"Public Acceptance of Evolution" in Science

The August 11, 2006, issue of Science features a brief article (PDF; subscription required) on "Public Acceptance of Evolution," written by Jon D. Miller of Michigan State University, Eugenie C. Scott of NCSE, and Shinji Okamoto of Kobe University. Reviewing the past twenty years of polling in the United States, Miller, Scott, and Okamoto observe, "After 20 years of public debate, the percentage of U.S. adults accepting the idea of evolution has declined from 45% to 40% and the percentage of adults overtly rejecting evolution declined from 48% to 39%. The percentage of adults who were not sure about evolution increased from 7% in 1985 to 21% in 2005."

They also compare the levels of acceptance of evolution in the United States with those in thirty-two European countries and Japan, noting that "Only Turkish adults were less likely to accept the concept of evolution than American adults," and posing the question, "How can we account for this pattern of American reservations about the concept of evolution in the context of broad acceptance in Europe and Japan?" Using a two-group structural equation model, they identify three relevant factors: the acceptance of fundamentalist religious beliefs, the politicization of science, and the widespread ignorance of biology.

"These results should be troubling for science educators at all levels," Miller, Scott, and Okamoto warn. "Basic concepts of evolution should be taught in middle school, high school, and college life sciences courses and the growing number of adults who are unsure about these ideas suggests that current science instruction is not effective." They also warn scientists that the "transformation of traditional geographically and economically based political parties into religiously orented ideological coalition marks the beginning of a new era for science policy" in which science is no longer protected from overt partisanship.

Eugenie C. Scott spoke about the article with Lisa Mullins of "The World" (a co-production of the BBC World Service, Public Radio International, and WGBH Boston) on August 10, 2006; audio of the segment is available on "The World"'s website [Link broken] (scroll to "Evolution interview"). Scott drew attention to the longtitudinal nature of the study, which used the same question over twenty years of surveys: "We found that the percentage of Americans accepting evolution declined from 45 to 40 percent, but what was interesting was that the percentage of don't-knows increased," she commented.

Jon D. Miller told the Toronto Globe and Mail (August 11, 2006), "When you compare the U.S. to Europe, it's clear we're way out in right field by ourselves ... There is a different [P]rotestant movement in this country, one that often rejects science. It's different than that of Europe and certainly of Canada." "The findings should be of substantial concern to science educators in the United States," he added, "because we've spent billions of dollars, we have a high percentage of young people going to college and taking science courses and yet we have a very ambivalent attitude on a subject that's a closed book almost everywhere in the world."

A LiveScience story published by Fox News on August 11, 2006, provided a detailed look at the survey along with comments from Miller, Scott, biologist and blogger P. Z. Myers, a representative of the Discovery Institute, and NCSE's Nick Matzke. Both Scott and Myers emphasized that the problem is not merely one of education, with Scott quipping, "The rejection of evolution is not something that will be solved by throwing science at it" and Myers remarking, with reference to Kitzmiller v. Dover, "The creationists are still creationists -- they're not going to change because of a court decision."