Every time I see a new national survey about evolution, I cringe. Hell, there are so many of the things that you can cite just about any percentage, it seems, and there will be some poll to back you up. The latest, which came to my attention through Pharyngula and Stranger Fruit, suggests that that more Americans think evolution is wrong than think it is accurate (the term “percent” doesn’t seem to be used on the page, so I’m tentative about saying that 66% of Americans are YEC’s). Of further interest is that most people surveyed seemed to say the issue of evolution/creationism isn’t important to the current presidential race, and that reflects the reaction of many people I’ve spoken to on the topic, the most usual reaction I hear being “Who cares? Why is it important?”
But can we really say this poll speaks for all Americans? There are so many, and I given the information supplied on the USA Today/Gallop Poll website, I don’t think this one tells us anything significant at all. According to the website, the number of U.S. adult (people aged 18 and up) polled was 1,007, a pretty paltry number for a survey, especially if people are going to claim it speaks for the whole nation. Driving on Rt 1 to work every day I probably pass 1,007 people, but let’s put that number in proper perspective.
According to the U.S. Cenus population projection for 2005 (I’m trying to be conservative in the estimate, although you could try the same simple calculation with the 2010 estimates), there should be approximately 221,868,077 people over 18 in the United States at the moment, a pretty big number if you ask me. In fact, if you quickly do the division, the national population of people over 18 is 220,325.8 times larger than the survey sample size, so it would be pretty foolish to think that such a minuscule and superficial survey spoke for everyone.
Over the past few weeks especially, I’ve run into plenty of people who’ve never seriously considered evolution because they don’t know anything about it or never followed up on creationist claims they heard at church; their intuition is their “default setting” but if you engage them about evolution and science, they are interested. I don’t have a poll of my own to back this up, but I suspect that there are plenty of people who just don’t know enough about evolution that they default to creationism or intelligent design because it’s what’s comfortable and not-in-conflict with their beliefs. There are a lot of people who do take creationism seriously and are very adamant about their beliefs on the matter, but if we’re to base our entire reaction to creationism based upon misleading surveys spat out by crappy newspapers, we’re not too smart. Not only do we need to combat creationism, but we need to work to make sure evolution is being taught effectively and accurately in schools around the country, and I can’t help but wonder if part of the current “creationist crisis” stems from our failure on this issue. For more on the topic of effective evolution education, check out this post from Chris Harrison (who is now a big-time science reviewer, congratulations Chris!)