The Battle of the Evolution Polls

by Steven Schafersman, Ph.D.
Texas Citizens for Science
2009 February 13

Readers will remember that the Texas Freedom Network commissioned a poll of Texas university biology faculty that reported that an overwhelming number, 98%, wanted only science taught in high school biology classes. That meant no Creationism, no Intelligent Design Creationism, and no bogus "weaknesses" of evolution. Now, the Religious-Right Free Market Foundation, the Texas affiliate of James Dobson's Focus on the Family, has just published a Zogby Poll purporting to show that 78% of Americans agree that the alleged "weaknesses" of evolution should be taught. Who is right?

The answer is surprisingly easy if one just steps back a little and thinks about what is being asked, who is being asked, and who is asking. The TFN poll was conducted by Raymond Eve, a UT Arlington sociology professor whose research involves polling. He polled science professors about a scientific question: whether science or pseudoscience should be taught in Texas science classes.

Zogby International is a for-profit corporation that has repeatedly conducted polls for Creationist organizations. For example, the Creationist Discovery Institute commissioned a Zogby Poll that showed that 81% of the public agreed with the position that "When public broadcasting networks discuss Darwin's theory of evolution, they should present the scientific evidence for it, but also the scientific evidence against it." I cannot comment right now on why Zogby Polls always result in numbers of Americans supporting Creationist goals and values far in excess of the actual numbers of Creationists in the American population, but someone is investigating the Zogby methodology for the current poll that FMF is publicizing. As readers probably know, it is possible to achieve almost any result you want from a poll merely by manipulating the questions to favor the response you seek, and I think this is probably what happened here.

But here's what I can say right now. The entire premise of the FMF-commissioned Zogby Poll is in error. The poll is asking citizens who are non-scientists and non-educators a question about what scientific topics should be taught in public school science curricula. This is an illegitimate question, and no matter what the result, it is irrelevant and should be ignored by policy makers. Here's why.

First, science is not a democratic process. Its hypotheses, results, and scientific theories are not generated or discovered by voting or polling. Science is not governed by the opinion polls of either scientists or especially non-scientists. Instead, the result of testing hypotheses of empirical data is the criterion of scientific success and acceptance. A poll is both irrelevant and meaningless.

Second, the notion that parents or citizens know best what is the most accurate and reliable instruction for the formal or academic education of their children is absurd. Trained educators and curriculum experts (like me!) know what is best. This is especially true for science education, since science educators are trained and education! How many poll-taking citizens can say that? Furthermore, our customers or clients are not--contrary to common belief--the students, the parents of students, the citizens of Texas, and especially not state education officials. The customers of educators are society and the future generations of society. That's why we're paid the big bucks, because civilization is a race between education and catastrophe.

This is not an elitist opinion. It is a responsible, professional, and educated opinion. I want trained surgeons to perform surgery on me and I want civil engineers to build the highways and bridges, not vice versa. Likewise, I want science educators to write the science curriculum, choose the science textbooks, and teach the science students--not the Young Earth Creationist members of the Texas State Board of Education. Decisions should be made by people who have the competence to make them correctly. Rather than me being elitist, it is elitist of the Free Market Foundation to think that state education officials should listen to them and their irrelevant Zogby Poll. That's the problem with Texas: we place public education policy in the hands of a centralized, authoritarian State Board of Education that contains several incompetents who do not value public education. These members will claim that most of their constituents asked them to include the "weaknesses" of scientific theories and of evolution, so that's how they are going to vote. Rather than pander to the scientifically-ignorant masses, the Board members were entrusted with promoting a high quality education for our state's children, so they should listen to science education and curriculum experts--the competent people--and not promote their anti-scientific ideological and religious agenda.

Texas Citizens for Science
Last updated: 2009 February 19