Reasons to doubt that Darwin poll

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.

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11 Comments

  • I’d point to a more glaring problem with that survey — Someone cannot add up.

    32% + 44% + 34% + 51% = 161%

    Add up 2 and 3 to get 78% and therefore (given the nature of percentages) the correct value must be that 22% of the population do not believe in evolution.

    Of course you could add up 1 and 4 and get 83% don’t believe in evolution.

    Of course the survey also suggests that 34% of the population are atheists, and therefore having faith schools and an established church is unconscionable.

    Alternatively you could add up 1,2 and 4 and show that 127% of the population are religious. How does that work exactly?

    By what measure is this survey company considered “reputable” if it cannot even add up?

  • “the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth.”

    If that was the question its almost completely scientifically illiterate as evolution doesn’t offer much of an explanation for the creation of life, only how it developed subsequently.

    Often atheism links support for evolution as proof for the non-existence of God. If they take that viewpoint then they are in effect saying that there is some scientific explanation for the creation of life (which has a number of problems on our current understanding).

    That may or may not come to be seen to be the case – however the belief that there will be a rational explanation is just as much of a faith as a belief in God.

  • The other problem I’ve seen is that polls of this kind suggest that evolution alone explains life on this planet. It doesn’t, and no reputable scientist would claim it did.

    Evolution is a theory for how we get from simple forms of life to complex forms of life. How simple forms of life arise is another question entirely, and one for which there are several scientific theories floating around…

  • “Evolution easily explains the development of simple self-replicating chemicals right up to humans – most scientists agree that.”

    I’d dispute that it does but my scientific knowledge of that area is limited and far from cutting edge. I thought there were a number of problems concerned with the creation of proteins from a solution of aminio acids – AIUI the laws of chemistry make amino acids spontaneously forming links unlikely in
    such a circumstance. Why that happened once but not any more is a bit odd to say the least

    There’s also the chicken & egg situation of DNA needing proteins to be created but how do you get the proteins without DNA

    But even if that is correct it doesn’t explain the origin of those “simple self replicating chemicals”

  • Andrew Waller, City of York 11th Feb '09 - 5:27pm

    I don’t often comment on these issues, but I am grateful for Mark raising the point that option 3 is so heavily loaded. I happen to support the view that evolution is right, but I do also believe that the universe is probably 13 billion years old. However, I am also happy to attend church the Sundays when council business does not prevent me. It is depressing to see further attempts to polarise debate with an increasingly dogmatic side of religion.
    From my physics training I’ve always found Quantum Mechanics and relativity as hard to take at face value – but so are verious texts from the New Testament.

  • There’s also the chicken & egg situation of DNA needing proteins to be created but how do you get the proteins without DNA

    There’s a significant hypothesis that suggests early life didn’t have DNA. It’s believed that RNA came first, mostly because DNA is generally a pretty weak and unstable compound (environmentally, not chemically), whereas RNA is considerably more hardy and considerably more likely to have survived the conditions on Earth 4 billion years ago; it’s also simpler. It’s rather versatile, being both able to act as a catalyst and enzyme and able to code for proteins; answering your question.

    Actually in eukaryotic cells protein formation happens in the ribosomes and the principle actors are rRNA, mRNA and tRNA. (ribosomal, messenger and transfer RNA respectively).

    RNA carries the genetic code for many viruses (others use DNA), organisms so simple that scientists are still divided as to whether they actually qualify as life forms or not. Could viruses have pre-dated bacteria and arachea?

    It’s been show in laboratory experiments that short RNA chains can combine and become self replicating, given time and the right conditions that can lead to DNA. In fact, retro viruses (like HIV) actually work using reverse transcription, that is they use enzymes to transcode their RNA code into DNA code in the infected cell, rewriting the host DNA. They are also used in genetic engineering for the same reason, allowing biologists to splice new genes into existing cells.

    Gene transfer, the ability to directly change or absorb the DNA of another organism, explains why some bacteria and viruses are able to so quickly evolve defences against our drugs. A lot of early evolution is thought to have happened that way, long before sexual reproduction came along.

    The spontaneous formation of complex compounds (amino acids) from simple chemicals has been demonstrated in the lab (Miller-Urey, 1960s). Although their model of the Earth is now outdated, the general hypothesis is still sound.

    It’s possible to get from amino acid to proteinoids (protein-like chemicals) simply by heating solutions of amino-acids, and given thermal vents or underwater volcanoes, heat was readily available.

    Another hypothesis is formation of complex molecules by using mineral (crystal) anchors where chemicals sit, bonding with passing chemicals in the water/primordial-soup and slowly building up into complex chains.

    And there are many more plausible hypotheses. The trick is determining which one is right. It might even be that it’s a combination of many of them, possibly reinforcing each other.

    The wikipedia article on abiogenesis is a good place to start if you want to learn more about it.

    No matter how unlikely something is to happen, for life to form on Earth it only has to happen once. Once, in billions of years, with billions of chemical reactions every single hour of those years.

    The “faith” involved in believing that we’ll eventually get a rational explanation is the same “faith” that you have that the plane you are about to get on won’t crash. It’s based on evidence of past experience and a better word to use would be trust or confidence.

    This makes it very notably different to religious faith, which makes a virtue of belief in the absence of evidence.

  • Martin’s excellent post has saved me the trouble of making this point – instead I may simply repeat the most important part, and strongly second it:

    “The “faith” involved in believing that we’ll eventually get a rational explanation is the same “faith” that you have that the plane you are about to get on won’t crash. It’s based on evidence of past experience and a better word to use would be trust or confidence.

    This makes it very notably different to religious faith, which makes a virtue of belief in the absence of evidence.”

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