Creation? Evolution? Both? Neither?

Those of us who follow the creation/evolution debates bump up against a frustratingly common factoid.  Article after article, both scholarly and popular, cite Gallup polls as proof that nearly half of American adults espouse a young-earth creationist position.  In fact, we might be better off thinking of a much smaller number.

In the pages of Christianity Today, sociologist Jonathan Hill suggested that the real numbers are much more complicated.  The problem with the Gallup polls are that they force people to pick the position on creation that comes closest to their belief.  We do not find out, for example, how much they care about the issue, or how certain they are about their beliefs.  Most tellingly, we do not find out what other views they also find convincing.  As any social scientist can tell us, people tend to say one thing about their beliefs and believe another.

Hill is not the only nerd to question Gallup’s high numbers.  Josh Rosenau of the National Center for Science Education noted recently that poll numbers change as questions change.  Similarly, political scientists Michael Berkman and Eric Plutzer survey the surveys in their must-read Evolution, Creationism, and the Battle to Control America’s Classrooms.  Not surprisingly, they conclude that the structure of the survey and the wording of the questions can deliver very different perspectives on the numbers of Americans who believe in evolution or various types of creationism.

For example, two polls from 2005 came up with different results on the issue of teaching creationism in public schools.  One poll from Virginia Commonwealth University found that 21% of respondents favored teaching only creationism; one from Harris found 23% support for that position.  Pretty similar.  But the VCU poll concluded that 43% of Americans preferred public schools to teach a combination of evolution and creation in science classes.  The Harris poll put that number at 55%.  That’s a significant difference, one that can’t be explained away by hanging chads.  (For younger readers, “hanging chads” is an hilarious reference to an ancient election conundrum in the USA.)

Furthermore, when pollsters ask Americans different questions, they get—no surprise—different answers.  Gallup pollsters in 1999 asked if people would favor or oppose teaching creationism INSTEAD OF evolution in public schools.  Depending on who did the asking and when (Berkman and Plutzer review a handful of polls from 1999-2005), either a slim majority or a near-majority oppose such teaching.  The numbers vary from 54% opposed to 44% percent opposed.  That’s a big difference.

When Jonathan Hill conducted his BioLogos-funded survey, he found similar complications.  As he explains in the pages of CT, a better survey will allow respondents to separate out their specific beliefs about origins.  A better survey will allow respondents to explain how important each belief is to them.  Hill’s National Study of Religion and Human Origins asked respondents to specify their belief in each of three ideas.  Did humans evolve from other species?  Was God involved?  Were humans created within the last 10,000 years?  The familiar Gallup poll question lumps together all these notions into one young-earth creationist position.

But when Hill separated out these beliefs into three separate questions, he found that only 14% of respondents agreed with all three.  Only 10% called themselves “certain of their beliefs.”  And only 8% said that “it was important to them to have the right beliefs about human origins.”

Hill found similar dwindling numbers on the evolution side.  When pressed, the number of people who firmly and cantankerously cling to a belief that life came from evolution without the interference of any divine entity shrinks considerably.

What does it all mean?  Hill offers a stirring conclusion.  “If only eight percent of respondents,” he suggests,

are classified as convinced creationists whose beliefs are dear to them, and if only four percent are classified as atheistic evolutionists whose beliefs are dear to them, then perhaps Americans are not as deeply divided over human origins as polls have indicated. In fact, most Americans fall somewhere in the middle, holding their beliefs with varying levels of certainty.

Of course, Hill is not just a neutral observer.  As do I, Hill hopes to find a middle ground, and his surveys find one.  Evangelical Christians, Hill suggests, would do well to put battles and controversies to the side, and focus on their broad shared beliefs.  For the wider society, I wonder if we might be able to do the same.

 

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1 Comment

  1. I saw that article in CT. Polls of all kinds are subject to the same types of mistakes. The way questions are asked is probably the most important part of surveys. Broad questions are not a good way to obtain information. Yet, if questions are too narrow, they then become “push” questions, in which the one being surveyed is led in a certain direction through the question.
    Push poll and overly broad polls are both unreliable. The trick is to find the middle ground.

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