The Latest Polls on Creationism and Evolution

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Title: 
The Latest Polls on Creationism and Evolution
Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE Deputy Director
Volume: 
24
Issue: 
5
Year: 
2004
Date: 
September-October
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
There were few surprises in a trio of polls conducted in late 2004 about public opinion in the United States on issues associated with the creationism/evolution controversy.

A recent article from the Gallup News Service (2004 Nov 19) reports on the pollster's latest results concerning public opinion on the evidence for evolution, creationism, and biblical literalism. The poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1016 adults interviewed by telephone November 7-10, 2004, and its margin of error is +/- 3%. Because Gallup's polls on public opinion on creationism extend back to 1982, their data are particularly useful for longitudinal comparisons. The latest results are overall consistent with those from previous polls conducted by Gallup.

To assess public opinion on the evidence for evolution, Gallup asked, "Do you think that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is a scientific theory that has been well-supported by evidence, just one of many theories and one that has not been well-supported by evidence, or don't you know enough about it to say?" Thirty-five percent of the respondents said that evolution is well-supported by evidence, 35% said that it is not, 29% said that they didn't know enough about it to reply, and 1% expressed no opinion. These results are similar to those in 2001, the first year in which Gallup asked the question.

Demographically, the article reports, belief that evolution is well-supported by the evidence is strongest "among those with the most education, liberals, those living in the West, those who seldom attend church, and [...] Catholics," and weakest among "those with the least education, older Americans[...], frequent church attendees, conservatives, Protestants, those living in the middle of the country, and Republicans."

To assess public opinion on creationism, Gallup asked:
Which of the following statements comes closest to your views on the origin and development of human beings?

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process,

Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process,

God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10 000 years or so?
Thirty-eight percent of respondents chose (1), 13% chose (2), 45% chose (3), and 4% offered a different or no opinion. These results are also similar to those from previous Gallup polls, which extend back to 1982 (see p 19).

The article explains that the 10 000 year date was included in the 1982 poll question because "it roughly approximates the timeline used by biblical literalists who study the genealogy as laid out in the first books of the Old Testament." It is perhaps worth remarking that not all biblical literalists agree on interpreting the Bible as insisting on a young earth: there are old-earth creationists, for example, who accept the scientifically determined age of the earth and of the universe, but still accept a literal reading of the Bible and reject evolution in favor of special creation.

To assess public opinion on biblical literalism, Gallup asked, "Which of the following statements comes closest to describing your views about the Bible - the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally, word for word; the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally; or the Bible is an ancient book of fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man?" Polled in November 2004, 34% of respondents regarded the Bible as to be taken literally, 48% regarded it as divinely inspired but not always to be taken literally, 15% regarded it as a collection of fables, etc, and 3% expressed no opinion. Again, these results are similar to those from previous Gallup polls.

Following on the heels of Gallup's poll, CBS News conducted a poll of public opinion about evolution, creationism, and science education (2004 Nov 22; available on-line at http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2004/11/22/opinion/polls/main657083.shtml). The poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 885 adults interviewed by telephone November 18-21, 2004, and its margin of error is +/- 3%.

One question (the exact wording of which was not given in the story) was apparently similar to Gallup's question about the origin and "development" of human beings. Compared to the Gallup poll, the results showed more support (55%, versus Gallup's 45%) for "God created humans in present form" and less support (27%, versus Gallup's 38%) for "humans evolved, God guided the process," with the same level of support (13%) for "humans evolved, God did not guide process." The results were also correlated with voting in the November 2004 presidential election: 47% of Kerry voters and 67% of Bush voters preferred "God created humans in present form"; 28% of Kerry voters and 22% of Bush voters preferred "humans evolved, God guided the process"; and 21% of Kerry votes and 6% of Bush voters preferred "humans evolved, God did not guide process."

The CBS News poll also asked respondents whether they favored the teaching of creationism alongside or instead of evolution in the public schools: 65% of the respondents said alongside; 37% said instead of. The results were again correlated with voting in the November 2004 presidential election: 56% of Kerry voters and 71% of Bush voters said alongside; 24% of Kerry voters and 45% of Bush voters said instead of. Moreover, 60% of respondents who characterized themselves as evangelical Christians said instead of.

Finally, a poll conducted for Newsweek "on beliefs about Jesus" included questions (the exact wording of which was not given in the story) about teaching "creation science" in the public schools. The poll was conducted among a nationwide random sample of 1009 adults interviewed by telephone December 2-3, 2004, and its margin of error is +/- 3%. According to the Newsweek story (2004 Dec 5; available on-line at http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/6650997/site/newsweek/), "Sixty percent say they favor teaching creation science in addition to evolution in public schools; 28 percent oppose such teaching, the poll shows. Forty percent favor teaching creation science instead of evolution in public schools; 44 percent oppose the idea." These results are comparable to those of the CBS News poll. (Although slighly more sympathy for creationism was displayed, it is possible that the characterization of creationism as "creation science" in the Newsweek poll's question contributed to its attractiveness.)

In a 2000 poll commissioned by People for the American Way and conducted by DYG Inc (available on-line at http://www.pfaw.org/pfaw/dfiles/file_36.pdf), however, only 16% of respondents said that creationism should be taught instead of evolution, and only 13% said that creationism should be taught as a "scientific theory" alongside evolution. Since the PFAW poll offered a finer-grained set of choices for its respondents, comparisons between the CBS News and Newsweek polls and the PFAW poll may not be entirely meaningful.

What exactly to make of these data is regrettably unclear. George Bishop argued in his "'Intelligent design': Illusions of an informed public" (RNCSE 2003 May-Aug; 23 [3-4]: 41-3) that such "direct to the media" polls are plagued by "chronic problems in the practice of asking survey questions: widespread public ignorance of public affairs, the inherent vagueness of the language used in most survey questions, and the unpredictable influence of variations in question form, wording, and context." And Otis Dudley Duncan and Claudia Geist illustrate in their "The creationists: How many, who, where?" (p 27) that interpreting the statistics generated by such polls is by no means a simple task. It is clear, at any rate, that as defenders of teaching evolution in the public schools, our work is cut out for us.

About the Author(s): 
Glenn Branch
NCSE
PO Box 9477
Berkeley CA 94709-0477
branch@ncseweb.org