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Creationism and the New Right Agenda: An Opinion Survey
In 1983, while teaching anthropology at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls, I conducted a survey of student opinions on specific aspects of "scientific creationist" claims and other New Right issues. Though public interest in the creation-evolution controversy seemed to be higher then than it is now, my recent tabulation of this data produced intriguing results which suggest that public opinion in favor of "scientific creationism" was and is much weaker than usually advertised (even if higher than most scientists and educators would like).
In the survey, I asked students to respond to specific elements of the "scientific creationist" dogma. I avoided asking questions related to the general concept of "fairness for all sides of an argument," the approach so frequently used in surveys conducted by creationists and popular periodicals, because I felt that it gives misleading results. People find it easy to support "fairness," just as they do "mom" and "apple pie," but do they as easily believe that the universe is only ten thousand years old? It turns out that they do not.
I found that the respondents were rather poorly informed about science, despite at least some college-level exposure to it in half of the sample. It should be noted that 50 percent of the students had not enrolled in a single life-science related course. I did not ask about enrollment in humanities courses or other science courses. Respondents' lack of knowledge about theology was striking. In particular, the results for item 29 of the survey indicated that they could not clearly decide whether or not they were fundamentalists. Nor did the students relate to the creationists' beloved entropy argument (item 4) or the "secular humanism" bogey (item
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Similarly, and contrary to widespread claims and public perceptions, the link between creationist views and the New Right social agenda appears to be weak, although this has not been explored statistically. That is, one can be a six-day creationist who is nonetheless opposed to Flood geology and favors gun control. Scientifically, theologically, and politically, people seem to be much more confused or heterogeneous than narrow-issue partisans claim. Agreement with a specific creationist or religious right assertion does not guarantee agreement with an entire agenda—contrary to claims made by various self-professed movement leaders. In fact, though it is not evident in the tabulated figures, I found that hardly any individuals surveyed strongly supported the entire "scientific creationist" agenda; most of them got one or more of the elements of the Institute for Creation Research or Creation Research Society membership oaths wrong.
These results, from what can probably be characterized accurately as a moderately conservative, middle-class, midwestern university population dominated by business and education majors, should be compared with the well-publicized results of polls which have indicated that 76 percent or more of the American public support "equal time for creationism" in the science classroom. Clearly, past poll results are open to interpretation.
A 5 percent sample (equaling 424 people) was drawn by computer from all University of Northern Iowa students. The mail survey resulted in a 57 percent response rate, with the number of respondents thereby totaling 242 (approximately a dozen responses arrived after the due date and are not included in these figures). Postpaid envelopes were provided to noncampus residents; dorm residents were supplied a campus mail envelope. Questionnaires were numbered to allow check-off of responses. There was attempted one follow-up phone call (by a student assistant) to students who had not responded within two weeks. Phone calls did not elicit any evidence of structural problems, such as nonreceipt of the questionnaire, inability to understand the instructions, or unfamiliarity with campus mail procedures. Confidentiality was promised and maintained by a blind check-off procedure. The return rate compares favorably with other surveys of this type, although a more intensive follow-through would have improved the rate considerably. The sample is quite large, considering the sampling universe. Neutral or uninterested respondents are probably underrepresented as an artifact of the research methodology.
The following questionnaire, along with reply instructions, was sent to the sample. The survey results are added here following each question.
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The Survey Instrument
The following statements concern various social and scientific issues. Some people have strong opinions about each of these, and other people have intermediate opinions. Please read each statement carefully and choose a number, from I to 5, which best represents your opinion. A 1 means that you strongly agree with the statement, 5 means that you strongly disagree with the statement, and 2, 3, or 4 means that you have an intermediate opinion between 1 and 5. Your responses will be kept strictly confidential and will be very useful to a research project exploring student views.
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[This question was asked to estimate roughly the degree to which respondents answer sincerely rather than routinely responding with all 3s, Is, or whatever.]
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[Individuals ranged from zero to seven courses, so the above total is skewed. Any one of these courses could be used to meet a general education requirement for at least one course in life sciences. The range of individual responses was:
These data do not justify conclusions about national trends because they are derived from a rather small sampling universe. Nevertheless, they are tantalizing. Compared with a national profile, the University of Northern Iowa in 1983 was probably rather conservative politically and socially and overly Protestant in religious orientation—all factors which could have been expected to disproportionately favor scientific creationist and religious right social and political views. The extent to which students did not consistently conform to such stereotypes is quite notable.]
The research for this survey was supported in part by a grant from the University of Northern Iowa, which is gratefully acknowledged.
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.