Lies, Damn Lies, and Surveys

In a recent news release, the Discovery Institute trumpets the results of two new surveys conducted by Arnold Steinberg & Associates. These surveys appear to follow along the same lines as an earlier Zogby International survey conducted for the DI.

In both Steinberg surveys and the Zogby survey, respondents were asked whether public school biology teachers should “Teach the scientific evidence for and against [Darwin’s theory of evolution]” or “Teach only the scientific evidence for it.” In all three polls, between seventy and eighty persent of those responding selected the first answer. This question is a very nice example of a question that is intelligently designed to produce the answer that the people commissioning the survey wanted to hear.

The pollsters did not ask whether or not those responding knew of any evidence against evolution. Instead, they asked a question that contained the presumption that such evidence exists. 1 Based on the results of their carefully worded survey, they then claim that this level of public support for teaching “both sides” means that the objections that they have to evolution should be included in public school science curricula. This, of course, adds the assumption that their objections constitute scientific evidence against evolution to the preexisting assumption that there is any such evidence.

For the record, if I was aware of any credible scientific evidence against evolution, I would support teaching about it in the public schools. However, the material that the Discovery Institute presents as evidence against evolution hardly makes the grade. The vast majority of this “evidence” appears to be derived from a single book. Scathing reviews of this book have appeared in the two leading weekly scientific journals 2,3, among other places (see here for a listing of a few of the rebuttals to Wells’ book).

In the recent news release, the Discovery Institute’s Bruce Chapman attempts to deal with that issue indirectly, when he says:

“The only way the Darwin-only lobby can spin these kind of survey results,” added Chapman, “is to claim that the public is just ignorant. But that view is untenable in light of the more than 300 scientists who have publicly expressed their dissent from Darwinism, to say nothing of the many scientific articles that have been published critiquing the theory.”

While I would not use the word “ignorant”, there is good reason to believe that the public is not as well informed on scientific issues as they could be. A 2001 National Science Foundation Survey revealed that less than half of the population is aware that electrons are smaller than atoms, less than half of the population can explain what DNA is, and only 20% can correctly explain what a molecule is. Under those circumstances it does not seem reasonable to assume, as Chapman seems to, that all (or even most) of those responding to the polls commissioned by his organization are well versed in the details of evolutionary theory.

Chapman’s reference to his list of scientists who “dissent from Darwinism” does little to support his position that there is significan evidence against evolution. For comparison, the National Center for Science Education’s Project Steve currently has over 400 signatories, all of whom (have PhDs in fields related to evolution, and all of whom are named Steve.

Like Chapman, I will also “say nothing” about “the many scientific articles that have been published critiquing the theory”. There is simply nothing that can be said about those articles except for the basic fact that they don’t exist. (Unless, of course, “scientific articles” is redefined to include articles from sources outside the peer-reviewed journals.)

These latest Discovery Institute surveys are really nothing new. Like those that have gone before them, they contain the presumption that the Discovery Institute’s argument is valid. It is hardly a shock when the Discovery institute concludes as a result of these surveys that their argument really is valid. In the future, one would hope that the Discovery Institute sets a better example when it comes to scientific integrity. Perhaps they could start by conducing surveys that do not depend on the wording of the questions to produce the desired results.

–Mike Dunford


1: (In a 2003 American Prospect article, Chris Mooney discusses the question-writing habits of Zogby; he also has recently commented on this most recent DI press release on his own blog.)

2: Coyne, Jerry A. “Creationism by stealth” Nature 410,745-746 (12 April 2001)

3: Scott, Eugenie C. “Fatally Flawed Iconoclasm.” Science, 292:2257-2258, (22 June 2001)