Nearly three-quarters of a century after science teacher John Scopes was found guilty of breaking Tennessee law for teaching evolution, most Americans have a strong opinion about what should be taught in America’s science classes. In a new nationwide poll on the subject, conducted by DYG, Inc., the polling firm headed by Daniel Yankelovich, and commissioned by People For the American Way Foundation, 83% of Americans say Darwin’s theory of evolution belongs in the nation’s science classes.
While the public dispute is most often portrayed as an “either-or” choice – evolution vs. creation – most Americans don’t see it that way, the poll shows. About 70% of Americans don’t see any conflict at all between the two explanations for how life came to be. The majority of the public clearly does not buy the notion put forward by the creationists that you must choose between the Bible and evolution.
Most Americans see evolution as scientific theory and creation as a matter of belief, and believe that the two are not mutually exclusive. While they want schools to acknowledge that many people have religious beliefs concerning the beginning of life, they do not want evolution to be replaced by creationism, nor do they want the two taught side-by-side as equal but competing scientific theories. “To put it simply, this poll shows that most Americans believe that God created evolution,” said Ralph G. Neas, President of People For the American Way Foundation (PFAWF), which commissioned the poll in the wake of public outcry over last year’s decision by the Kansas Board of Education to drop evolution from its statewide science standards.
Unlike previous polls that touch on the dispute over evolution vs. creationism, this one focused exclusively on this topic, producing an in-depth, nationwide look, for the first time, at how Americans see both subjects and how they want schools to handle them. Many Americans say schools should teach about creationism, but only a small fraction (less than 3 in 10) want it to be taught about in science class as science, either alongside evolution (13%) or exclusively, in its place (16%).
“Earlier polls have really only scratched the surface of this very complex and nuanced issue,” said Daniel Yankelovich, president of the polling firm DYG, Inc. “Three or four survey items are not enough to understand how the public really thinks about evolution and creationism in the classroom. We developed an entire, comprehensive survey to exploring the numerous and critically important facets involved in public opinion on this issue.”
Among the majority of Americans favoring evolution, 20% say schools should teach only evolution, with no mention of creationism; 17% say schools should teach only evolution in science class, but would permit religious explanations for the origins of humankind to be covered in another, non-science class; and 29% would allow creationism to be discussed along with evolution in science class, but it should be made clear that evolution is scientific theory while creationism is a belief, not science.
The public is clearly not supportive of attempts by a small, extreme minority to force their religious beliefs into science classrooms either as “Creation Science, ” (which almost half of Americans have never heard of) or by stripping the teaching of evolution from the curriculum. The poll shows that the majority of Americans (60%) reject the Kansas Board of Education’s 1999 decision to delete Evolution from its state science standards.
“One of the most remarkable things this poll shows us is that, with this kind of broad public support, there shouldn’t be any controversy at all about teaching evolution,” said Neas. “The fact that there is a debate shows us how effective a very small but very vocal group has been in imposing their views on our schools.”
“The poll should also be a warning to public officials and schools,” Neas continued. “If they cave in to pressure to eliminate evolution or to force creationism into the science classroom, they will be acting against the views and wishes of most Americans.”
The polling was carried out by DYG, Inc., the opinion research firm founded and still headed by Daniel Yankelovich and Madelyn Hochstein. PFAWF’s purpose in commissioning the poll was to inform the public debate over the issue by letting the American people’s views be known and understood.
“In all the media debate over the Kansas Board’s decision to drop evolution, the one missing ingredient was what the people thought,” said Neas. “We conducted this poll to complete the picture.” Evolution vs. creation is a perennial hot topic, one that is sure to heat up in Kansas again with state education board elections on the horizon and half of the seats up for grabs. Recent disputes over a textbook disclaimer in Oklahoma and a charter school that wanted to teach creationism in Rochester, NY, are just a few recent examples of the perpetually simmering debate started when Charles Darwin published his revolutionary theory a century and a half ago. When it comes to how schools should handle what has been portrayed as a conflict between evolution and creation, the public agrees on a number of basic principles, although they haven’t formulated a detailed idea of precisely how schools can resolve the matter in practice. There is broad agreement that schools should acknowledge that some people have creationist beliefs and even teach about those beliefs – but not as science. There is also a strong consensus not only that schools should teach evolution, but that how they handle the subject along with creationist beliefs should be a matter of national policy, not just a local matter to be decided by each state or school district.
The poll results also suggest that, while the public is overwhelmingly supportive of teaching evolution, their knowledge is quite limited about the details of evolutionary theory, pointing to a need for greater efforts to inform and educate the public about evolution. At today’s news conference in Washington, PFAWF announced that it has begun planning such a campaign to coincide with the 75th Anniversary this year of the Scopes Trial.
The full 53-page report on the polling results released today can be downloaded from the web at: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/education/creationism-poll.pdf.
Also available is PFAWF’s special report on the evolution-creationism controversy, “Sabotaging Science: Creationist Strategy in the ’90s”: http://www.pfaw.org/issues/education/creationist-strategy.pdf.
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