Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Interpretting poll data

Kansas City Star | 06/26/2005 | Kansans polled on origin of life:
When asked which direction the board should take, 31 percent said it should require that theories other than evolution be offered; 24 percent said criticism of evolution should be allowed; 25 percent said only evolution should be taught; and 20 percent were not sure.

When asked which best described their view on the origin of life, 39 percent said creationism; 26 percent said evolution; 16 percent said intelligent design; and 19 percent said other.

The poll of 625 registered voters was conducted June 14 to 16 by Mason-Dixon Polling & Research Inc. of Washington, D.C. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
The article (like the Wichita Eagle's) spends a lot of time asking whether the questions are vague, whether the public is well-enough informed, or whether, as IDNet's Brian Sandefur says "“They keep saying they haven’t done a good job of teaching it or explaining to people what it is all about, but at some point — and a lot of people are at this point — they are saying: ‘Maybe this theory doesn’t explain as much as they say it does.’”

The fact that some percentage of the public doesn't want evolution taught does not indicate that there is scientific uncertainty. There is uncertainty in the public, but that's because the IDNet and Discovery Institute have invested a lot of time in confusing people.

I bet that if you polled Lawrence residents, you'd see a large percentage that thinks it's controversial to ban marijuana. Every weekend there's a guy standing out on the corner with a sign saying "Honk for Hemp," and there are a bunch of libertarian liberals.

Does that mean that there's any societal debate over banning pot? Does that mean the schools shouldn't teach that pot is bad news? (Hint: No.)
People don't know what to do with polls. All polls tell you is how people feel. If you review CSICOP's article on polls, an important theme is the difficulty in distinguishing two important issues.

  • How do people perceive the state of the scientific debate?
  • How do people perceive the state of the social debate?
The questions above don't clearly distinguish between these issues.

A good poll would clarify whether people believe that evolution is a worse scientific explanation for the diversity of life, or whether they think that it is a worse philosophical explanation.

Many people feel that evolution is the process by which a divine force acts in the world. They don't see evolution as a complete story, but they recognize it as the complete scientific story. This is a tricky issue, and I won't feel like I know what this poll says until I see some better data.