Making Numbers Lie for Jesus

What Do the Latest Evolution Poll Results Really Mean?

by Kai MacTane

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We all knew that the American people don’t really like or support evolution. In fact, it’s pretty clear that they don’t really like science at all, but they generally aren’t too bothered by high schools teaching things like geology or physics. Even in biology class, it isn’t dissection, mitosis or meiosis that causes any trouble. It’s evolution that makes the majority of Americans protest that “My great-grandfather wasn’t a monkey!”

“There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics”
— attributed to Benjamin Disraeli

But the results of the latest opinion poll on evolution, by Zogby International, are being trumpeted far and wide with headlines like “American Public Overwhelmingly Support Teaching Both Sides of Evolution” And the funny thing is, that isn’t necessarily supported by the data... (We have the raw data from the poll — 70 KB PDF.)

First of all, while this poll may have been physically performed by Zogby International, it was commissioned and paid for by the Center for Science and Culture, a branch of the Discovery Institute. Yes, that’s the same organization that made news last August, when Bill and Melinda Gates were astounded to discover that it was promoting Intelligent Design.

Second, it looks like the news reporting about this is mostly being done either by explicitly Christian, anti-evolution news outlets (such as the first three hits) or by the Discovery Institute itself (hits four and ten – at least, as of the evening of 11 March; Google rankings might change at any time). Another major hit, on a Yahoo! News page, turns out to actually be a simple reprint of the same story from PRNewswire — which in turn is the same phrasing as the press release on Discovery’s own web site.

In other words, the Discovery Institute is using the 21st-century media echo chamber to amplify its own voice. But that still doesn’t mean it has anything of substance to say.

What it’s saying has no substance because the question isn’t exactly asked in a neutral and unbiased way. First, respondents were asked: Which of the following two statements come closest to your own opinion?

  1. Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.
  2. Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.

Given a pair of statements like that, few people want to sound like they support one-sidedness or giving only one side of any issue. It makes them sound — and feel — like closed-minded people whose beliefs can’t withstand any scrutiny or disagreement.

And yet, a full 21% of respondents, apparently sensing that they were being railroaded, nonetheless claimed that they agreed with statement A. Another 10% gave a “Neither/Not Sure” response. The Discovery Institute is trumpeting the 69% of people who supported fairness as some kind of a slap in the face to Darwin, when the real story is that over a fifth of their respondents saw through the phrasing that was intended to rig the outcome, and refused to play along.

The follow-up question was the one that’s been reprinted in a few of the news stories: “Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the statement: When Darwin’s theory of evolution is taught in school, students should also be able to learn about scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life?” Again, note how the phrasing “students should also be able to learn about...” suggests that answering in the negative means you want to ban discussion and leave our children ignorant.

And note how, once again, nearly a full fifth of respondents (19%) refuse to follow along with the script, and report that they disagree, either strongly or somewhat, with the statement. I don’t think those people are really that insecure about whether evolution can stand up to scientific scrutiny. I think they just knew they were being played.

The really amusing part is, the idea of “teaching both sides of the controversy” is actually a very good one — it’s the one that science supports, too. That’s the scientific method: When you have competing claims, you analyze them both. You see what predictions each one makes, run experiments to test the predictions, and see which ones are correct. Sometimes you even find that both theories are true, as famously happened with wave-particle duality in the early 20th Century.

Suppose we were to try that with evolution and Intelligent Design? Ay, there’s the rub! Then we’d have to cobble together some predictions that Intelligent Design makes... and oddly enough, there aren’t any. It’s hard to get any solid predictions out of a “hypothesis” that simply boils down to “It’s too complicated for me to figure out, so God must have done it.” And the only reason the general public thinks there’s a controversy is because they don’t realize just how empty ID’s claims (or lack of claims) really are. They don’t realize that “both sides of the controversy” are about as equal as a wrestling match between the Incredible Hulk and Peter Parker — before he got bitten by the spider.

The last time we had a public showdown between ID and evolution was the Dover School Board trial. It was a disaster for the ID people; Michael Behe’s testimony made it clear that the ID emperor isn’t wearing a stitch of clothing. If the Intelligent Design advocates want to go another round, let’s oblige them. Let’s make sure it’s very public, and give them another chance to show the nation how intellectually bankrupt their theory is.

My only caveat in this is: Let’s make sure we don’t waste our children’s time with miseducation in the process.

Kai MacTane is the Freak Nation’s webmaster. When he was in high school, he managed to dodge biology class completely and focus on chemistry and physics, where he didn’t have to deal with the Religious Right’s anti-evolution crusade. He can’t wait to see what happens when they try to ban the Big Bang Theory in high school physics classes...