October 29, 2003

Those Annoying Discovery Polls


By Mark Hartwig

It looks like the Darwinist camp has had a hard time responding to a series of polls commissioned by the Seattle-based Discovery Institute, the leading organization of the intelligent design movement.

The polls, including a national poll in 2001 and several state polls in 2002 and 2003, have shown overwhelming support for teaching evidence both for and against Darwin’s theory of evolution in public school classrooms. They have also shown overwhelming support for teaching scientific alternatives to Darwinism, including intelligent design.

Until recently, Darwinists have responded to these results with variants of the same tired formula: “Science is not a democratic institution. We don't make decisions on popularity, we make them on evidence.” “Science is not determined by polls.” And so on.

Such responses tacitly concede the validity of the polls while offering an irrelevant reply. In my 18+ years of being in the design movement, I have yet to come across anybody who believes science should rest on popularity rather than evidence. But I have come across plenty of people who know that important evidence, documented in peer-reviewed journals, is not making it into public school science classrooms—or textbooks. And they believe it should.

So do an increasing number of scientists (over 300 so far), who have signed a public statement saying, “We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.”

Obviously, not everybody is as knowledgeable as scientists and veteran members of the ID community, but most of them sense that something is wrong with evolution education, and they want it corrected. And they won’t be satisfied by those who sniff that “science is not determined by polls.”

A more recent response to the Discovery polls has come from Chris Mooney, an online columnist for Skeptical Inquirer. In a couple of recent articles, “John Zogby's Creative Polls” and “Polling for ID” he takes on the polls themselves, as well as the organization that conducted them, Zogby International.

The articles are kind of a grab bag of objections, including a “howler” he claims to have found in the Discovery Institute’s math. [1] But most of his ire centers on the poll questions themselves, which he thinks are underhanded and take advantage of the public’s malleability when it comes to taking polls.

Now, of course, there’s every good reason to be careful about when wording items for a survey. As one who made a living partly by designing and analyzing surveys, I can attest how easily one’s wording can be misconstrued, sometimes with hilarious results, and lead to a wrong response. And, accidents aside, it’s also possible to ask deliberately slanted questions to get the answers you want.

So what were the questions that drew Mooney’s ire? One was a question from an August 2001 Zogby poll, which asked:

Do you strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, or strongly disagree with the following statement: 'When Darwin's theory of evolution is taught in schools, students should also be able to learn about scientific evidence that points to an intelligent design of life.'

Mooney notes that the 78 percent of the respondents agreed with the statement, 53 percent of them strongly agreeing. He acknowledges that this sounds like an innocuous question: “who could object to scientific evidence?” (Emphasis in original.)

But then comes the objection: “But how many respondents grasped that ‘intelligent design of life’ is used as a synonym for divine creation? Also, as Eugenie C. Scott of the National Center for Science Education points out, the premise that scientific evidence supporting ID actually exists is a highly dubious one. The American Association for the Advancement of Science has specifically stated that ID is not science.”

In other words, because the National Center for Science Education (actually a watchdog group dedicated to “defending the teaching of evolution in the public schools”) and a resolution by the AAAS board of directors both say that intelligent design is not science, the survey question is a subterfuge.

As it turns out, leaning on the AAAS board resolution is particularly questionable. The Discovery Institute’s John West reports that after the AAAS board issued its statement, “I surveyed every member of the Board about what specific articles or books they had actually read about ID. Four members of the Board responded. Three of them couldn't or wouldn't identify anything they had read by ID proponents, while another one said she read (unspecified) articles on the internet. It's apparent that the Board condemned ID without even reading any academic articles by its proponents.”

Let the buyer beware.

Mooney followed his same line of reasoning in objecting to another question:

Which of the following comes closest to your own opinion?
A: Biology teachers should teach only Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific evidence that supports it.
B: Biology teachers should teach Darwin's theory of evolution, but also the scientific evidence against it.

After conceding that this is “a no-brainer for anyone who believes in open-mindedness, no matter what they think about evolution,” he nonetheless objects that “the question presumes the existence of ‘scientific evidence’ that contradicts Darwin's theory, and thus automatically biases respondents towards the Intelligent Design perspective.”

Essentially, Zogby and Discovery are being “underhanded” because they are not framing their questions around Mooney’s (or NCSE’s or the AAAS’s) view of intelligent design and Darwinism. Not content to control the curricula in the vast majority of public schools and districts, Darwinists apparently want to control even the questions that can be asked—and will do their best to stigmatize those who ask them.

Ultimately, though, such tactics can only backfire. The fact of the matter is, the American public has long been skeptical of Darwinism and its alleged creative powers. This is not something made up by Zogby or the Discovery Institute. Even the National Science Foundation’s “science literacy” survey has consistently shown large numbers of people who doubt that “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.”

That being the case, attacking the polls is like shooting the messenger. It may silence the bad news for awhile, but it won’t change reality. And that could end up biting those who ignore it. A far better approach would be to take the polls as valuable intelligence and plan accordingly. But somehow I don’t think that’s going to happen. And ultimately, the Darwinists’ position will be the worse for it.



[1] The so-called “howler” occurred when the Discovery Institute announced in a Sept. 8 press release that, “by nearly a five-to-one margin, 75% of Texas residents say the state board of education should approve biology textbooks that teach both Darwin's theory of evolution and the scientific evidence against it.” Mooney snickered, “Last I checked, a five to one margin--or 83.33 percent--differs rather significantly from 75 percent.”

Had Mooney done his homework, however, he would have found that the Discovery Institute was correct. The poll report showed that 75 percent favored teaching evidence both for and against Darwinism, while only 16 percent favored teaching Darwin only. (Nine percent said they were not sure.) Seventy-five to 16 is nearly a five-to-one margin.

Copyright 2003 Mark Hartwig. All rights reserved. International copyright secured.
File Date: 10.29.03