"Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please." (Mark Twain)

Tuesday, August 23, 2005


Both Matt Yglesias and Mark A.R. Kleiman have pointed to this Harris Poll showing that the general public is bullish on ignorance:
"Regardless of what you may personally believe, which of these do you believe should be taught in public schools?"

Evolution only - 12%
Creationism only - 23%
Intelligent design only - 4%
All three - 55%
None of these - 3%
Unsure - 3%

...and let me just say, before I go on, that I am especially fond of the 3% who answered "none of these three," because while they are perhaps the least rational humans on the planet, they are at least utterly honest about their total hostility to any sort of highfallutin' book learnin' of any kind. That's refreshing.

More troubling is the substantial majority who are completely confused, and think that evolution and creationism and "intelligent [sic] design" ought to be in the curriculum. These are the people who would have been better served if the pollsters had provided a sixth option - "I have no idea what you're talking about and, more to the point, I don't care."

Matt and Mark seem to think (if I may be so bold as to speak on their behalf) that the existence of this 55% implies, on purely political grounds, that those of us in the reality-based community ought to just let this issue fade away (Kleiman: "Calling the majority fundamentalist boobs may be fun, but it's not helpful and, incidentially, not true. So let's practice a little bit of multicultural understanding, shall we?"). And, indeed, Yglesias provides a bit of sobering perspective: "But it's not such a great idea to mock a guy who has 55 percent of the public on his side when you have only 12 percent on yours. The evolution-only view is less popular than gay marriage, less popular than the abolition of the death penalty, and generally speaking one of the very least popular liberal cultural causes."

It is, however, the only intellectually defensible position.

The problem is, when one looks at the context in which these numbers arise, the situation is even worse than it appears on the already-ugly surface. Consider:
"Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not?"
Did 38%
Did not 54%
Unsure 8%

"Do you believe all plants and animals have evolved from other species or not?"
Have 49%
Have not 45%
Unsure 7%

"Do you believe apes and man have a common ancestry or not?"
Did 46%
Did not 47%
Unsure 7%

"Which of the following do you believe about how human beings came to be? Human beings evolved from earlier species. Human beings were created directly by God. Human beings are so complex that they required a powerful force or intelligent being to help create them."
Evolved From Earlier Species 22%
Created Directly by God 64%
Powerful Force/Intelligent Being 10%
Unsure 4%

And so, while nearly half of all respondents (49%) agree that all plants and animals evolved from other species, and nearly as many (46%) agree that man and apes have a common ancestor, a much smaller number agree that man evolved from an earlier species. This makes no sense at all - if all animals evolved from an earlier species, and apes are animals, and man and apes share a common ancestry, then humans must be evolved from an earlier species, no? Worse yet, the number of respondents who answered that man evolved from an earlier species varies from a pathetic 38% to a mind-numbing 22% within the same poll! Sixteen per cent of the respondents couldn't even give the same answer twice!

Clearly, people simply aren't thinking rationally about this stuff. In the long run, the obvious solution is better science education (I'm no fan of "No Child Left Behind"-mandated testing, but if there is going to be such testing it seems that a successful test subject ought to be able, at minimum, to define a "theory"). But in the short run, I can't defend the willful tolerance of ignorance. Look, I understand the need for political pragmatism, but I refuse to recognize the benefit of pandering to a population that can't even remember the answer they gave five minutes earlier. This is ridiculous. I wouldn't necessarily suggest that any candidate make this a major campaign issue, but it's simply unconscionable to suggest that we should ignore reality and pretend like it's okay for students to avoid unpopular, but well-supported, truths.

The "Jesus made me; this I know, 'cause the Bible tells me so" crowd is wont to cry "elitist!" whenever anyone suggests that scientific reality is in some way objectively superior to their mythology. Maybe so. But I'll tell you what I think is elitist - writing off half of the population as being too stupid to grasp the truth if it is presented to them in a cogent, coherent manner. Science education in this country sucks, and it's not getting any better (look at the Harris poll numbers, and notice how much more ignorant we've become as a nation since the same questions were first presented, 11 years earlier). It's well past time to correct this outrage, and playing politics with objective reality is not helpful.




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