Friday, January 27, 2006


Selective Presentation of Harris Poll about Evolution, Creationism & ID

The selectively Skeptical Inquirer (Volume 29, Issue 6, Nov/Dec 2005, pp. 56-60) presents data from a recent Harris Poll exploring the beliefs of American adults about evolution, creationism and Intelligent Design

The lamented headline figures are that 64% of American adults believe that 'human beings were created directly by God', while 22% believe that 'human beings evolved from earlier species' and 10% believe that 'human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them.' These three positions are respectively abled 'creationism', 'evolution' and 'intelligent design'. It is good to see creationism being distinguished from ID in this way, something Professor Lawrence S. Lerner does only grudgingly in his commentry upon the poll (refering to 'Intelligent Design Creationism' as one of several 'forms of creationism'). However, one could subscribe to ID without thinking that 'human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them', and one could subscribe to both the 'creationist' and 'ID' statements; hence these categories are not water-tight.

Some of the numbers generated by the poll don't quite add up. For example, if 64% 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 come only 54% think that human beings did not develop from earlier species if 64% think that 'human beings were created directly by God'? Perhaps because some respondents are not consistent!

It seems to me that if one ignored the headline figure of 64% creationists and took an average of the responses to other questions that could signal a belief in creationism (and/or ID) then about 50% of American adults reject evolution (e.g. 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 focus 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, concervatives, and Southerners were more likely to embrace the creationism positions...'

How should we interpret these correlations? As Professor Lerner 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 here, 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 possibilit! Moreover, Lerner's wisdom can and should be applied to many of the American adults who believe in evolution. 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 truly 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 tenatiously 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 a number of metaphysical assumptions. In that sense too, 'belief' plays an indispensible role in science.

Lerner submits that 'scientists are well aware of how extraordinarily preponderant the evidence is in favour of evolution, including human evolution.' Lerner implies that 'scientists' are a monolithic grouping who all accept evolution. They are not, and they do not.

Those 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 such folk because they do not have the knowledge to recognize such a person as 'a crank or a pseudoscientist or a religious polemicist.' Once again, Lerner cannot even leave the door open to a scientist with credentials who is a creationist but not 'a crank'. Lerner is 'poisoning the well' with such ad hominem attacks. Of course being a polemicist (religious or irreleigious) 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, and Dawkins takes every opportunity to provide Britians with a polemic in favour of his metaphysical beliefs.

Lerner references the many 'scientists, philosophers, and theologians' who have:

'written extensively about all the forms of creationism, from young-earth to Intelligent Design Creationism. They have demolished the scientific pretentions of the creationists [in some cases I would agree, in others I would disagree!], demonstrated clearly their sectarian religious agendas [again, I agree but only in part and with the cavieat that a religous agenda does not automatically vitiate a scientific theory seen by proponents of either 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, at least in one understanding of both subjects. This is a point I wholeheartedly endorse. You see, I am one of those folk who has come to endorse Intelligent Design on non-religious grounds, exclusively on the basis of reviewing the arguments of ID theorists concerning the philosophy of science and the empirical evidence. And while I am not a credentialed scientist, I am a credentialed philosopher who has published a fair amount of material on this subject.

Finally, I'd like to highlight some Haris findings that were 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):

All Adults/H.S or less/Some College/College Grad /Post Drad
Belief in Evolution 22%/17/21/31/35
Belief in Creationism 64 /73 /66 /48/42
Belief in ID 10 /6 /10 /15 /17

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 establishement view the more likely thay are to 'compromise' (as the creationists say), that is, the more likely they are to adopt that view themsleves. It probably means a combination of these possibilities is at play. The second thing to note is that belief in creationism drops with increased level of education. The same explanatory options apply. It seems reasonable to conjecture that poll results such as these encourage Darwinists to think that the best answer to creationism is more science education. The third and fourth things to note are that:

a) belief in ID amongst the population as a whole lies at just under half the percentage of belief in evolution, and that
b) unlike belief in creationism but like belief in evolution, belief in ID rises with increased level of education.

On the one hand, creationists will find it difficult to explain this correlation as a result of 'compromise', 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. Forthermore, if more science education is the answer to creationism, these poll results suggest that it is equally fertle ground for ID believers. Hence 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.
Hence, it seems to me that the headline ignored by Skeptical Inquirer is this:

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