A new Pew poll released late in 2013 got a widespread coverage even though it revealed no significant change in in the percentage of Americans who subscribe to the view that evolution doesn’t happen and humans have always existed in their present form. The poll showed that about a third held such creationist beliefs in 2009 and again in 2013.
But Pew found news by slicing up the data according to political affiliation, and the press eagerly took the bait. Republicans in the previous poll had appeared to be more prone to belief in creationism than were Democrats, and according to the new poll, the spread had widened. The coverage was mostly a rehash of what was in the press release, repeating Pew’s emphasis on the political angle, with the opinion columnist attempting to explain what's wrong with Republicans. Here’s the Washington Post, Reuters, NPR and MSNBC. The New York Times loved this poll so much they covered it at least three times. Francis X. Clines wrote about it here, Charles Blow here, and Paul Krugman here.
Two academic bloggers, Greg Mayer and Dan Kahan, had a very different take on the same thing. One problem these academic bloggers pointed out with the news coverage and punditry was a lack of effort to examine the wording of the questions, or to ask how the results lined up with similar polls, such as Gallup. Should we trust this poll? It’s not gospel, so to speak. Kahan noted that most of the press never pondered whether the cause was creationists switching political parties or Republicans switching ideologies.
Mayer wrote a lengthy critique for the blog Why Evolution is True, and while I couldn’t find his profile there, I believe he’s this biology professor. Mayer noted how radically Pew’s results differed from a seemingly similar poll by Gallup. Which one, if either, should we believe?
Naturalistic evolution: Gallup 15% ; Pew 32%
Theistic evolution: Gallup 32% ; Pew 24%
Creationism: Gallup 46% ; Pew 32%
Even allowing for what is perhaps a random uptick of creationism in the latest Gallup poll (see Gallup graph above), there is a striking difference between the results of the two polls.
There are a number of differences in the wording of the questions that might account for this. First, Pew suggested that one of the naturalistic processes might be natural selection. Perhaps hearing the name of a familiar evolutionary mechanism encouraged more people to choose this response, as opposed to the Gallup phrasing, in which the absence of God was emphasized, and no natural mechanisms were mentioned in the naturalistic evolution choice.
Mayer offers several other important differences in the way the two polls phrase their questions. The difference between the Pew and Gallup results should serve as a reminder not to put too much faith in a single poll. (Before mocking creationists for failing to wear their critical thinking hats, make sure yours is on squarely.)
Also weighing in was Dan Kahan, a professor of law and psychology at Yale’s Cultural Cognition Project. He took a harsh view of the political spin he attributed to the Pew press release, noting what he considered an important omission of data on a second follow up question for those who accept evolution.
Here’s the question:
And do you think that [2a] Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection, or [2b] A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today?
But it [Pew] doesn't tell us — not on its web page summary, not in the body of its Report, not in the reported "toplines"; not anywhere — what % of Democrats chose the "naturalistic" (2a) and what % the "theistic" (2b) evolution positions.
Frankly, that's lame.
It's lame, first, because the answer to that question is really interesting and important if one is trying to make sense of how ordinary Americans reconcile their cultural identities, which are indicated by both their political affiliations and their religious practices (among other things), with belief in science.
Second, it's lame because this sort of deliberate selectivity (make no mistake, it was deliberate: Pew made the decision to include the partisan breakdown for only half of the bifurcated evolution-belief item) subsidizes the predictable "ha ha ha!" response on the part of the culturally partisan commentators who will see the survey as a chance to stigmatize Republicans as being distinctively "anti-science."
If in fact, only a minority of Democrats are willing to endorse "naturalistic" evolution — if a majority of them refuse to assent to a theory of human beings' natural history without God playing a role in guiding it — then that makes "ha ha ha ha ha!" seem like an unreflective response to a complicated and interesting phenomenon.
He aims his blame at Pew for spinning the release. For our purposes, the important question is whether the press wasn’t sufficiently skeptical of Pew’s conclusion.
Kahan notes the lack of curiosity on the part of many journalists for failing to ask whether the change came about because Republicans over the last 4 years switched to believing in creationism or that creationists switched parties:
There are two obvious possibilities: [A] Republicans are "switching" from belief in evolution (naturalistic or theistic) to creationism; or [B] creationists are switching their party allegiances from Democrat or Independent to Republican &/or evolutionalists (theistic and naturalistic) are switching from Republican to Democrat or Indepedent.
Either [A] or [B] would be really interesting, but they would reflect very different processes.
If A is the case, he writes, you’d expect to see an increase in creationism across the board, as long as the other parties (Democrats and Independents) don’t change. If B is the case, then you’d expect to see a change in the other parties as long the overall number is steady. As he puts it, “this doesn’t compute.”
In a follow up post, Greg Mayer takes a stab at the answer, suggesting that there has been an increase in creationism overall but it didn’t reach statistical significance, while it did for certain cuts of the data.
The two bloggers didn’t agree on all points. Mayer questions Kahan’s complaint about the missing data, saying it doesn’t change the fact that a big portion of Republicans are creationists.
But Kahan has a good point. It does matter whether people believe a supreme being guided evolution with the purpose of creating humans or we got here through natural processes. He didn't come out and say it as bluntlhy as I will: It matters because only one of those choices is supported by science.
The belief that a supernatural being guided evolution is consistent with the pseudoscience known as “intelligent design”, which is an ideology scientists and teachers have been battling to keep out of public school biology classrooms. ID, not biblical creation, was at issue in that famous 2005 trial in Dover. ID-ers subscribe to the notion that natural processes alone could not have led to the evolution of humans and some sort of “designer” must have nudged it. It’s considered a form of creationism and, to the vast majority of biologists, very wrong.
That doesn’t mean you have to be an atheist to accept evolution without divine guidance, but Darwin (and Wallace) gave us a natural mechanism to explain the diversity of the living world so science no more needs supernatural beings to guide evolution than it needs angels to carry the planets around the sun.
And so Kahan has a point that without this second part of the data, it’s impossible to really decipher what percent of the political parties subscribe to something wrongheaded and unscientific. If we agree with the biology community that ID is a form of creationism, then that follow-up question matters, though even then the Pew poll doesn’t ask quite the right questions to distinguish who really gets evolution as most scientists understand it.
Both Kahan and Paul Krugman use the word tribalism in writing about the poll. Krugman uses it to describe the Republicans who favored creationism and Kahan uses it to describe the pundits who are using the poll data to mock the Republicans for being more “anti-science” than everyone else without asking for the full story.
It can be tempting to accept something uncritically when it make us feel good about ourselves – whether it’s a creationist worldview or a press release that suggests a rival political party is out of touch. Kudos to both Greg Mayer and Dan Kahan for resisting the feel-good temptation and making us all think.