Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Science by polling?

According to polling data, between 48-55% of the American public does not believe the theory of evolution.

As many as 45% of the American public seems to believe that the Earth was created no more than 10,000 years ago.

Curiously enough, the Pew Center finds, this does not mean that people disrespect scientists, just that they aren't about to change their religious beliefs:

Interestingly, many of those who reject natural selection recognize that scientists themselves fully accept Darwin's theory. In the same 2006 Pew poll, nearly two-thirds of adults (62%) say that they believe that scientists agree on the validity of evolution. Moreover, Americans, including religious Americans, hold science and scientists in very high regard. A 2006 survey conducted by Virginia Commonwealth University found that most people (87%) think that scientific developments make society better. Among those who describe themselves as being very religious, the same number – 87% – share that opinion.

So what is at work here? How can Americans say that they respect science and even know what scientists believe and yet still disagree with the scientific community on some fundamental questions? The answer is that much of the general public simply chooses not to believe the scientific theories and discoveries that seem to contradict long-held religious or other important beliefs.

When asked what they would do if scientists were to disprove a particular religious belief, nearly two-thirds (64%) of people say they would continue to hold to what their religion teaches rather than accept the contrary scientific finding, according to the results of an October 2006 Time magazine poll. Indeed, in a May 2007 Gallup poll, only 14% of those who say they do not believe in evolution cite lack of evidence as the main reason underpinning their views; more people cite their belief in Jesus (19%), God (16%) or religion generally (16%) as their reason for rejecting Darwin's theory.

Now we have a new Rasmussen poll stating pretty unequivocally that more Americans disbelieve in the human contribution to climate change than believe in androcentric global warming:

Forty-seven percent (47%) of U.S. voters say global warming is caused by long-term planetary trends rather than human activity.

However, the latest Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that 42% still blame human activity more for climate change, while five percent (5%) say there is some other reason.

Except for June when the two points of view were virtually tied, voters have been trending away from blaming human activity since January.

This is not a post about evolution, the age of the planet, or global warming, per se, but a post about how we tend to think about science.

Here's the key point: human beings either evolved via natural selection--or they didn't. The Earth is either just 10,000 years old--or it isn't. Human activity either figures heavily into global climate change--or it doesn't.

What people believe about those issues does not affect the truth or falsity of those issues one whit, although it has an awful lot to do with what kinds of policies we craft to deal with the issues of the day.

Scientists like to believe that what they do operates in some realm of rarified, abstracted, objective proof, and that once there is a consensus among scientists, everyone else should fall into line. After all, the general public cannot do the math or examine the evidence with the benefit of advanced degrees, can it?

And some science--like the science behind the engineering in the last jet airplane in which you crossed the country--gets proven to the public in the old-fashioned way: you ride it and it doesn't (usually) fall apart in the sky.

But scientists and even popular science writers [hello, Richard Dawkins!] have proven singularly inept at proving their points in the venue of public political and policy debates because ... nobody defers to them sufficiently and because glib folks with contrary ideas can sound convincingly enough like scientists to create controversies in the public mind where no such controversies exist in realm of academia.

One problem for scientists is that even when they are right it's not always good news. The march of technology doesn't always bring us closer to paradise on Earth: just think how lucky we are that physicists actually succeeded in bringing us nuclear weapons, what would we have done without them?

[Wait for it: somebody will show up here in the comments and tell me about what a boon the A-bomb was in avoiding the invasion of Japan or in forestalling the world domination of the Soviet Union. Wow, wish I'd known about those things in time to thank the guys at Los Alamos and Oak Ridge.]

The other problem for scientists is that, by and large, they make such shitty political leaders. The idea that people who think Yahweh walked around in the Garden of Eden with Adam and Eve 10,000 years ago get to vote is something they've never quite understood.

I don't think the problem, however, is really the inept social skills of scientists or the evangelicals out there waving a copy of Bill Dembski's Design Inference [which they can't read well enough to pick apart in the first place].

I think the problem may well be polling. Not on political candidates, but on everything. Everything.

It used to be that I could meet people, even discuss issues of the day with them, and view the conversation as a genuine interchange of what we each thought.

Now, before we start talking, both of us are already being tentatively placed into groups and assigned positions.

Most Southerners have questions about Barack Obama's birthplace....

Most people from Massachusetts are socialist liberals....

Most evangelicals want women kept barefoot and pregnant....

Most Democrats really do believe in gay rights....

The reality is that all people are complex mixes of often contradictory beliefs, carefully compartmentalized and held in tandem. My physical therapist is a devout, young-Earth Creationist evangelical with whom I do not talk politics or religion ... ever. But he also loves taking vacations out west [we have traded much experience and advice]; he is a Phillies fan; and he believes fervently in single-payer health care. Go figure.

One of my colleagues believes with equal fervor that George W Bush planned 9/11 to save his Presidency. Be stupid enough to mention the topic and his eyes light up and he backs you into a corner. But he is also one of our most effective organizers of international collaborations with other universities, an exceptionally serious amateur astronomer, and a talented labor negotiator.

Put either of these guys in the wrong poll and they are just nutcase numbers. As human beings and American citizens, however, both have value despite--perhaps because of--their quirks.

But universal polling on every damn opinion in the books has lead to two major consequences:

1) We divide and sub-divide people into finer and finer categories, damaging our ability to value them as individuals.

2) Our politicians become more interested in pandering to our (supposedly) expressed desires than in exercising the leadership they've been elected to display.

Here's my thought for today: instead of having a short deadline for health insurance reform, let's deal with the really serious issue first: polling reform.

And my reform is both simple and Shakespearian: first thing we do, we'll kill all the pollsters.


Chris said...

The problem, as I see it, is when people replace "thinking" with "believing" about a topic. (Yes, I have a scientific and engineering background.)

Also, everyone is stupid five minutes per day. Wisdom is just not exceeding your quota.

Miko said...

I don't see consequence (2) as being a necessarily bad thing. Our governmental structure was designed in part to deal with the fact that 18th century society couldn't disseminate information fast enough for effective governance based on public opinion. That problem has now been solved. If we could also solve the problem of people giving opinions when they lack sufficient knowledge/understanding to really have them, a system based on popular support would probably be much better than what we have now. The system of falling back on the leadership skills of politicians fails since their leadership skills usually suck.