Florida Voters: Don't Know What Evolution Is, but It Triggers Something

A lot of my fellow ScienceBloglings have written about the attempts in many Floridian municipalities to weaken biology education, so I won't waste bandwidth revisiting that here. But what amazed when I read this article about Floridian voters' views of evolution was the response to the question "Which of the following comes closest to what you think evolution is?":


How in the Intelligent Designer's green earth do the same number of people define evolution as creationism as do correctly define evolution? Remember, this was not a question about what was the 'correct' version of how life came to be, simply a multiple choice question about what evolution is. If you look at the follow on questions in the article, I think it's safe to say that most of the creationists defined evolution as creationism (or intelligent design creationism). This means that these creationists oppose evolution--which they misdefine as creationism--meaning that...they...oppose...creationism.

Mad Biologist's brain...locks...up...


Two explanations come to mind:

  1. Many people are fucking morons.
  2. Evolution is a trigger word.

As readers of this blog know, I'm always a big fan of explanation #1, but the trigger word hypothesis is interesting. Essentially, many respondents heard the word "evolution", shut down any sort of intelligent thought, and pooped out a definition of creationism. I'm not sure what this means, except that a large fraction of the public is already lost to us. No amount of explanation will break through: evolution is TEH EVIL!! (never mind that it is also TEH REALITY).

This must have implications for combating the creationist controversy, but I don't have a clue how to proceed. Clearly, logic isn't going to work here.

I guess it's back to name calling....


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You would think the fact that definition A used the words 'evolved' and 'evolutionary' would have been a clue.

But yeah, it looks as though large numbers of people answered the question 'Which of the following comes closest to what you think about evolution?'

Is it possible that there was only one idiot who messed up describing what question was actually asked? The newspaper could have asked something like "How do you think life arose" and then that got replaced later on with this question. I've noticed occasions in the past where newspapers have paraphrased the actual questions asked in polls to the point where they mean very different things (although this would be extreme even by those standards). While both hypothesis 1 and 2 are plausible (and possibly some combination of them as well) this result is so extreme that I'm tempted to explain this by other means.

By Joshua Zelinsky (not verified) on 19 Feb 2008 #permalink

It's a moronic question. And the answers are quite sensible.

Flip the question over to:
"What do you think creationism is?"
with the same options. Would any scientist be comfortable answering B or C? I think not, as to do so would implicitly give support to the idea that creationism is valid. No, the responders sensibly answered as if they were being asked about the descent of man, not being presented with some twits's fumble at asking about a definition.

Science and rationalism are ill-served by such poorly designed surveys.

But yes, it is shocking that Florida (and the US in general) is infested by so many ignorant delusionals.

By Sam the Centipede (not verified) on 19 Feb 2008 #permalink


Actually, as a scientist, if I were asked "What do you think creationism is?", B or C would be very good answers--most of the biologists here (if not all) would have no problems answering the question with B or C. I don't think that answer 'discredits' the reality of evolution in the slightest. That makes my point: the respondants didn't answer the question.

Is a good question? No, since A & B (&C too) aren't opposites in the strict sense. But the human component really triggered something.

This looks like stupid test creators instead of stupid test takers. "Which of the following comes closest to what you think evolution is?" is just _way_ too close in phrasing to "Which of the following comes closest what your opinion of evolution is?" It's also _way_ too close in phrasing to "Which of the following comes closest to what you think about evolution?"

Worse, the given responses are a much better fit to "what do you think about evolution?" than they are to "what do you think the definition of evolution is?" So, if you just skimmed over the question in eagerness to dig into the answers, or if you found the question ambiguous, then the allowed answers will strongly steer you to the wrong interpretation of the question.

(If indeed it is the wrong interpretation. The question is such a mess that I can't 100% swear that it isn't meant as an opinion question instead of a definition question. Sure, the _next_ question in the survey is clearly an opinion question, which suggests that this question was about definition. But maayybeee it could just possibly be an incompetent, garbled attempt at the good survey practice of asking the same question twice with different wording to see whether the responses are consistent.)

Yes, get worked up about creationism in Florida, but don't get worked up about this hopelessly ill-designed question.

I suspect the answer is

"Many people are fucking morons for whom evolution is a trigger word."

I was going to play my "Smug Brit" card and say something about dumbass american rednecks - except I am not so sure what the results of such a survey would be here. Scientific literacy is at low levels everywhere it seems. We have no choice but to keep plugging away and not let the idiots crowd us out of the airwaves/internet.

We will be living in a very dangerous world if we allow such ignorance to go unchallenged. Part of the problem is that its started to be seen as Atheist Evolutionists versus Theist creationists ( I am an Atheists also). The fundamental issue though is not this - it is scientific literacy versus ignorance. I would happily go quiet about my Atheism if I thought it would help.

I think the trigger word hypothesis is probably correct, but I disagree that it means that this segment of the public is unreachable. We've recently seen how even major students don't even understand or accept fundamental concepts in biology. I think the data points to a flaw in teaching, which gives the appearance of being more closed minds out there than there really are.

In my opinion those who accept evolutionary theory and who are engaged in educating the public about science are making several mistakes in promoting their point of view. Speaking of the average, they are too pedantic, too prone to presenting obscure and unappealing information, too boring, not willing enough to initiate discussion about evolution, not disparaging enough of obviously wrong creationism baloney, and too reluctant to call creationists out on obvious lies. Until widespread improvement in the public education and outreach side of this issue is made, we're going to continue to see poll results like this, especially in places (like Florida) where evolution education has had essentially no penetration.

Speaking of which - Kenneth Miller and Matt Nisbet seem hell-bent on making things a whole lot worse of late.

I was going to play my "Smug Brit" card and say something about dumbass american rednecks - except I am not so sure what the results of such a survey would be here.

If you only play your "Smug Brit" card when the facts support it, you're not playing it right. I suppose you never bluff in poker, either :P

Most people are lost to us. Most people have been lost to us. Most people have been lost to us long before we were even born.

Any attempt to interface with humanity without recognizing that a significant fraction of humans are just very talkative primates is doomed.

By Caledonian (not verified) on 20 Feb 2008 #permalink

Count me in the "It's a poorly phrased question" crowd. Put yourself in the place of a plumber who was busy playing video games during biology class in high school; now someone comes up and asks you "what you think evolution is."

Are you being asked what you think is the best explanation for the origin of human beings and other animals? Or are you being asked to report what biologists offer as their scientific theory of the development of species? A better question might be, "Which is closest to what scientists mean by the biological theory of evolution," but even this will be susceptible to the ID disinformation campaign.

(Besides, no (individual) organisms living today have existed for millions of years, so we can rule out (a) . . .)

By Physicalist (not verified) on 23 Feb 2008 #permalink