Loading a Survey

Chris Mooney argues at the Intersection that the range of options in the BBC’s sur­vey on cre­ation­ism may have skewed the res­ults away from a pro-evolution stance. This reminds me of another sur­vey I was going to write about which I found on What the Nation Thinks? The ques­tion is simple:

This dates from July 2003 and given that there wasn’t a lib­eral gov­ern­ment in the USA, I’m not sure what it was that the lib­er­als were going too far with. Anyhow it’s prob­ably not dif­fi­cult to guess the polit­ical lean­ings of the author, nor what res­ult they wanted. The options make it even easier to see how this is skewed.

  • Yes, Way Too Far
  • Somewhat, They need to calm them­selves down
  • No, they are fine

The res­ult? The win­ner is No, they are fine on 48%. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that means 52% were anti-liberal, but by offer­ing two options to the anti-liberals the vote was split. A simple Yes/No would have con­sol­id­ated the con­ser­vat­ive major­ity. So what about this evol­u­tion poll?

Creationism 22%
Intelligent Design 17%
Evolution 48%
Don’t Know 13%

Two anti-science options and one pro-science. I think if the Creationist and ID res­ults had been com­bined (as Chris says ID is cre­ation­ism), then the res­ult is 48% vs. 39% which is per­haps more alarm­ing. I do won­der about the large Don’t Know group. Creationism and Intelligent Design are not com­monly debated top­ics in the UK bey­ond a “look at those wacky Americans” kind of way. Many people may have chosen Don’t Know because they don’t accept evol­u­tion but don’t know what the inter­viewer means by Creationism or Intelligent Design. Creationism flour­ishes in ignor­ance in a way that evol­u­tion does not.

A bet­ter ques­tion would be “Do you think God should be taught as hav­ing a major rôle in the ori­gin of spe­cies?” Yes / No. I think that ques­tion is in lan­guage the aver­age Briton can relate to. It also tackles the cent­ral prob­lem that cre­ation­ism poses to sci­ence, the insist­ence on accept­ing the super­nat­ural, unob­serv­able and untest­able as a ser­i­ous sci­entific answer.

As for the teach­ing of cre­ation­ism in British schools I think there’s a mis­un­der­stand­ing of cul­ture in some of the American blogs. I grew up in a vil­lage where there was a Church of England school and a Catholic school. I went to the school in the next vil­lage which was a sec­u­lar school. This meant that the local vicar only came in to preach at us a couple of times a week rather than on a daily basis. In the UK there is no sep­ar­a­tion of church and state. Furthermore state schools have to provide an act of wor­ship on a daily basis by law. I’ve got to admit I can’t recall that hap­pen­ing at sec­ond­ary school, but at primary school there were daily prayers.

This is gen­er­ally tol­er­ated, at least in England, because of the atti­tude of the English to the Church of England, which is a church for people who want the cere­mony and pomp of reli­gion but don’t want to have to go to the effort of believ­ing in God. There are people who attend on a weekly basis, but if they’re not the vicar then they’re con­sidered a bit odd. So the vicar is wel­come to preach to kids at school about the import­ance of being kind to old ladies and wash­ing behind the ears, so long as he doesn’t get too car­ried away with the whole belief thing. It would be con­sidered bad form if the vicar were par­tic­u­larly earn­est in try­ing to con­vert chil­dren to Christianity. This might sound pecu­liar, but there is a stigma in being seen to take reli­gion (or any­thing) too ser­i­ously. Hence the per­fectly con­sist­ent view of the former Bishop of Durham that the whole “second com­ing” thing isn’t really true.

When people say they’d like cre­ation­ism taught in school it is far from clear they would like it taught as sci­ence, nor that they would like it taught in detail. It could just be a case of giv­ing nod towards God as thanks for cre­at­ing the flowers or the nice bits of nature. I ima­gine con­sid­er­ably fewer people would like to see God dragged into some­thing like a cow’s anus.


When he's not tired, ill or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.