Preposterous Universe

Sunday, November 21, 2004
On Hobbits and the Reality-Based Community

After a month of astonishing new findings about our hobbit cousins and early Americans and our most recent common ancestor with the Great Apes, Gallup has a new poll out on what Americans think about the "theory" of evolution. Here's the first question they asked:
Just your opinion, do you think that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution is [ROTATED: a scientific theory that has been well-supported by evidence, (or) just one of many theories and onethat has not been well-supported by evidence], or don't you know enough about it to say?
The answers have essentially been unchanged since they started asking this question 22 years ago : 35% believe it is supported my evidence, 35% believe it is not supported by evidence, and 29% don't know enough to say.

They asked a related question, for which the numbers are just as disturbing: Forty-five percent of Americans believe that God created man in his present form about 10,000 years ago, 38 percent think that man developed over time but God was guiding the whole thing, and a mere thirteen percent of us think God just had nothing to do with the thing.

And then one last question, of course on Biblical literalism: 34% of the country thinks that the Bible is the actual word of God and should be taken literally, 48% thinks its the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally, and just 15% think the Bible is an ancient book of "fables, legends, history, and moral precepts recorded by man".

Gallup then does a helpful breakdown of the correlation between these last two questions. A full 54% of the American population either believes that the bible is the literal word of God, or believes that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago (or both). We are really talking about much, much more than just evolution here. To me this indicates that a majority of Americans do not live in the "reality based" community. This is something to be deeply worried about, and not just because I think that knowing something about the origins of humanity and the planet and the cosmos are important questions. This is pure speculation, but I'm guessing this 54%, is highly correlated with the 44% of Americans that think, all evidence to the contrary, that things are going well for the US in Iraq (90% of whom voted for Bush). But let's break down the numbers a bit more...

Twenty-five percent of Americans are both biblical literalists and believe that humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago. These people think that the Grand Canyon was created in Noah's flood and that dinosaurs coexisted with humans. Really, we should just give up on these folks now. These are the same people who think God is currently in the White House.

Nine percent of Americans are biblical literalists but do not believe humans were created in present form 10,000 years ago. Presumably, these folks are either confused what the world literal means, or they have one of these "day is not really a day" arguments, and can deal with the timescale thing but still don't really buy the details of our current scientific understanding of evolution. For example, I once met a Jewish biblical literalist in an airport bar who thought evolution was all hooey but that the Big Bang was just fine because anything could have happened before Adam and Eve left the Garden of Eden -- it was a place where time had no meaning (sort of like the answer I give when people ask "What was before the Big Bang?")

More interesting, however, are the 20% of the population that are not biblical literalists, but still believe that humans were created in their present form 10,000 years ago. And, we don't get the detailed breakdown, but Gallup tells us that most of these people are 18-to-29 year olds.

Clearly scientific education in this country is desparately failing us. And this is relevant to policy. It's not just scientific understanding here that I'm concerned about. The most disturbing thing, out of all of the many disturbing things that this administration has done in the past 4 years, has been their consistent demonstration that they are not interested in empirical reality. From that same NYT Magazine Suskind article, there's a quote from Christy Todd Whitman saying ''In meetings, I'd ask if there were any facts to support our case. And for that, I was accused of disloyalty!'' But why should they be interested in it? The basic belief of the "reality-based" community, that "solutions emerge from... judicious study of discernible reality" seems not to be shared by a large fraction of Americans. If most Americans don't accept science as the best way to explain the origin of the universe and life, it's not clear why we should expect them to be convinced by scientific studies that show abstinence-only education is not effective in preventing unwanted pregnancies and abortions, or even why we should expect them to be interested in empirical evidence about whether tax cuts for the rich help stimulate the economy or in empirical evidence about whether torturing people helps our security.

To do something to change the minds of that 20% on evolution, we should pay attention to the fact that people who believe dinosaurs still roam the earth keep running people for school boards, and we'd better oppose them. But that's really only the tip of the problem.

UPDATE: Just noticed that Chris Bowers at mydd.com has commented on the same thing, with a very helpful chart comparing American's belief in biblical literalism and evolution with other countries (Hint: Western Europe seems to be doing better with the whole embrace of modernity thing).

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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