Last week, an opinion poll supposedly showing relatively low levels of public belief in Darwin’s theory of evolution did the media rounds. Typical was this write-up from the Daily Telegraph:
Poll reveals public doubts over Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution
Belief in creationism is widespread in Britain, according to a new survey.
Having heard some more coverage of the poll this morning, I thought I’d take a look at what the poll actually said. It was conducted by ComRes, a reputable polling firm (and, regularly readers of my posts about BPIX will be glad to hear, a member of the British Polling Council).
However, these were the questions:
Question / Definitely or probably true
1: Young Earth Creationism – the idea that God created the world sometime in the last 10,000 years. 32%
2: Theistic evolution – the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth. 44%
3: Atheistic evolution – the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd. 34%
4: Intelligent Design – the idea that evolution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages. 51%
(Source: Open Parachute)
It’s worth reading those options in some detail. Take number 3, for example. It most closely matches my view, but I don’t think believing in evolution requires you to think the idea of God is absurd. I know plenty of people who both believe in evolution and God and justify that combination with detailed, well thought out arguments. Whether or not you agree with them isn’t really the point; the poll requires you to believe that such views are not just wrong but “absurd” in order to really pick option 3. By lumping together a premise and a conclusion that doesn’t have to follow, the question is worded in a way that artifically depresses the number of people saying yes.
Similarly, look at the wording of number 4. It presents one side of the argument, but not the other. It’s a well-established feature of polling that if you put only one side of the case in a question, especially on an issue which isn’t normally at the forefront of people’s minds, you distort the results.
So what’s the truth? The answer is, we don’t know. But there are enough doubts about how the poll was worded to be sure that the way it has been reported in the media is deeply misleading.
What is all too depressingly familiar though is the chain of events – group with a particular view commissions poll with loaded question that produces headlines which mainstream media report without questioning the details.