Darwin and Scopes in new poll on knowledge of religion

A new survey on American knowledge about religion included two questions relevant to evolution education. The survey, conducted by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life, "covered a wide range of topics, including the beliefs and practices of major religious traditions as well as the role of religion in American history and public life" in order to "provide a baseline measurement of how much Americans know about religion today."

The media's coverage of the survey understandably focused on the general lack of knowledge about religion that it revealed, with The New York Times (September 28, 2010) reporting, "On average, people who took the survey answered half the questions incorrectly, and many flubbed even questions about their own faith." But the questionnaire also asked nine general knowledge questions, including one about Darwin and one about the Scopes trial.

Respondents were asked, "Which of these people developed the theory of evolution by natural selection?" and offered the choice of Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and Clarence Darrow. Seventy-one percent of respondents selected the correct answer of Darwin, 6% selected Freud, 3% selected Darrow, and 20% said that they didn't know. (In a 2009 survey conducted by the British Council, 84% of American respondents said that they had heard of Darwin.)

Respondents were also asked, "And which of these court trials focused on whether evolution could be taught in public schools?" and offered the choice of the Scopes trial, the Salem witch trials, and Brown vs. Board of Education. Only 31% of respondents selected the correct answer of the Scopes trial, 36% selected Brown vs. Board of Education, 3% selected the Salem witch trials, and 30% said that they didn't know.

The Pew Research Center's report describes (PDF) the survey as "a nationwide poll conducted from May 19 through June 6, 2010, among 3,412 Americans age 18 and older, on landlines and cell phones, in English and Spanish. Jews, Mormons and atheists/agnostics were oversampled to allow analysis of these relatively small groups." The margin of sampling error for the total sample of 3412 respondents was +/- 2.5%.