NOTE BY JAC: I still am baffled by the Pew’s finding that Republicans seem to have become more creationist between 2009 and 2013, for the Gallup Poll shows the 20% disparity already in 2008. In that poll, the percentage of young-earth creationists was 60% among Republicans, 38% among Democrats, and 40% among Independents. The gap that Pew says is widening, then, appears in the Gallup data to have been that wide already five years ago. Since the issue is the same, human evolution, I can only attribute it to different sampling techniques or, as Greg suggests below, to the order in which questions were asked.
by Greg Mayer
I’ve already posted twice on the Pew poll on evolution acceptance, first to bring it to WEIT readers’ attention while noting the disparity between the Pew poll and Gallup’s results on the same issue, and then to note an erroneous criticism of the poll by Dan Kahan. I’d like to note three further developments.
The most interesting is a further report from Pew written by Cary Funk (if you look at nothing else mentioned here, look at this report), I’ll mention two other items first.
First, Charles Blow at the New York Times, in a piece entitled “Indoctrinating Religious Warriors“, considers what the poll says about the political and religious landscape of America. He’s saddened by the fact that more Republicans now accept creationism than evolution:
In fact, this isn’t only sad; it’s embarrassing.
I don’t personally have a problem with religious faith, even in the extreme, as long as it doesn’t supersede science and it’s not used to impose outdated mores on others.
But as Blow well knows, the only religious extremists that make the news are precisely the ones who want their faith to supercede science and to impose their mores on the rest of society. He attributes its recrudescence to the strategy of the Republican party:
But I believe that something else is also at play here, something more cynical. I believe this is a natural result of a long-running ploy by Republican party leaders to play on the most base convictions of conservative voters in order to solidify their support. Convince people that they’re fighting a religious war for religious freedom, a war in which passion and devotion are one’s weapons against doubt and confusion, and you make loyal soldiers.
There has been anti-science propagandizing running unchecked on the right for years, from anti-gay-equality misinformation to climate change denials.
Second, Andrew Sullivan, in “Converting to Belief in Evolution“, has looked at the poll again, and points to Karl Giberson (whom Jerry also commented on) asking whether evangelical Christianity’s antagonism to science will push young people away from evangelical Christianity. Giberson found this prospect “alarming”, but evidently Andrew doesn’t. (As a gay Catholic who accepts at least theistic evolution, Andrew has longstanding political and theological differences with evangelicalism.)
Finally, Dan Kahan has accepted that his chief argument against the Pew poll—that its reported numbers must be incorrect—is wrong. He did so in response to a commenter on his site, who provided a hypothetical numerical example refuting Kahan’s assertion. I showed that Kahan was in error with a general argument about the statistics of sums, but a concrete counterexample is also a satisfying form of refutation. But most importantly, Pew, without mentioning Kahan, has released a detailed answer to the question that Kahan thought indicated numerical hanky-panky: “If the views of the overall public have remained steady, and there has been little change among people of other political affiliations, how does one account for the Republican numbers? Shouldn’t the marked drop in Republican believers cause a decline in the 60% of all adults who say humans have evolved over time?” The answer is of course ‘not necessarily, and, in fact, not in this case’.
Kudos to Kahan for accepting the invalidity of his mathematical argument, but, oddly, he continues unchanged in his animus toward the Pew poll and one of its striking findings (see the updates and a further post here). As I said, his reactions to the poll seem to be “merely expressions of his own prejudices”, and not terribly dependent on the actual poll results, since he continues to hold them although though his conclusions on the poll have been shown to be in error. The whole sequence of what he writes about the poll is a wonderful example of the type of reasoning which, in another context, Sam Wang of Princeton has called “motivated reasoning“.
The new Pew report (which, as I said, is the thing really worth looking at here), clearly answers Kahan’s doubts. Here’s their table nicely illustrating, neither generally nor hypothetically, that there’s nothing wrong with their numbers (note that the last column shows, as stated in my first post, that the overall result is a weighted sum that includes all political response classes):
But what was the cause of the shift in Republican opinion? It’s not obviously due to changes in the demographic, religious, or ideological profiles of the Republican party, as they changed little between the two surveys:
In fact, however, the surveys suggest that the change in views on evolution occurred especially among the less religious segments of the GOP. Among Republicans who attend worship services monthly or less often, the share who say humans have evolved over time is down 14 percentage points, from 71% in 2009 to 57% today. Among Republicans who attend services at least weekly the share who believe in evolution has gone from 36% in 2009 to 31% today, a difference that is not statistically significant.
This may support the suggestion of, among others, Zack Beauchamp and Paul Krugman that accepting creationism has become part of Republicans’ “team” or “tribal” identity: very religious Republicans were already mostly creationist for religious reasons, and now less religious Republicans are following for reasons of party solidarity. (Oddly, Kahan, who called Krugman’s response to the poll “absurd” and “devoid of reflection”, seems to agree with this as well.)
The new Pew report also considers the possibility of wording issues affecting the response. In this case, it was not the wording of the questions on evolution (which were unchanged), but the words of the preceding questions. The 2009 survey was full of questions on science, which may have “primed” respondents to give more ‘scientific’ answers, while in the 2013 survey the evolution questions were preceded by religious questions. I would not be surprised if such differences have an effect; such wording effects may account for some of the disparities between Pew and Gallup results on the same issues.