Egnoring the Data: How 78% of Doctors Became A Small Minority

As an addendum to Burt’s excellent take-down of Dr. Egnor’s latest nonsense, I’d like to address one of Egnor’s claims that I’ve touched on before, which is the following:

Doctors know that, from the intricate structure of the human brain to the genetic code, our bodies show astonishing evidence of design. That’s why most doctors—nearly two-thirds according to national polls—don’t believe that human beings arose merely by chance and natural selection. Most doctors don’t accept evolutionary biology as an adequate explanation for life. Doctors see, first-hand, the design of life.

Egnor claims that two thirds of doctors don’t accept evolution, and that this is because doctors have some sort of special insight into living things. He is not the first to make this claim; his new handlers at the Discovery Institute have said this before, based on a survey published by the Louis Finkelstein Institute, going so far as to claim that “a majority of doctors favor intelligent design over Neo-Darwinism.”

Would you be surprised to learn that the survey doesn’t say these things at all, that in fact it says the exact opposite? More below.

The simplest way of figuring out whether the DI’s claims are accurate is with the high tech scientific technique of reading the survey results. When we do so we learn the following:

  • 78% of doctors say that they accept evolution; only 15% reject it. Yet according to Egnor, “most doctors don’t accept evolutionary biology”. The survey quite clearly and overwhelmingly shows this to be wrong.
  • 58% of doctors agree that Intelligent Design is a “religiously inspired pseudo-science”. Yet according to the Discovery Institute, “a majority of doctors favor intelligent design over Neo-Darwinism.” How could that even be possible when a significant majority have rejected ID as pseudoscience?
  • Doctors prefer evolution over ID 63% to 34%. Yet somehow, both Egnor and the DI have managed to completely invert this finding and claim that it’s really the other way around!

It would actually be somewhat of a relief to learn that Egnor and the other DI people just didn’t know how to read numbers or that they flunked first grade math. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. They are being deliberately deceptive. They are consciously attempting to mislead people by making statements that the survey results themselves directly and unequivocally contradict. Here’s how they do it:

One question gives respondents three choices, each of which requires the respondent to make a statement about his or her belief in God. The choices are as follows: 1. God created humans exactly as they appear now; 2. God initiated and guided an evolutionary process that has led to current human beings; 3. Humans evolved naturally with no supernatural involvement - no divinity played any role. This question is practically identical to one commonly asked in surveys for the general public, which provides a handy means of comparison. Here are the results from the Finkelstein survey on doctors:

The trick played by Egnor and the DI is to take the answers to 1 and 2 and combine them together, claiming that anyone who agrees with those choices must be an ID supporter, whereas only those who agree with the third option are “Neo-Darwinists” or whatever it is they’re calling us these days. But this is extremely dishonest. The Discovery Institute knows good and well that many people who choose option 2 are ardent supporters of evolution and opponents of ID. In fact, many of their harshest critics, including some of us here at the ‘Thumb, are theists who believe that God guided evolution in some sense. Yet they reject ID and accept Darwinian evolution in no uncertain terms.

Indeed, given the way that the question is worded, it’s unlikely that anyone who believed in God would accept option 3. When we look at the results from the general public, those who choose option 3 roughly add up to the number of atheists and agnostics that are found in the USA. That’s a pretty good indication that what the question is really measuring is theistic belief.

Of course the most obvious way to resolve what these results mean is to ask the survey respondents about evolution and ID directly. As I pointed out above, the Finkelstein survey does this, and it shows that a strong majority of people choosing option 2 are opposed to ID and in favor of evolution. Given these results, there is simply no excuse for the way in which Egnor and the Discovery Institute have spun the survey. It is an act of deceit, plain and simple.

While I’m at it, let me point out a delicious irony. The particular question that the DI distorts asks respondents about what God did or did not have to do with the origin of humans. It doesn’t say anything about “intelligent design”. But the DI is taking questions about God’s involvement in and treating them as perfectly synonymous with ID (while simultaneously ignoring those questions that ask about ID directly). Elsewhere, of course, they vehemently deny that ID is based on belief in God. Way to be consistent, guys.

There is of course one last issue, the one dealing with Egnor’s pretentious claim that “Doctors know that… our bodies show astonishing evidence of design… doctors see, first-hand, the design of life” (his emphasis). The basic idea here is that doctors, by virtue of their medical training, must have unique insights about evolution and ID not shared by the general public. If that’s the way they want it, I say fine. I’ll just post a comparison between doctors and the general public that I made previously:

Here we see that doctors are overwhelmingly more likely to accept evolution than the general public and less likely to accept creationism. If we are to assume that their training is affecting their viewpoint on evolution, we can safely conclude that it’s causing them to accept evolution more and accept ID/creationism less. Of course there are more subtle ways of interpreting the results, but that’s not what Egnor and the DI are doing – they’re trying to spin the results as evidence that medical training makes people reject evolution. The actual data say the exact opposite.

This of course is all the more ironic given that Egnor’s basic point, which Burt ably showed was wrong both in general and in detail, is that doctors don’t need to know anything about evolution. They don’t receive any training or take any classes in it. Yet at the same time, Egnor styles himself, and the majority of doctors whom he erroneously thinks reject evolution, as having special insight into the subject. If you haven’t already had enough, I have a lot more to say about this at Sunbeams From Cucumbers.