Monday, June 9, 2014

Creationism, Evolution, and Statistics

In the Facebook discussion of my last post, a commenter claimed that belief in creationism seemed to be on the rise and I replied that I didn't think that was true based on recent surveys. One of these is a Gallup poll that has been taken since 1982. It proposes three options for human origins, and asks respondents which is closest to their beliefs.

(1) Human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided the process.

(2) Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in the process.

(3) God created human beings pretty much in their present form some time within the last 10,000 years or so.

The results are graphed in the image above, and you can click to enlarge it. Comparing 1982 with today we find the following:

1982: (1) 38%, (2) 9%, (3) 44%
Today: (1) 31%, (2) 19%, (3) 42%

So this shows a statistically insignificant drop in the number of creationists, a more significant drop in the "God guided evolution" camp, and a more than doubling of support for natural evolution. For reference, the United States is about 85% Christian. Adding (1) and (3) together, you get 82% for 1982 and 73% for today. So, in fact, this survey shows that pretty much all Christians fell into one of those two groups in 1982, whereas today perhaps as many as 10% of them don't believe God had any role in the evolution of human beings. That shows pretty clearly that the creationists are losing ground, albeit slowly.

Now here's what the survey doesn't say. If you don't believe in evolution at all, regardless of how old you believe the earth is you fall into category (3). In Christian publications I've seen this survey interpreted to mean that all the (3)'s are young-earthers, which I'm pretty sure is how Ken Ham took it when he built the Creation Museum. He was then surprised by the declining attendance after the first year, during which I'm convinced many people went just to see how awful it was.

In fact, many of the (3)'s likely agree with Pat Robertson and other popular evangelists who are creationists, but who accept that the earth is millions if not billions of years old and believe that the "days" of creation represent epochs or periods of time rather than literal days. The survey just doesn't distinguish between them and the young-earthers. This position is a little more understandable, simply because there's so much evidence refuting the young earth position at this point that accepting the Ussher chronology is just silly - even though Ham and company insist that if you don't, you're not a real Christian.

What I see happening in the media is that outside of the Ham cabal, creationism keeps trying to make itself "more scientific," by accepting various discoveries about the natural world but still insisting that "intelligent design" must be at work because the natural mutation rate is too slow to produce speciation. In fact, the final nail in the coffin of that idea is the recent discovery of epigenetic processes, in which so-called "junk DNA" can contain additional genetic sequences that can be triggered by environmental conditions, but that idea has yet to work its way through the culture at large.

So the survey that I would like to see is one that delves deeper into the exact beliefs of creationists. My working hypothesis is that since 1982 the number of creationists who accept some scientific facts has gone up. If so, that's clear evidence that science is winning out over superstition, not the other way around, just like the doubling of support for natural evolution over the course of the last 15 years. Part of this, according to the survey, is that younger people are less likely to support creationism, so some of the shift is demographic.

To be clear, I think it's possible to formulate a worldview that would fit category (1) without being blatantly unscientific. Contrary to creationist claims, the theory of evolution does not explicitly claim that mutations are random - as in perfectly distributed by chance and no other factors. In fact, it doesn't stipulate at all how mutations happen, it just points out that they do, and we know that the rate can affected by many environmental factors. To state that God has some unidentified role in causing mutations is essentially a "God of the gaps" model that doesn't contribute to scientific understanding, but such a conjecture is far more reasonable than one that directly contradicts physical evidence.

So for those of you concerned that creationism might be on the rise, I think you can rest assured that it is not. The mainstream media tends to focus on the extremes, which is why people like Ken Ham get a platform at all. 42% of Americans are certainly not convinced that Jesus rode dinosaurs.

Technorati Digg This Stumble Stumble

No comments: