Correlation, Causation, and Belief in Creation

Thinking from Kansas, Josh Rosenau notices a correlation in data from a Daily Kos poll question on the origin of the universe:

Saints be praised, 62% of the public accepts the Big Bang and a 13.7 billion year old universe. Democrats are the most positive, with 71% accepting that, while only 44% of Republicans agree (38 think it's more recent, the rest are undecided). I've said it before and I stand by it: conservative Republicanism is incompatible with science.

But looking at the finer details tells us a lot. The only group - gender, race, or region - with anything like the Republicans' rejection of basic science, is the South:

The Southern split is 48-34, compared to the Republican 44-38.

Of course, there are some other interesting things to correlate with this figure, such as per-pupil spending on education (only two Southern states in the top half), or average school teacher salaries (3 in the top 25), or percentage of the population with a Bachelors degree (2 in the top 25).

So, along with creationism, Southern-ness seems to be correlated with substandard education generally, and arguably a lack of respect for education (depending on how you want to spin the spending figures).

Of course, to be fair, Southern-ness is also correlated with poverty-- 11 Southern states are in the top 25 in terms of percentage of the population below the poverty line. Which could be either cause or effect of the education correlations-- a decent case can be made either way.

(The non-Kos figures are obtained by my sorting the census data and tagging states as "Southern" based more or less on membership in the Confederacy-- Virginia on south, and west to Texas. Consider the uncertainty in the count to be +/-1.)

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Hi. As a person living in the South, let me just say that your correlation of the South with lack of respect for education is probably fair, but I would just qualify that to say that it's a lack of respect for public education. It's related to a mistrust of government.

By Susan McCready (not verified) on 01 Jun 2010 #permalink

Lack of respect for education can be both cause and effect of poverty. They're not mutually exclusive.

As for mistrusting government, I've met more than a few Southerners who are not clear on the outcome of the Civil War.

Don't forget the contribution of fundamentalist religion to the mistrust of public education and embrace of creationism. I grew up in the South, and when I was attending school back in the 70's, public education was pretty much the only option. Now there are quite a number of private Christian schools in the town I grew up in.

I'd also bet that belief in creationism has increased in the South over the last 30 years. I was raised Southern Baptist, and evolution really wasn't that big a deal back then, but the denomination has turned more conservative and political in the last 30 years.

The South is not the only part of the country that is infested with religious whackaloonery. Large areas of the West also have high concentrations of fundamentalist religion. The difference is that most of the West's whackaloons get averaged out with the saner parts of those states. Take Washington, for instance: its overall Democratic lean disguises the fact that it combines Seattle, which is very blue, with the area east of the Cascades, which is one of the reddest areas in the country. Of Western states, only Utah and Idaho are dominated by religious nuts, and most of those are Mormons, who might (I don't have any data at hand) be less disposed than Southern Baptists to young earth creationist beliefs.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 02 Jun 2010 #permalink

Eric, the same thing happens in CA and CO. To me, this indicates the real issue here is urban vs. rural population, which is more or less correlated with Conservative vs. Liberal. The effect is exaggerated in the West, where I would expect population density varies more intra-state than in the East Coast megalopolis.

I think some of the spending/salary effect would go away if you adjusted for cost of living. Also, I believe unions in east/west coastal states seem to be more aggressive about negotiating salaries. (My wife was a teacher in Texas and California and in CA they were always threatening to go on strike.)

george w. -- as a fellow Southerner (I'm currently in Tennessee, but that will change in two months), I'm very surprised to hear you talk about the "outcome" of the Civil War. That implies that it's over. I used to think it was over, too, back when I lived in the SF Bay Area. Then I moved to the South, and found out otherwise....

Also, say it right: it's the "War of Northern Aggression".


I think Stephen may be on to something. Again, as you say, there are a lot of feedback systems going on here (and having lived in NC I know george.w is right -- southern disinvestment in public education was a response to desegregation). But the most fundamental factor may just be that the fewer people you know, the less stuff you know.

There are some scientific models of this -- I have one that's under revision, but here's someone else's that came out last year: My own work on knowledge spread is here:…

I was struck after 2000 or 2004 when I saw a map with red/blue-ness broken down by county rather than state that blue was correlated with water ways, which again as we know are correlated with population centers and communication. Since the Republican tax policies never actually benefit the majority of Americans, they probably do better where people know & hear less.