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Gallup Still Asking the Wrong Questions in Evolution Poll
by Michael Patrick Leahy

Michael Patrick Leahy

After twenty five years of trying, you would think the Gallup Organization might have learned to ask the right questions in polls about public perceptions of evolution and creationism.

You would be wrong in such expectations

The results and headlines surrounding last week’s USA Today/Gallup Poll illustrate that the pollsters seem determined to ask confusing questions first, and then blame the public for inconsistency.

There are five clearly definable schools of thought in the public on the topic of evolution and creation, each with a distinct perspective. Yet Gallup continues to give poll respondents only two possible choices in the matter, then concludes the public itself is confused on the topic.

The public is somewhat confused on the topic, but much less so than Gallup itself. And the manner in which these polls on evolution and creation are conducted and then reported does nothing but increase the general confusion.

Gallup would be doing us all a favor if it would simply revise its polling questions to accurately reflect the five schools of thought on the matter. Here’s the one question that should be asked:

On the topic of evolution and creation, which of the following schools of thought best represent your views:

1. Atheistic evolution, in which the earth is 4.5 billion years old, man evolved over millions of years and God played no part in it.

2.Theistic evolution, in which the earth is 4.5 billion years old, man evolved over millions of years and God had a hand in it.

3. Intelligent Design, in which the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the development of species over time are the results of the design of an intelligent agent, which may or may not be God.

4. Old Earth Creationism, in which the earth is 4.5 billion years old, and man was created fully formed by God within the last 50,000 years.

5. Young Earth Creationism, in which God created the universe, the earth, and man in one week 6,000 years ago.

6. I’m not sure and I don’t care

7. I’m not sure, but I think God played a role.

8. I’m not sure, and I don’t think God played a role

Instead, Gallup gives respondents two choices: atheistic evolution, and creationism, defining the term so incompletely as to make many theistic evolutionists, intelligent designers, and Old Earth Creationists choose the Young Earth oriented creationism definition over the atheistic evolution option.

Here are the questions and results of the USA Today/Gallup Poll conducted of 1,000 adults in the first week of June, 2007:

23. Next, we'd like to ask about your views on two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth. Do you think is definitely true, probably true, probably false, (or) definitely false?

A. Evolution, that is, the idea that human beings developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life

18% responded that evolution is definitely true, with 35% saying it is probably true. Combined, 53% think evolution is either definitely or probably true.

B. Creationism, that is, the idea that God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years

39% responded that creationism is definitely true, 27% saying it is probably true. Combined, 66% think “creationism” as defined in the question is definitely or probably true.

The poor phrasing of the Gallup/USA Today questions, combined with lazy reporting by mainstream press leads to all sorts of misinformation on public perceptions about evolution and creationism.

Reading these poll results, the press calls the public confused

AFP (Agence France Press) for instance, reported that “ Asked their views on whether human life is a result of God's creation or a product of evolution, one quarter of Americans chose both conflicting theories, a poll suggested Friday.”

"All told, 25 percent say that both creationism and evolution are definitely or probably true," was how USA Today described it.

Joseph Cannon read the poll and in his blog Cannon Fire inaccurately concluded “66 percent of the American people believe that the Earth was created within the past ten thousand years.”

Noted atheist Sam Harris has consistently misrepresented Gallup Poll results, claiming, for instance that “half of all Americans believe the universe is only 6,000 years old” when studies show that the true number is definitely less than 18%, and probably somewhere in the 6% to 9%.

Young Earth Creationists among that likely 6% to 9% of the population look at these poll results and incorrectly claim they support their own anti-scientific brand of theology, as evidenced in the new and controversional Creationism Museum.

Only the blogger with Thoughts from Kansas seems to have it right:

“One aspect of this is obvious in Gallup's questions. The Gallup poll's question about evolution doesn't specify whether or not the respondent thinks God was involved, while the creationism question is restricted to young earth creationism. That dichotomy may leave everyone from theistic evolutionists to old earth creationists looking for a different option, perhaps expressing doubts that they don't actually feel, or trying to average out their opinion by answering yes to both questions. The other possibility is that people are literally making up their minds on the issue as they answer, never having really considered the issue before.

My suspicion, based on discussing the issue with people who don't feel strongly about the issue but live in the eye of this storm, is that the problem is deeper. People are not approaching the question in the way that Gallup asks it. To begin with, Gallup frames the question first in terms of "two different explanations for the origin and development of life on earth," but both options only actually refer to human beings. When asked about acceptance of common descent of all life and also about descent of humans from a common ancestor with other animals, polls show that people are inclined to think humans were created specially, but less inclined to reject common descent as a general proposition . . .

By introducing the question with the broader topic of the origin and development of life, then defining evolution and creationism in terms of human origins, Gallup conflated several issues. It may be that respondents indicated support for both options in part because they favor evolution as a general proposition, but reject it in human origins, the specific instance that Gallup refers to. Others may favor evolution, but want to make it clear that they think God was involved, so express support for both options. There are several ways to at least try to tease these threads out from the Gallup poll. They rotated the order in which respondents were asked about creationism and evolution. In my query to Gallup, I asked if the order in which respondents were asked the question had any effect on their answers. For instance, if the creationism question got more support when it was the second option, respondents may be rejecting the young earth part of it, but using it as a way to express some sort of generic belief that God was involved”

Lacking the proper questions, an obscure academic study done in 2004 by Otis Dudley Duncan and Claudia Geist can help us unsort this mess.

Using this research, combining it with over 25 years of responses to previous Gallup questions (which have been fairly consistent over time) and making a few educated guesses, I can offer a “best guess” estimate of the answers to the questions Gallup should be asking.

I offer this “Best Guess” of 2007 public perceptions as to which school of thought people belong in the entire evolution and creation controversy:

Atheistic evolution – 12 %

Theistic Evolution - 37 %

Intelligent Design - 10 %

Old Earth - 12 %

Young Earth - 6 %

Uncertain - 23 %


The Atheistic Evolution and Theistic evolution design numbers come from eight polls conducted by Gallup over a 25 year period, from 1982 to 2007

The Intelligent Design numbers come from a 2005 Harris Poll.

The combined Old Earth and Young Earth numbers (18%) come from the 2004 study by Duncan and Geist. The split between these two schools is an educated guess, based on the fact that only four colleges in the United States offer a Young Earth curriculum, while many Christian colleges offer a variant of an Old Earth curriculum

These data reconcile with last weeks’ poll if the following assumptions are made:

Assumptions for my "best guess" reconciliation with the 2007 Gallup Poll:

Atheistic evolutionists believe evolution is true and creationism ( as defined in the poll) is false.

All theistic evolutionists believe evolution is true AND two-thirds believe creationism (as defined) is true or probably true.

All Intelligent Design proponents, Old Earth Creationists, and Young Earth Creationists believe creationsim (as defined) is true.

20% of those who are uncertain believe evolution is true or probably true, and 80% believe creationism is true or probably true.

We can only hope that Gallup will soon start asking the right questions on this important topic. Until they do, we are stuck with my best guess, and the best guesses of others who, like me, are trying to make sense of the muddled data Gallup has created.

If you would like to comment on this article, you can email Mr. Leahy at editor@christianfaithandreason.com

If you would like to participate in our online poll that asks the write questions, click here to take the Christian Faith and Reason Online Poll on Evolution.

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