Saturday, February 20, 2010

Evolution Deniers Skew Poll Numbers

A recent survey reported in Science and Religion Today shows that more than half, 51 percent, of Texans do not believe that humans evolved from more primitive animal species. A full 38 percent believe that humans have existed in their present form since their creation by God less than 10,000 years ago. The Texas poll is fairly reflective of the country as a whole, unfortunately.

I don’t know for sure because I doubt that there have been any polls to measure it, but I would presume that if asked a similar question about people’s belief in other equally-well-documented scientific theories such as gravity or relativity a much higher percentage would have no trouble believing them. Most people know very little about the theory of relativity, but they know it was developed by Einstein, and that probably convinces them of its validity.

More to the point, the theory of relativity does not directly conflict with any particular story of the bible. The theory of evolution, on the other hand, runs completely counter to the claims made in the first and second chapters of Genesis. To most mainstream Christian clergy, those Creation stories are just that, stories. But to religious conservatives and evangelicals, the stories in Genesis are gospel (if not Gospel).

But only about 20 percent of people in America claim to be evangelical Christians. (That’s 20 percent too many in my opinion.) So how can the minority turn into a majority opinion in most polls of the kind taken in Texas?

I’ve puzzled over that question almost ad nauseum and I’ve decided the answer is multifaceted. First of all, let’s remove those who are truly the fundamentalist evangelicals, because no one is going to be able to figure them out. Focusing on the remainder of the 50 percent who do not accept the truth of evolution, one can surmise that the vast majority of them do not understand much at all about the science of evolution. Very few of those who actually understand it in any detail would have little trouble accepting it as fact.

So for these people, he who speaks loudest speaks the truth. And evangelical Christians speak louder than anyone. I hold out some hope that most evolution deniers are simply the ignorant fence sitters who have been convinced by the conservatives. If that is the case, a little education might bring them back to reality.

Another reason many people are loathe to accept the theory of evolution is due to the discomfort factor. Even those who know a little more than the average Joe about evolution might be put off by its claim that humans are merely another species of animal that has evolved from a common ancestor with other species of animals.

We are humans. We are supposed to be above the fray. We are intelligent. We invented Facebook for heaven’s sake. We can’t actually be related to the animals, can we?

Psychologists would say people like this are in denial. Maybe, down deep, they know the truth. But maybe they are afraid of the truth. Maybe the truth is so uncomfortable for them that they refuse to believe it out loud. They answer “no” to a poll question about a belief in evolution, but deep in the recesses of their minds, they sort of know it’s true.

People don’t want to believe that we are cousins of baboons and distant relatives of fish. So they become deniers.

But a disbelief in a fact merely because believing it would tend to make us very uncomfortable does not disprove the fact itself. Just as believing doesn’t make it so, disbelieving doesn’t disprove it. It takes unbiased scientific evidence to prove something or to disprove it. Evolution has as much evidence behind it as does the theory of gravity. Simply denying that truth does not turn it into a lie.

No comments: