone who did not know enough to be Christians, the percentage of believers falls to about 20% or less.

    The rest just follow the crowd, eager to be accepted as a good Yankee, so they profess family, patriotic, Christian, and capitalist values, copying their peers however distorted these values get. Effectively, like the Romans, they worship the state, and their angst grows as the state continues to fail.

  4. #4 ismekkursları
    October 9, 2011

    thank for you by ismekkursları
    I thought creationists always claimed Nazis were incorrigible atheists and Darwinists. Von Braun was a Nazi Hero, and allegedly a devout Lutheran. So that is another creationist theory disproved. The fact is, of course, they say just what suits them, and it does not have to be coherent.

  5. #5 Wolfgang
    November 9, 2011

    As von Braun was neither a philosopher nor a scientist, and certainly not a biologist, I am not sure why you are quoting him.

    Posted by: Richard Simons

    If he is not a scientist then I don’t know what or who you would accept as a real scientist?

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