I know, I shouldn’t do this, I really shouldn’t. But I can’t help myself. It’s an affliction.
The British Humanist Association (BHA) is at it again. Okay, where to start. Well, to understand what’s going on here, you have to know the background.
A couple of years ago the BHA published what I think I claimed was the world’s worst opinion poll (though possibly now it has been surpassed in awfulness). I explained what was wrong with it here. A few BHA attack sheep then arrived, so I had to put them straight here. Yes, I know, my tone here is a little off, but if you read those two threads, you’ll see, and I think it was generally accepted, that there wasn’t a single response to any of the substantive points I made.
So you’re probably wondering why I’m bringing this up again now (notwithstanding my peculiar obsession with the BHA and my general egotism). Well, because of the delicious irony of this news release put out by the BHA. It claims that a survey produced by a ‘public theology think tank’ called Theos is flawed enough so as to be an “insult to the British public”. So, for example:
The research was widely reported earlier this week as showing that “half of Britons do not believe in evolution”. In fact, the poll asked two separate questions about evolution, neither of which presented the option of simply agreeing with the scientific theory of natural selection.
The survey first asked whether respondents believed in “theistic evolution”. This was confusingly defined as “the idea that evolution is the means that God used for the creation of all living things on earth.” The survey then asked whether respondents believed in “atheistic evolution”, again reflexively defined as “the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd.”
Andrew Copson, BHA Director of Education, said, “There are very many non-religious people in Britain who understand and accept natural selection, and who may even agree that belief in God is unnecessary, but who would not necessarily subscribe to this idiosyncratic definition of ‘atheistic evolution’.”
Okay, I should say straightaway that these criticisms are exactly right. But, but, but, you loons, the Theos poll is a mess for precisely the same reason that your poll two years ago was a mess – the poll which (some of) you guys defended on here. It makes use of forced choices that are going to have the effect of shoving people into a box in which they don’t belong.
I’m not going to go through again how the BHA poll was flawed (it’s in those threads). But the rest of the BHA press release is worthy of a little scrutiny. Mr Copson has this to say:
It’s… an insult to the British public to underrate our collective understanding of science based on such a flawed poll.
So what’s the evidence for the claim that the Theos poll underrates the ‘collective understanding of science” of the British public? Copson is making a straightforward empirical claim here, so it’d be interesting to see some data. (And I’m sure he wouldn’t want to insult the British public by including untrue statements in his press release.) I’m not saying that there is no evidence to back up this claim, but I am sceptical about it. Here’s why.
Survey data from the UK (and US) has in the last ten years shown variously, for example: that some two-thirds of people are unable to name CO2 as the main greenhouse gas; that approximately one-third of people think that the sun travels around the earth; that more people than not think that antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria; that only one in three women realises that viruses or infections can increase a woman’s chance of developing cervical cancer; that only slightly over one quarter of people mention “genes” or “genetics” when asked what the term “DNA” means to them; and that one in five people are unable to say anything at all about the meaning of the phrase ‘human genetic information’.
So I suspect that Copson’s statement that there “are very many non-religious people in Britain who understand and accept natural selection” is just misleading bluster. Obviously it depends how one defines “very many”, but my suspicion is that the percentage of the general public who would be able to explain what’s involved in “natural selection” is very small (though admittedly probably highest amongst non-religious people, assuming that one doesn’t use the BHA’s conception of non-religious!). If this is right, then Copson is just wrong if he thinks it is possible to read off levels of belief in evolution by natural selection straightforwardly from the responses that people give to survey questions.
There is a general point here. The problem with surveys about attitudes towards things such as Darwinism, humanism, etc., is that many people do not have attitudes towards these things at all. This means that what you get back from such surveys are largely manufactured responses determined by the particular way in which questions are asked. (I remember as an undergraduate being forced to go around Southampton asking people about their attitudes towards leisure facilities in the town. These were not attitudes that people had. Most of them spent next to no time thinking about whether or not there should be an extra sports centre near the park. But, of course, when asked, people were more than happy to claim that such a thing was “very important” to them.)