Attitudes about Evolution

Are 38% of Americans creationists?

According to a recent Gallup poll, 38% of Americans believe that humans were created in their present form within the last 10,000 years. But our best current science tells us thatmarine iguana evolution is as well established as the germ theory of disease. What explains this discrepancy?

We think that part of the issue is that Gallup’s simple multiple-choice question on the origin of life does not capture an accurate picture of the U.S. public’s opinion. Using a demographically representative national sample and psychologically sophisticated surveys, we have been probing people’s knowledge and acceptance of various tenets of evolutionary theory in a richer way. The goal of these surveys is to determine which elements of evolutionary theory people understand and which elements they accept. We are also measuring the extent to which people understand how science works, to see whether a greater appreciation for the process of science might relate to acceptance of evolution.

So, are 38% of Americans really creationists?

Our work suggests that the answer is “no”. We find that only 26% of our representative sample agrees with our creationist option, when we ask about the origins of plants and animals and provide two different options for how God might have been involved in evolution. But when we ask about the origins of humans, we find that 36% of participants were creationist, suggesting that it really matters how the question is asked.

We are also finding that people’s knowledge of the theory of evolution is crucial to their acceptance of this theory. Participants who know more about the theory are more likely to accept evolution — even when taking their religious and political views into account. More importantly, we find that people who have a more sophisticated understanding about the nature and practice of science are more likely to share scientists’ views on evolution and on other publicly controversial scientific issues, like climate change. These results provide reasons for optimism that we might be able to change public opinion about science through carefully designed educational interventions.

To read more about this project, see this article from Penn Today.