Glenn Branch's picture

Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan

I don’t know who put it on the Netflix queue, but a copy of Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) arrived in my mailbox recently. That, of course, is the mockumentary starring Sacha Baron Cohen as the eponymous Borat Sagdiyev, a Kazakh journalist touring the United States. Much of the film, as I understand it, consists of unscripted interactions in which Baron Cohen behaves badly with unsuspecting Americans on the pretext of not understanding American customs and/or adhering to fictitious (and frequently repulsive) Kazakh customs. Frankly, it doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, and I don’t know that I’m going to bother to watch it. Maybe I’m too tenderhearted, but I felt sorry even for the young-earth creationist Kent Hovind when he was similarly treated by Ali G—also a character played by Baron Cohen. But receiving Borat in the mail reminded me that I’ve been meaning to discuss public opinion about evolution in Kazakhstan. (My to-do list is as eclectic as it is extensive.)

Why Kazakhstan? Well, it is often claimed that the level of rejection of evolution in Kazakhstan is phenomenally low, at 28%. Probably the most prominent source of the claim is Salman Hameed’s “Bracing for Islamic Creationism” (Science 2008;322:1637–1638, subscription required), according to which “only 28% of Kazakhs thought that evolution is false, a fraction much lower than that of the U.S. adult population (~40%).” In his article, Hameed offers the important warning that “although the last couple of decades have seen an increasing confrontation over the teaching of evolution in the United States, the next major battle over evolution is likely to take place in the Muslim world (i.e., predominantly Islamic countries, as well as in countries where there are large Muslim populations),” explaining, “Relatively poor education standards, in combination with frequent misinformation about evolutionary ideas, make the Muslim world a fertile ground for rejection of the theory.”

Hameed’s article is, as far as I can tell, generally accurate. But it grievously errs in its uncritical use of data to be found in Riaz Hassan’s article “On Being Religious: Patterns of Religious Commitment in Muslim Societies” (The Muslim World 2007;97(3):437–478, subscription required), which reports data from surveys in seven Muslim countries on various religious beliefs. Among the questions posed was “Do you agree or disagree with Darwin’s theory of evolution?” for which the results were as follows:

 

 

Indonesia

Pakistan

Kazakhstan

Egypt

Malaysia

Turkey

Iran

The theory is almost certainly true

2

5

10

3

2

7

The theory is probably true

14

9

27

5

9

15

The theory is probably false

11

12

14

15

7

7

The theory could not possibly be true

61

60

14

52

54

56

I never thought about this before

12

14

35

25

28

15

 

Hameed correctly reported Hassan’s figures. But he overlooked appendix A to the paper, which explains that the samples were unrepresentative of the general public in the countries in which the survey was conducted. About thirty percent of each sample was taken from the general public; the remainder consisted of “those who were active in major legal religious organizations and highly educated respondents who were actively involved in professional, business, bureaucratic and cultural organizations.”

It’s clear why comparing Hassan’s figures for those six countries with figures from surveys where the sample was not so restricted is apt to be misleading. First, educated respondents are likelier to have encountered “Darwin’s theory of evolution” than the general public. In a 2009 survey (PDF) conducted for the British Council, for example, 62% of respondents surveyed in Egypt never heard of “Charles Darwin or his theory of evolution,” as opposed to the 25% of respondents in Hassan’s Egyptian sample who said, “I never thought about this before.” Second, educated respondents are likelier to accept evolution than the general public. I wasn’t easily able to find evidence that the correlation obtains in any of the six countries in Hassan’s survey, but it’s such a robust correlation in the countries for which there is data that it’s hard to believe that it isn’t present elsewhere. So it’s premature, at best, for Americans to reproach themselves for their failings vis-à-vis evolution as compared to Kazakhs.

Unfortunately, later writers have taken their cues, and their data, from Hameed. For example, in their “A Global Perspective of the Variables Associated with Acceptance of Evolution” (Evolution: Education and Outreach 2012;5:412–418) Benjamin C. Heddy and Louis S. Nadelson wrote, “Hameed (2008) collected similar data from six middle-eastern countries including Kazakhstan, Turkey, Indonesia, Pakistan, Malaysia, and Egypt.” It was Hassan, not Hameed, who collected the data, but the major error is comparing data unrepresentative of the general public in those six countries with data representative of the general public elsewhere. Garbage in, garbage out? Perhaps that’s too strong: Heddy and Nadelson concluded on the basis of their analysis that “religiosity, school-life expectancy, science literacy, and GDP per capita were strongly correlated with public acceptance of evolution,” which is what they predicted and what I would have expected. But the result would have been stronger if the data were uniformly comparable.

What’s interesting, even amusing, though, is that a later survey conducted with a representative sample of the general public in Kazakhstan suggests that the level of rejection of evolution in Kazakhstan is, indeed, phenomenally low. In 2013, the Pew Research Center issued a survey report entitled “The World’s Muslims: Religion, Politics, and Society” (PDF). In the survey, respondents were asked “Thinking about evolution, which comes closer to your view?” and offered a choice between “Humans and other living things have evolved over time” and “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.” In Kazakhstan, the level of acceptance of evolution was a whopping 79%, the highest rate of the countries studied (see pp. 132–133 of the report for the details). So maybe, when it comes to evolution, the description in Borat’s subtitle of Kazakhstan as a “Glorious Nation” is applicable after all. Just don’t cite Hassan’s survey or Hameed’s article as evidence for it!