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A number of recent polls reveal interesting things concerning beliefs about origins held by both American and British adults.
The selectively Skeptical
Inquirer recently presented data from a 2005 Harris Poll exploring the
beliefs of American adults about evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design
(cf. Skeptical Inquirer, Volume 29, Issue 6, Nov/Dec 2005, pp. 56-60,
& the poll itself @
www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=581). The much lamented headline figures were as follows:
These positions were respectively labelled ‘creationism’, ‘evolution’ and ‘intelligent design’ (presumably, 4% didn’t know what they thought about the matter):
In terms of education policy, only 23% wanted creationism alone taught in the classroom, only 12% favoured teaching evolution alone in the classroom, and only 4% wanted ID alone taught. 3% wanted none of the above taught and 3% were either unsure what they wanted or declined to say. In other words, the majority, 55%, wanted more than one view of origins taught.
It is good to see Skeptical Inquirer distinguishing ID from Creationism (even if ID is not defined with sufficient care), something that Professor Lawrence S. Lerner does only grudgingly in his Skeptical Inquirer article commenting upon the poll (where he refers to ‘Intelligent Design Creationism’ as one of several ‘forms of creationism’). However, one could subscribe to ID without thinking that human beings are the result of design, and one could subscribe to both the creationist and ID statements offered by the poll; hence these categories are by no means watertight.
Moreover, some of the numbers generated by the poll don’t quite add up. For example, if 64% of American adults are creationists, how come 46% agree that ‘Darwin’s theory of evolution is proven by fossil discoveries’? (In fact the fossil record is in severe tension with the grander claims of macroevolution.) And how can only 54% think that human beings did not develop from earlier species if 64% think that ‘human beings were created directly by God’? Perhaps some respondents are not consistent!
It seems to me that if one looks past the headline figure of 64% creationists and takes into account the responses to other questions in the poll that could signal a belief in creationism (and/or ID) then one might conclude that about 50% of American adults reject macroevolution (e.g. 54% think that human beings did not develop from earlier species, 47% reject the idea that humans and apes have a common ancestor, 45% reject the idea that plants and animals have evolved from other species).
Skeptical Inquirer focused on the fact that there is a strong correlation between age, geography, politics and education and beliefs about evolution:
Those with college educations, independents, liberals, adults aged 18 to 54, and those from the Northeast and West support the belief in evolution in large numbers. However, even among these groups, majorities believe in creationism.
In other words, creationists are a bunch of Southern, Conservative, Republican-voting Old-Folk with little or no education! Indeed: ‘older adults... adults without a college degree, Republicans, conservatives, and Southerners were more likely to embrace the creationism positions...’
How should we interpret these correlations? As Professor Lerner wisely cautions:
In interpreting such polls, one must be careful about their underlying meaning. What does it mean to ‘believe’ in evolution or creationism (or, for that matter, both at once)? Scientific thinking of any kind plays a very small role in the daily lives of most Americans. Since their beliefs on scientific matters have little or no bearing on anything they do, they feel free to ‘believe’ whatever is convenient and comfortable.
Lerner immediately applies this wisdom to creationists:
Because many persons have come to believe that creationist notions are consistent with other social, political, and religious views they hold, they will respond with creationist opinions when asked by a pollster.
While I’ve no doubt that there is truth in what Lerner says, he does seem to be implying that no one adopts creationist views on rational, let alone evidential grounds. It seems to me that one should at least leave the door open to such a possibility! Moreover, Lerner’s wisdom can and should be applied to many of the American adults who believe in evolution. Lerner’s wisdom cuts both ways. One could very well assert that: ‘Because many persons have come to believe that evolutionary notions are consistent with other social, political, and religious or non-religious views they hold, they will respond with evolutionary notions when asked by a pollster.’
Lerner goes on to make the frankly astonishing assertion that: ‘Unlike scientists, the general public does not understand that belief takes no part in scientific thinking. It is always the preponderance of evidence that takes precedence over personal feelings, no matter how strong they may be.’ I wonder if Lerner has ever read any philosophy of science, such as Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions? The preponderance of evidence might win out in the long run, but it can certainly take some doing as scientists cling tenaciously to their beliefs in the face of mounting empirical evidence to the contrary. Kuhn codified this fact in his distinction between ‘normal science’ and ‘paradigm shifts’. Did personal feelings about metaphysical issues of a religious nature really have nothing to do with Fred Hoyle’s opposition to the cosmological theory he derided as the ‘big bang theory’? Moreover, philosophers of science have pointed out time and again that science makes many metaphysical assumptions.
Lerner submits that ‘scientists are well aware of how extraordinarily preponderant the evidence is in favour of evolution, including human evolution.’ Lerner thereby implies that ‘scientists’ are a monolithic group who all accept evolution. They are not, and they do not. Scientists who dissent from evolution are a small, but growing, minority. Lerner dismisses the ‘apparent scientific credentials’ of ‘creationist’ proponents, and explains that ordinary Americans only believe them because they do not have the knowledge to recognize such a person as ‘a crank or a pseudoscientist or a religious polemicist.’ Lerner is ‘poisoning the well’ with such ad hominem attacks. Of course, being a polemicist (religious or irreligious) does not exclude one’s being a scientist or advancing arguments that should be engaged with on their merits. Newton advocated the design argument in the Principia. Richard Dawkins takes every opportunity to provide a polemic in favour of his metaphysical beliefs.
Lerner references the many ‘scientists, philosophers, and theologians’ whom he says have:
written extensively about all the forms of creationism, from young-earth to Intelligent Design Creationism. They have demolished the scientific pretensions of the creationists [in some cases I would agree, in others I would disagree!], demonstrated clearly their sectarian religious agendas [I agree in part, with the caveat that a religious agenda does not automatically vitiate a scientific theory seen by proponents of one as promoting, however indirectly, the other], and exposed their ultimately political aims [the same point applies - does evolution never get used for political ends? Of course it does].
Lerner’s mention of theologians does at least acknowledge that evolution is compatible with theology. This is a point I wholeheartedly endorse, as a theistic evolutionist who came to embrace ID on non-religious grounds, exclusively on the basis of reviewing the arguments of ID theorists concerning the philosophy of science and the empirical evidence.
Before turning to a recent poll of British beliefs about origins, I’d like to highlight some Haris findings not discussed by Skeptical Inquirer. In particular, consider the following statistics relating level of education to belief in evolution, creationism and ID (these statistics were published in the Skeptical Inquirer’s report):
The first thing to note is that belief in evolution rises with increased level of education. This could indicate that the more people know the data and how to handle it rationally, the more likely they are to believe in evolution. It might mean that the more people are indoctrinated by the establishment view the more likely they are to ‘compromise’ (as the creationists say); that is, the more likely they are to adopt that view themselves due to peer pressure. Of course, the truth is probably that a combination of these factors is at play.
The second thing to note about these statistics is that belief in creationism drops with increased level of education. Once again, a number of explanatory options might be applied. It seems reasonable to conjecture that poll results such as these encourage Darwinists to think that their best answer to creationism is to promote more science education.
The third thing to note is that unlike belief in creationism, but like belief in evolution, belief in ID rises with increased level of education. Indeed, while belief in evolution more than doubles from 17% to 35% as education goes from high school to postgrad, belief in ID nearly triples from 6% to 17% as education goes from high school to postgrad.
On the one hand, it is difficult to explain this correlation as a result of ‘compromise’ on the part of former creationists, since ID is also an ill-regarded minority position amongst the majority of evolution believing scientists. On the other hand, evolutionists will have to acknowledge that they cannot dismiss ID as the preserve of the ill educated. Furthermore, if education is the Darwinists’ answer to creationism, these poll results suggest that far from answering ID, education provides fertile ground for ID believers. Darwinists are apparently caught between a rock and a hard place: increased education will decrease the number of creationists and increase the number of evolution believers, but it will also increase the number of ID believers.
In other words, ID believers simply don’t fit the ‘creationist’ stereotype. According to Haris, a typical creationist is Southern, over 55, and a Republican who lacks education; but a typical ID supporter is from the West, is 18-34 years old, votes Democrat and has a good education.
An astonishing MORI poll (cf. 'Britons Unconvinced on Evolution' @ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4648598.stm), commissioned by the BBC to coincide with a Horizon television science-documentary episode examining ID, reveals that when over 2,100 survey participants were asked what best described their view of the origin and development of life:
Here are those statistics as a pie chart:
This means that 39% of Britains are decidedly unconvinced by ‘evolution’, while 13% are agnostic (they ‘do not know’ what they believe – that’s three times as many ‘floating voters’ on the issue of origins as in America), and that therefore belief in evolution is a minority position amongst British adults. Indeed, 52% of British adults do not believe in evolution (as compared to 78% of Americans who do not believe in evolution). This came as a surprise to people on all sides of the origins debate in Britain.
Moreover, in terms of education policy:
In other words, roughly twice as many people want creationism taught in British schools as believe in creationism themselves, and more than twice as many people want ID taught in British schools as believe in it themselves. There is at least a sizeable minority of British adults in favour of not teaching evolution alone.
These findings surprised many commentators. Andrew Cohen, editor of Horizon, observes:
I think that this poll represents our first introduction to the British public’s views on this issue. Most people would have expected the public to go for evolution theory, but it seems there are lots of people who appear to believe in an alternative theory for life’s origins.
These results make an interesting contrast with the American Haris poll, where many more adults (64%) chose creationism, fewer (10%) chose intelligent design, and fewer (22%) chose evolution:
Creationism has almost three times the following in the USA than in Britain. Roughly speaking, the figures for belief in ID and evolution in Britain are both double that for America. This may bode well for the correct framing of the discussion about ID in Britain, as a matter of ‘science vs. science’ rather than the tired ‘science vs. religion’ track taken by much of the media.
Astonishingly, since ID as a movement has its roots in America, 7% more Britons than American’s subscribe to the theory. While the British media now regularly reports on ID, it tends to treat it as a religious issue (and a primarily American religious issue at that). Media descriptions of ID are routinely inaccurate, presenting and knocking down straw men with all the glee of the big bad wolf. There does seem to be a nascent ground swell of scientists, philosophers, mathematicians and other British academics (some of them at leading universities, such as Oxford and the University of St. Andrews) supporting ID to one degree or another. Several books critical of Darwinism/evolution or advocating design/intelligent design theory have originated in Britain in the last four years. However, even large secular bookshops are unlikely to carry any ID friendly materials in their science sections besides Darwins’ Black Box by Michael Behe. If good quality information about intelligent design theory - the sort of information that might attract a person to seriously consider its merits - is reaching the British public, it can only be because they are doing their own research by reading the right books (available from www.amazon.co.uk and from some Christian book shops) and by visiting the right web sites (there are even a couple of UK based intelligent design blogs).
According to data gathered by Soul Of Britain in 2000, only 26% of the British population believe ‘in a personal God.’ Since creationism surely requires belief in a personal God, one might therefore reckon that only about 4% of people believe in both intelligent design and a personal God. Moreover, a 2005 survey commissioned by BBC News 24 found that: ‘More than two-thirds of the 1,019 respondents said they were Christian, but only 17% regularly went to church.’ It is surely likely that adults self-identifying as creationists are also regular church attendees. This being so, it would seem that no more than about 5% of British adults can both self-identify with belief in ‘intelligent design’ and regularly attend church (of course, some people may believe in ID and attend mosque or synagogue). After all, one also has to take into account the fact that many regular church attendees in Britain accept the theory of evolution. Taking all this data into account, I suspect that many of the adults registering support for ID in Britain want to register dissent from Darwinism without committing themselves to a theologically identifiable religious position. Once again, this may bode well for the correct framing of the ID vs. Neo-Darwinism debate in Britain as ‘science vs. science’.
Finally, several reports about the BBC poll have included the claim that: ‘Participants over 55 were more likely to choose evolution over other groups while those under 25 mostly chose intelligent design.’ The BBC on-line article reporting the poll says that: ‘Participants over 55 were less likely to choose evolution over other groups.’ However, this neither contradicts nor confirms the claim that ID is popular with under 25’s. If this latter claim is true, it is yet another indicator of the sociological differences between creationism and intelligent design theory. Once again, the facts contradict the facile identification of dissent from evolution with creationism.
According to a survey of 1000 British students publicised by the Guardian newspaper in August 2006: ‘more than 12% questioned preferred creationism… to any other explanation of how we got here. Another 19% favoured the theory of intelligent design…’ Overall then, a little over 31% of British students actively embrace an origins theory other than evolution. Moreover:
Opinion-panel Research’s survey of more than 1,000 students found a third of those who said they were Muslims and more than a quarter of those who said they were Christians supported creationism. Nearly a third of Christians and 10% of those with no particular religion [the latter is a particularly significant point of interest] favoured intelligent design. Women were more likely to choose [non-evolutionary] explanations: less than half chose evolution, with 14% preferring creationism and 22% intelligent design.
Despite the fact that 57% of third-year students support evolution compared with 54% of first-year students (whilst showing no change in their beliefs about God’s existence), these statistics mean that while British students are less likely (indeed, nearly half as likely) to endorse creationism than the British public in general (12% of students support creationism compared to 22% of respondents in the BBC survey), they are more likely to endorse intelligent design theory (19% of students support ID compared to 17% of respondents in the BBC survey). As in America, an increased level of education correlates with a decreased level of support for creationism and an increased level of support for ID.
According to a study carried out by Professor Roger Downie of the University of Glasgow, 10% of British science students don’t believe in evolution. No information is listed about the sample size in Professor Downie’s survey. A 1984 survey of nearly 2,400 science students at Ohio State University in America found that 62% accepted Darwin’s theory, while 30% rejected the theory and 7% were ‘not sure’.
Belief in evolution (that is, the grand Neo-Darwinian account rather than merely ‘micro-evolution’, which is accepted even by young earth creationists) is a minority position in both America and Britain, although it is much less of a minority position in Britain than in America. 78% of American adults do not believe in evolution, whereas 52% of British adults do not believe in evolution.
The examined polls subvert the received wisdom of many journalists and ID critics that intelligent design theory is a cloak for creationism. In socio-political terms, despite some overlap between the two groups, whether one looks at age, geographical setting, political affiliation or level of education, the typical American supporter of ID is simply not in the same categories as the typical American supporter of creationism. There is likewise some indication of difference between creationists and intelligent design supporters in Britain.
In both America and Britain there is widespread support for not restricting teaching about origins to the theory of evolution (although Americans seem to feel more strongly about this than Brits).
In Britain, it seems to support for ID does not correlate with either belief in a personal God or regular church attendance. This may help the correct framing of the origins debate in Britain as one of competing scientific theories.
In both America and Britain the more education a person has, the less likely they are to be a creationist and the more likely they are to accept evolution. However, the statistics also show that the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to accept intelligent design theory. For example, while American’s belief in evolution doubles (from 17% to 35%) as education goes from high school to postgraduate study, belief in ID triples (from 6% to 17%) with the same increase in educational level. There is evidence that science students are less sceptical about evolution than either their compatriots or the general population, but the same evidence indicates that some 10% of British students reject evolution.
From my point of view as an ID theorist the figures that it would be of most interest to track are the year-on-year figures for the number of science students who embrace intelligent design theory. With some British universities, such as Leeds University, set to include lectures on intelligent design in their science courses – for the purposes of actively countering rising student interest in ID – I predict that the percentage of science educated adults embracing ID is set to rise.
American Harris Poll @ www.harrisinteractive.com/harris_poll/index.asp?PID=581
British MORI Poll @ http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/4648598.stm
‘Exiled from Groggs’ @ http://idintheuk.blogspot.com/
‘ID in the Uk’ @ http://idintheuk.blogspot.com/
‘ID.Plus’ @ http://idpluspeterswilliams.blogspot.com/
David Swift, Evolution Under the Microscope, (Leighton Academic, 2002)
Peter S. Williams, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism, (Damaris, 2004)
Vija Sodera, One Small Speck to Man ~ the Evolution Myth, (Vija Sodera Productions, 2004) – cf. www.onesmallspeck.com/contents.html
Antony Latham, The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed, (Janus, 2005)
John Haldane, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion, (Duckworth, 2005)
 cf. Francis J. Beckwith, ‘Rawl’s Dangerous Idea?’ @ http://homepage.mac.com/francis.beckwith/Rawls.htm
 Most recently in a two part TV series called ‘The Root of All Evil?’:
Bunting, ‘No Wonder atheists are angry: they seem ready to believe anything’ @ www.guardian.co.uk/Columnists/Column/0,,1681235,00.htm;
Dave Crofts, ‘Review: The Root of All Evil’ @ www.christchurchcentral.co.uk/culture/dawkins_1.html;
Denyse O'Leary, ‘Arch Darwinist Richard Dawkins Launches Anti-Religion TV
Series: Attacked on Left as Well as Right’ @ http://post-darwinist.blogspot.com/2006/01/arch-darwinist-richard-dawkins.html;
Nick Pollard, ‘The Problem with Richard Dawkins’ Faith’ @ www.damaris.org/content/content.php?type=5&id=453;
Nick Pollard, ‘The Problem with Richard Dawkins' Faith: Part II’ @
 This fact seems to suggest that, unless ID theorists have a tendency to become creationists later in life, the proportion of evolution doubters who support ID is set to increase relative to the proportion of evolution doubters who support creationism.
 cf. Andrew Rowell, ‘A War On Science’ @ http://idintheuk.blogspot.com/2006/02/war-on-science.html;
Exhiled from Groggs, ‘Review of BBC Horizon’ @
Telic Thoughts, Joy, ‘Darwin “replaced God”?’ @ http://telicthoughts.com/?p=516
 cf. David Swift, Evolution Under the Microscope, (Leighton Academic, 2002);
Peter S. Williams, I Wish I Could Believe In Meaning: A Response to Nihilism, (Damaris, 2004);
Vija Sodera, One Small Speck to Man ~ the Evolution Myth, (Vija Sodera Productions, 2004) – cf. www.onesmallspeck.com/contents.html; Antony Latham, The Naked Emperor: Darwinism Exposed, (Janus, 2005); John Haldane, An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion, (Duckworth, 2005)
 cf. www.amazon.co.uk/exec/obidos/tg/listmania/list-browse/-/1AD8L51EV9KOD/202-9955742-3500661f for my listmania list of books ‘Challenging Darwinism’.
 Scenta, ‘Britons losing faith in evolution’ @ www.scenta.co.uk/scenta/news.cfm?cit_id=525608&FAArea1=customWidgets.content_view_1&usecache=false
 Guardian Education, Tuesday August 15, 2006 @ http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1844478,00.html
 Guardian Education, Tuesday August 15, 2006 @ http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1844478,00.html
 Guardian Education, Tuesday August 15, 2006 @ http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/news/story/0,,1844478,00.html
 Paul A. Furest, ‘University Student Understanding of Evolutionary Biolgy’s Place in the Creation/Evolution Controversy’ @ https://kb.osu.edu/dspace/bitstream/1811/23026/1/V084N5_218
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