Monday, 6 January 2014

Evolving statistics

One of the great puzzles for British people is that Americans seem quite like us, mostly because of a shared language and to some degree a shared culture, yet at the same time there are aspects that raise our eyebrows - and never more so than over the attitude to evolution.

Thanks to US legal writer Donna Ballman for pointing out a fascinating survey on public views on human evolution in the US. I just wanted to pull out a few of the figures.

The headline number that is decidedly worrying in what is, after all, the world's leading nation for science and technology is that 33% of adults believe that 'humans existed in present form since beginning' - i.e. they have not evolved over time. But what was really interesting was the way these beliefs varied significantly when put alongside a few other measures.

There is, perhaps not surprisingly, a strong correlation between religious views and attitude to evolution. Unfortunately we aren't told anything except about Christians or 'unaffiliated' - there is nothing about other faiths. But the variation within Christian sects is stark. Where 78% of 'white mainline protestants' are behind evolution (well above the national average), only 27% of 'white evangelical protestants' think evolution had a role in our development. That's pretty shocking. Perhaps less surprisingly, there is also a correlation with education - the more educated the person, the more likely to believe in evolution.

But perhaps the most distressing breakdown is the difference between Republicans and Democrats. Where 67% of Democrats believe we evolved, only 43% of Republicans do. As always with statistics, we have to be careful about confusing causality with correlation. The chances are that it is not the case that being a Republican makes you less like to support evolution, but rather you are more likely to be a Republican if you have certain religious beliefs (for instance). But the reason I label this distressing is that in just 4 years there has been a significant shift in the split. Back in 2009, those percentages were 64% Democrats to 54% Republicans, only a few percentage points off being statistically insignificant. The split is getting stronger and that can't be good.

Interestingly, the Democrat/Republican split is almost exactly the same as the 18-29 versus 65+ split, where 68% of the youngsters are pro-evolution, but only 49% of the oldsters. 

It's not my place to tell US political parties what to think, but surely the Republicans powers-that-be should be worried about the statistic that less than half of their voters think human beings evolved - and that this percentage is dropping. It doesn't bode well for the future of US science under Republican administrations.

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