Zogby Poll: Most Americans Want Strengths and Weaknesses of Darwinism Taught In Schools

Christopher Neefus | July 6, 2009 | 7:23pm EDT
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Charles Darwin (AP photo of portrait)

(CNSNews.com) - A Zogby poll commissioned by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute says more than three-quarters of Americans would like teachers to have the freedom to discuss both the strengths and weaknesses of Darwinian evolution, with an even higher number reported among Democrats.
According to the report, which was commissioned by the Discovery Institute Center for Science and Culture, respondents were given the two following statements:
Statement A: “Biology teachers should teach only Darwin’s theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.”
Statement B: “Biology teachers should teach Darwin’s theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.”
Of those surveyed, 78 percent said Statement B came closest to their own point of view on the issue, representing a 9 percent increase over 2006, the last time the question was asked.
More striking, though, was the finding that 82 percent of Democrats also chose statement B, versus 73 percent of Republicans.
Self-identified liberals showed stronger support than self-identified conservatives, 86 percent to 72 percent. Those who did not identify with any Christian or Jewish denominations supported teaching evidence against Darwinian evolution at a level of 82 percent.
When young adults age 18-24 were posed with the same choice, the poll said no respondents -- 0 percent -- thought only Darwinism and its supporting evidence should be taught.
Another question, asked in the same poll but released separately, showed a corresponding skepticism of pure natural selection as the basis of human evolution.
Respondents were asked whether they believed “the development of life came about through an unguided process of random mutations and natural selection” or “the development of life was guided by intelligent design.”
A slim majority, 52 percent, said they believed intelligent design played a role in evolution, but only 33 percent alternatively believed evolution was an unguided process. 8 percent were unsure and 7 percent chose “Other.”
Dr. John West, associate director of the Center for Science and Culture, said the findings contradict the prevailing notion that “a small group of the uneducated” – as critics charge -- drove skepticism over Darwin’s theory.
“Media reports insinuate that a right-wing conspiracy of know-nothings and religious-extremists is afoot,” he said. “But the new Zogby poll represents a broad-based and well-informed public consensus for academic freedom on evolution. The Darwin lobby has isolated itself from public opinion.”
But Glenn Branch, deputy director of the National Center for Science Education (NCSE), told CNSNews.com the poll was “meaningless” because the phrasing of the questions skewed the results.
Branch said asking whether or not respondents believe all evidence should be taught puts them in the position of being for or against freedom of information.
“(I)f you commission someone to do a poll asking whether we should teach the evidence for and the evidence against heliocentrism, they’d say yes, too,” he argued, “even though it’s scientifically established that the Earth goes around the sun, rather than the other way around.
“The very terms of the question presuppose that there is credible scientific evidence against evolution, which there isn’t,” he said.
Branch also said the poll muddles the distinction between “evidence against” Darwin’s theory of evolution and “intelligent design.”
The second question “presupposes that evolution is incompatible with guidance by a divine being,” Branch alleged, pointing out that many scientists accept Darwin’s theory and believe in God.
“There are plenty of people [who believe both],  including for example, Kenneth Miller, who is a biologist and also the coauthor of one of the most widely used high school biology text books in the United States,” he said.
In a 2005 Gallup survey, 52 percent said they were “not too familiar” or “not familiar at all” with the term “intelligent design.”
Similarly, a 1999 FOX News poll found 26 percent of respondents said both the Bible’s account of creation and Darwin’s theory of evolution, conflicting ideas, were accurate. 
In the Gallup poll, only 35 percent disagreed with the notion that evolution should be presented as the most convincing theory for how humans developed.
Chris Mooney of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry has criticized Zogby polling methodology in the past, agreeing that their wording accounts for the disparity in their poll numbers.
“The answer to the first question is a no-brainer for anyone who believes in open-mindedness, no matter what they think about evolution,” he said. “Sure enough, Zogby-Intelligent Design polls have shown overwhelming support for option B.”
As for general polling on the subject of evolution, Mooney says steps need to be taken to clear the confusion, and Americans need to be better educated on these terms.
“Taken as a whole, polls about evolution certainly do suggest that we need much better science education in this country,” he said, and “Americans need to understand the difference between evolution and its pseudoscientific rivals.”
But John Zogby, president and CEO of Zogby International, defended his poll, saying that he wasn’t polling people about pseudoscience.
“[W]e’re polling people’s perceptions and attitudes, not their level of knowledge,” Zogby told CNSNews.com.
“I know that one might quibble with the scientific evidence against Darwin’s theory . . . but the fact of the matter is, in terms of the public response to the way this question was asked, the public just says, ‘If there is scientific evidence against it, it should be taught.’ It doesn’t make a premise, it doesn’t lead, it is statement A vs. statement B.”
He pointed out that problems with the fossil record – what he called the “Cambrian explosion” and current studies on the mutations of bacteria pose purely scientific challenges to the natural selection explanation at the root of Darwinian evolutionary theory – and have nothing to do with creationism.
West also denied that intelligent design factored into the question about science curricula.
“We don’t advocate requiring people to learn about intelligent design,” he said.
“[W]e don’t favor mandating it, although we think teachers should be free to discuss it.”
West told CNSNews.com this year was the first time Discovery and Zogby had asked the intelligent design question, so he could not say whether the results corresponded to a desire for it to be taught in classrooms.
“What we do know is there was a nine point jump in people who thought you should teach both sides and a corresponding six or seven point drop in the minority who thought you should just teach one side,” he said.
“I think we certainly have been seeing more openness on the part of the general public to wanting to get all the evidence.”
In a press release distributed with the poll West said, “There seems to be a backlash against the strong-arm tactics that have been used in recent years to censor and intimidate scientists, teachers, and students who raise criticisms of Darwin.”
With regard to the 52 percent of respondents who said they subscribed to the perhaps-confusing intelligent design concept, Zogby said, “I think more today know about [intelligent design] than two years ago,” and “folks need to understand there’s a lot of conservatives in this country.”

The Zogby poll, conducted in January among 1,053 people, has a margin of errors of plus or minus 3.1 percent. 
The new poll was conducted ahead of the 150th anniversary this November of the publication of Darwin’s seminal book, On the Origin of Species. The book outlined the scientist’s theory about natural selection as the engine of biological evolution.
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