The BBC changed the religion/science accommodationism question on its evolution quiz

As reader Eric astutely pointed out, the BBC has now changed question #7—the “accommodationism” question—in the evolution quiz I described this morning. It previously read this way:

Now it reads this way:

I’m fairly sure, but not positive, that calling attention to this question by myself or others has led to the change. It’s an improvement for sure, but I emphasize again that this question has no place in a quiz about evolution. It’s a theological or philosophical question that doesn’t test anybody’s knowledge about evolution. What gives, Beeb? You in bed with Templeton?

Further, the “right” answer depends on what you mean by “incompatible”. If you construe “compatibility” as “some people can be both scientists and religious,” then of course they’re compatible. But if you construe it as “compatible in using comparable methods to ascertain what’s true”, then it’s false. My whole book Faith Versus Fact is about this issue.

But the entire quiz is very shoddy, as several readers pointed out. Virtually every question is ambiguous or wonky. I don’t follow BBC science reporting much, but letting this quiz slip by without some vetting by good British evolutionists (e.g. our own Dr. Cobb) is bad journalism.

So it goes.



  1. Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

    The question as it is now written could be rephrased as “Evolution and religion may be incompatible.” A better way to put it, IMO.

    • freiner
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:10 pm | Permalink

      As restated by the BBC using “not” and the prefix “in-“, the question seems bound for confused interpretations. After all, no statement should not contain no more than nor no fewer than the number of non-positively expressed elements (neglecting none neither non-prefixed nor indirectly implied) contained in this sentence — or maybe not.

      • Caldwell
        Posted September 25, 2018 at 6:13 pm | Permalink

        I don’t have an absence of disagreement. I think.

        • infiniteimprobabilit
          Posted September 25, 2018 at 9:20 pm | Permalink

          My brain hurts.


  2. GBJames
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    Hopeless faithiest drivel.

  3. Curt Nelson
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    “TRUE: Evolution is not about the origins of life, but how animals and plants change over time. People of many different faiths and levels of scientific training see no contradiction between science and religion.”

    It’s true because people think so? Then the earth isn’t necessarily spherical because people from diverse backgrounds think it is flat.

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      “People of … different levels of scientific training…”

      That’s supposed to be a qualification? People with varying degrees of ignorance = diversity?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 7:59 pm | Permalink

      Goodness- thank you for adding this important part – their answer.

      Not about the origin of life…

      Ok let’s play

      Since evolution is not about the OOL, religion WOULD HAVE TO BE about – the origin of life – because evolution (by your argument ) is not. Therefore …

      And then they say something about science.

      And this answer they give is supposed to mean what exactly?

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:33 am | Permalink

        Oh. Oh. And not just about ”animals and plants”. What about fungi, &c., &c.


        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted September 26, 2018 at 6:36 am | Permalink

          Goodness- I didn’t even notice that! “Plants and animals”. Very precise, isn’t it.

          You know, a cooking show takes the same categorization- thus, mushrooms – clearly not animals … ok to put on a vegetarian pizza … so mushrooms are…..

          I apologize, but this is too much fun. Sort of.

          • Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:46 am | Permalink

            Yes, re vegetarian recipes. Mushrooms are very often the meat substitute. But they are fungi … and so are actually closer to animals than plants.


        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:06 am | Permalink

          I note that this is a time when asking “what about” makes sense, probably because you don’t have to ask “what about”, you can simply say “wrong – life includes more than just plants and animals.”

          It’s called “whataboutery”

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 6:40 am | Permalink

      What does PCC(E) say about the origin of _life_ claim?

      It sounds like someone really scraped the literature to come up with that, so much so, they probably saw – who is it, Stanley Miller? The chemist who started studying the origins of _life_. He’s in a biology textbook.

      And of course Darwin’s title is origin of _species_.

      Thus, this “answer” is not a dumb answer but carefully devised.

    • Posted October 25, 2018 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

      I think it is different. The shape of the Earth does not depend on people’s opinions, while religion does.

  4. Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Since it doesn’t specify which religion, how can you answer it?

    • Curt Nelson
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

      Since what they want to do is answer it “true,” they don’t trouble themselves with particulars like that.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

      That’s what I was saying!

      Since religion is a fully invented phenomenon, we are free to invent a religion on the spot with tenets which, say, assert each truth claim from the theory of evolution. Boom – our new religion is “compatible”.

      But of course they don’t mean that, they mean extant religions. And religion cant be an invention, because God talked to Adam and all that. But of course they didn’t say that I did. Ah.

      It’s frequently found in things like this quiz – a seemingly small little nothing, where someone tried to pull a fast one – such a large view on how far religion can penetrate everything, and stimulate good skeptical exercise. Hooray for another miracle from WEIT – The Website, and PCC(E) (Paws Be Upon Him)!

  5. Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    I suspect the usual marketing motivation at work here. Every person and company with a media presence fears boycott, or even just unwanted attention, these days. In this case, they want to appear sciency but not piss off the religioso while doing so.

    • W.T. Effingham
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      You don’t want to piss off the religioso. They are masters of Marketing. They are very astute with fear mongering about losing revenue. The BBC strategy must be “pandering to the easy money while it’s easy” .

    • ploubere
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:04 pm | Permalink

      They could have just avoided bringing religion in at all, and not offended anyone. Why raise the issue?

      • Curt Nelson
        Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:25 pm | Permalink

        Right. The question shouldn’t have been included. They didn’t appease the religious, they annoyed scientists.

      • Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:04 pm | Permalink

        Not when the subject is evolution. It is in their business interest that science and religion are compatible. Most companies are desperate to remain apolitical in these divisive times. They know that one mistake could put them in the crosshairs of one side or the other. The BBC have an even tougher job as their very product can be seen as taking a side in any dispute. The religion question in the evolution quiz is just the BBC signalling that it is not going to abandon religion just for a little science.

        • ploubere
          Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

          How is it in their business interest to alienate anyone?

          • GBJames
            Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:20 pm | Permalink

            Then why run the “test” at all?

          • Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

            By “alienate” are you referring to scientists? If so, it is unlikely any scientists are going to stop watching the BBC because of this quiz question. Our reaction is to simply complain about it. I for one would rather see them correct their evolution quiz than remove it entirely, though I admit I would be ok if it had never been published.

            It is not in their business interest to alienate anyone. That was the point I was making.

  6. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    “ this question has no place in a quiz about evolution. ”


    This was good for me personally to all of a sudden revisit this notion of “compatibility after letting it sit in the back of my mind for so long.

    It’s good – amazing? – they clearly adjusted the quiz – but oh, couldnt go all the way.

  7. ploubere
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:03 pm | Permalink

    The first 5 questions are ok, the 6th is ambiguous, and I agree, the 7th is religious accommodation and clearly inappropriate, and their explanation shoddy.

  8. jhs
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    This sure reminds me of a joke. (A shorter version.)

    A student didn’t study and decided to toss a coin for the answer to each of the 10 true-false questions.

    After all other students had left the classroom, the professor asked, “what is taking you so long?”

    Still flipping the coin, the student replied, “I am checking my answers.”

  9. David Orenstein
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    I took the 7 question test and when I got to this one I was really pissed off. It is unfortunate that in the national home of Darwin that such accommodation has a place in the ongoing reality of biological evolution.

  10. Steve Pollard
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:02 pm | Permalink

    The quiz is certainly pretty poor. But the original story is more interesting: the opening of the Milner Centre for Evolution at Bath Uni: As far as I can see, this presents the evidence in an honest, straightforward and accessible way, and is already attracting a lot of young enthusiasts.

    The medium does not always get the message right.

  11. Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    At least they’ve changed the question a bit. I certainly made an official complaint to the BBC, and let Professor Ceiling Cat know. He suggested I post my complaint here too:-

    I was so angry with the BBC’s continual kowtowing to faith (“Thought for the Day” is only one example) that I sent in a formal complaint about their evolution quiz (see below). I’ll let you know if I get a reply.

    Submission to the BBC:-
    I wish to complain about the evolution quiz posted on the BBC News website today ( The scientific questions in the quiz itself were OK, if ambiguously phrased (so much so that question 5 is wrong in the strictest sense; we are not descended from chimpanzees [although we share a common ancestor], but we are descended from monkeys – a group that arose about 40 million years ago and from which the great apes [including humans] evolved).
    However, I do take issue with the last question. This is pure propaganda, supporting a worldview promulgated by some religious groups and supported by organisations such as the Templeton Foundation. The BBC should not be taking such a partisan stance. On the contrary, some religious groups argue that science and religion are NOT compatible, and therefore do not believe in evolution. This is a view shared by many fundamentalist Christians and many fundamentalist believers of Islam. Many scientists also think, with good cause, that science and religion are not compatible. I suggest that you read “Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion Are Incompatible” by Professor Jerry Coyne, an excellent overview of this topic. Please will the BBC stop kowtowing to religion and deal with facts instead, especially in the science part of their website.

    P.S. I scored 5/7 in the quiz, so I’m obviously learning a lot from your science posts!

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 8:17 pm | Permalink

      Thanks for sharing

      I also haven’t seen Dawkin’s excellent quote the part of which I recall is how religion ought to be very worried about science because science “is deeply corrosive” to religion.

      That’s such a great way to put it – deeply corrosive.

    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

      You scored seven out of seven. They had two answers wrong. Think of it that wary.

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 2:49 am | Permalink

        I scored five out of seven, disagreeing strongly with two of their answers!

        • Posted September 26, 2018 at 1:04 pm | Permalink

          I thought some of them were so badly worded that they could have been answered either way.

  12. Frank Bath
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:42 pm | Permalink

    I have been in email correspondence with Paula Kover of Bath University. In her reply among other things, she says:

    ‘I stand by the fact that you can study evolution and keep your religious beliefs intact (even though I am more of a humanist), unless you are working on the origin of life.’
    ‘I am sorry you do not like the quiz, but I think rubishing (her spelling) the whole thing will just feed the people that do not want to believe is true.’sic.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:03 pm | Permalink

      A rather standard accommodationist response, IMO.

      • Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:10 pm | Permalink

        It is a standard response and may be true for an individual. It is managed by compartmentalization. To be fair, we all compartmentalize to some extent if for no other reason than we lack the time and motivation to run down every potential conflict. It is an artifact of how the brain works.

    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 5:23 pm | Permalink

      She seems pretty accommodationist in that response. I don’t think the “‘origin of life’ clause” is a get out. Once you have replicators competing for resources you have evolution; the argument then is at what point you can describe a replicator as “life”.

      I think we do need to be critical of Dr. Kover’s stance her, as the teaching of evolution in primary schools is a research interest and she has developed resources for use in schools in the UK. See Engaging with primary schools: Supporting the delivery of the new curriculum in evolution and inheritance.

      Interestingly, the questions used in the research to gauge teachers’ acceptance and understanding of evolution are less ambiguous on religious issues (Section A):

      The theory of evolution cannot be correct since it disagrees with religious accounts of creation.
      Humans exist today in the same form in which they always have.

      But some of the “bad” BBC questions are here too (Section B):

      The theory of evolution states that evolution can only happen slowly over long periods of time.
      The theory of evolution states that humans evolved from monkeys. [But also: According to the theory of evolution humans and monkeys share a common ancestor.]
      According to the theory of evolution giraffes stretching their necks to get at high leaves, so their offspring will have longer necks, is an example of evolution.

      She also developed a site providing teaching resources. That at least tackles the “monkey” question in a more nuanced way (Common Misconceptions):

      Humans are derived from monkeys.

      No. We share a common ancestor, but we are not derived from the monkeys we see today. Modern monkeys share a distant ancestor with humans, and that ancestor did possess characteristics common to all primates. However, they were not the same as modern monkeys. So although man and monkeys both came from a monkey-like species millions of years ago, humans did not evolve directly from the modern monkeys we see today.

      But it does reveal Dr. Kover’s accommodationism:

      Religion and Evolution cannot co-exist.

      This is not true. Evolution is a scientific fact, religion is a matter of faith. The same way as a child learn maths and history, they can have RE and Science lessons. Evolution should be taught as scientific fact not as an alternative theory to religion.

      Evolution can comfortably be taught as the science that explains how organisms change over time. Evolution as a science makes no statements about the existence of god, and is not necessarily incompatible with its existence

      How many logical fallacies can you spot there?


    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:26 am | Permalink

      I stand by the fact that you can study evolution and keep your religious beliefs intact

      This is true. Lots of people do it, although, their religion says God created humans specially, it is at the cost of self deception.

      unless you are working on the origin of life

      This is false. I see no reason why a religiosity could not practice the same self deception that they use for evolution. Georges Lemaître was able to work on the origin of the Universe whilst being a catholic priest.

      Anyway, she could quite easily have left that question out altogether and had a better quiz without the controversy.

      • Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        religiosity -> religionist

      • ThyroidPlanet
        Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:38 am | Permalink

        I think the bigger question is :

        What does it mean exactly, that a single person can be e.g. a Catholic priest – and that same individual can produce good science?

        To put more emphasis on it, can a person be a New York Yankees fan and still be a judge in a court of law?

        Can a person be a swimmer and still play chess?

        You see what I’m getting at? I’m trying to “pair off” one thing against another in what appears to me to be a false dilemma. I’ve chosen the things not randomly but where an apparent conflict arises, e.g. something of lesser consequence (baseball) and of greater consequence (law) where rules still are in play….

  13. Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Apparently the BBC is now promoting its own “correct” versions of Christianity and Islam. A more honest question might have been, “Do large numbers of Christians and Moslems believe that evolution is incompatible with their religious faith?”

  14. Posted September 25, 2018 at 3:56 pm | Permalink

    I don’t think introducing a double negative into a question is an improvement at all from the grammatical and comprehension viewpoint.

    • Martin X
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink


      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted September 25, 2018 at 9:11 pm | Permalink

        I’ll say! In fact as I did say on the previous thread (apologies for the repeat):

        Arrg! “not necessarily incompatible – true or false” That is screwing my brain up. There’s at least a double negative there (or maybe a triple if you answer ‘false’: “It is incorrect that religion and science are not necessarily incompatible”

        I give up…


  15. Posted September 25, 2018 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    I just redid the quiz, and the wording has not changed on the version visible to me.


    • Posted September 25, 2018 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

      Try on a different device or browser. It might be a caching artefact.


  16. Posted September 25, 2018 at 5:00 pm | Permalink

    Depends on what religion and what religious beliefs they are speaking of. If the religion believes the word was created in seven days with the animals as they are now the answer would be false.
    If the religion has any explanation for the creation of the wold and life the answer would be false.
    What kind of religion dogma would be compatible with evolution. I can’t think of any. All religions have a creation story as part of the dogma.

  17. Caldwell
    Posted September 25, 2018 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    I’m glad to say that I missed a whole bunch of ’em!

    #2: evolution is slow.

    BBC claims that’s false because “bacterium resistant to penicillin …a few years after the drug started” but E. coli reproduce in about 20 minutes, so a FEW YEARS IS A LONG TIME for bacteria. #2 is true: evolution is slow.

    #4 “Evolution can cause an individual to change during their lifetime.”

    BBC says false, but it’s obviously true.

    People start out as babies, grow to adults and then get old. Phycical abilites and proportions change. Humans evolved to “change during their lifetime”.

    #6 – always better.

    BBC says “false because not perfect”, which wasn’t even the question. The word “always” makes it false, but basically a bogus question.

    #7 Of course evolution and religion – anything remotely like Christianity – are incompatible.

    BBC says compatible because : “Evolution is not about the origins of life, but how animals and plants change over time”
    which again, wasn’t the question.

    Religious explanations for humanity are about humans being created by god(s) to interact with the gods, not about the result of random physical processes with no gods involved.

    • infiniteimprobabilit
      Posted September 25, 2018 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

      #4 – the changes are a predetermined product of past evolution that has already occurred; they are not a symptom of currently-occurring evolution in the individual.

      But the question was ambiguously worded.


      • Diane G
        Posted September 26, 2018 at 7:50 am | Permalink

        But the developmental changes persist because they increase the fitness of the organism, ergo they are due to evolution/natural selection. The question said nothing about “currently occurring evolution in the individual,” which no one who understands evolution would ever assume anyone meant–that’s Lamarkism.

    • Posted September 26, 2018 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

      “slow” is vague – compared to what?

  18. Posted September 26, 2018 at 7:46 am | Permalink

    The BBC has form when it comes to coddling creationists. I hope Jerry will not mind if I link to a blog post I wrote on the subject a few years ago – it is germane:

  19. Posted September 26, 2018 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    Just did the quiz again and I notice they have also changed the wording in the answer to question 4.

    It’s a common misconception that humans evolved from monkeys. In fact, we both evolved from a common ancestor, which lived millions of years ago. Humans and chimps share more than 90% of their genetic sequence. Thus, they are our closest living relatives, but they are not our great-great-great ancestors.

    (my bolding)

    The word in bold used to say “apes”. Under some interpretations of the word “monkey” I think the question is now correct. See the classification section of the Wikipedia page for instance.

    • GBJames
      Posted September 26, 2018 at 9:10 am | Permalink

      I had the exact same issue with question #4.

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