The British Humanist Association Redux

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.)

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23 Comments.

  1. Great post.

    Given how often polls are used in this way, by the BHA, theology think tanks, political parties, and interest groups in general, given that polls are very frequently used with an ulterior motive, it makes one suspicious of polls in general.

    Is there any literature out there that specifically deals with the difficulties described here? I’m curious.

  2. “It’s… an insult to the British public to underrate our collective understanding of science based on such a flawed poll.”

    Amusingly, you can read this as saying it’s okay to underrate things, just not by using such a flawed poll to do it…

  3. Mmm answered my own question (in part) by reading more. Quantitative vs Qualitative methodology.

  4. Jeremy Stangroom

    Faust

    Yes – any good book on quantitative research methods will cover this kind of stuff. I talk about the distinction between quantitative and qualitative techniques in one of the earlier posts, I think.

  5. consistency isn’t a terribly stringent demand from organizations is it?

  6. It probably depends on what you mean by “explain natural selection”. Many people would say something about the survival of the fittest, or of man having monkeys as ancestors, of the evolution of
    “higher” forms of life, without being able to explain the mechanisms in detail. I’m not sure that I could give a decent explanation of natural selection myself. That is, many people believe in something called evolution or natural selection or Darwinism, without being able to explain it in detail. Another example might be big bang. Lots of people would say that the universe begins with big bang, without knowing what that involves.

  7. Most people didn’t think things through on their own.
    However, lots of people are aware that there is a debate between evolution and creationism and for many reasons, often without a great deal of information on the subject, opt for one or another.
    They believe in evolution because people whom they respect say it is true or because they identify themselves as progressives, etc., but no, they don’t understand natural selection in the sense of being able to give a coherent account of how it operates.

  8. Keith McGuinness

    “that some two-thirds of people are unable to name CO2 as the main greenhouse gas”

    Actually, water vapour is the main greenhouse gas:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greenhouse_gas#Role_of_water_vapor

    CO2 is the main greenhouse gas produced by humans.

  9. You forgot to thank me for telling you about the BHA’s rebuke of Theos. Tut tut.

    that more people than not think that antibiotics kill viruses as well as bacteria

    Oh I think that’s all but universal. I have gotten into such ARguments with apparently intelligent people about that…

  10. Has anyone heard from the humanist camp? Should we invite them to reply? I’d be interested to hear what they say. There are plenty of humanist philosophers on their website who might speak up.

  11. Eric MacDonald

    This is the most important thing:

    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.

    I’ve been the subject of so many polls I’ve lost count, and I keep telling them, “You’ve got to give me more choices than that, because I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Or: “Really, I don’t know anything about that.” “Shall I put you down as undecided, then?” “No, give me another choice.”

    I don’t know how it goes down on the poll, but I know I’ve always wondered how they make up their totals in the end.

    But to be fair to the BHA, the Theos poll was loaded, and theirs was too. I mean, most people don’t know what ‘evolution’ means, let alone ‘theistic evolution’ or ‘atheistic evolution.’ And the questions asked before that point, already pointed the way. That’s really rigging things! Interest groups like the BHA and Theos shouldn’t do surveys and polls, and should not even try to craft the questions (and even then it’s a bit of gamble). They’ve got too much invested. They’re bound to try to turn the results. Wouldn’t you?

    As to people’s opinions about evolution, I couldn’t say. Given the defects of most systems of education, most people haven’t heard ot if, or weren’t listening very closely if they have. I was 56 before I had any reasonably clear understanding of it, but if you asked me about phyla and clades and mitochodria, I could only make a stab in the dark. Holobaramins anyone?! (Just learned the word yesterday on Pharyngula. Any ideas?)

  12. Jeremy Stangroom

    Has anyone heard from the humanist camp? Should we invite them to reply? I’d be interested to hear what they say. There are plenty of humanist philosophers on their website who might speak up.

    James

    Well there isn’t much more to be said about their own poll: it just was risible.

    There was some kind of response from people associated with the BHA when I originally flagged this stuff up, but it didn’t amount to anything much (you’ll find it in the original threads, if you can be bothered to wade through them). I think they rather thought it was bad form for an “ally” to adopt such an intemperate tone – although I was never an ally – and that what counted wasn’t the poll’s accuracy, but rather that it was (supposedly) useful as a propaganda tool.

  13. (Jeremy) “I think they rather thought it was bad form for an “ally” to adopt such an intemperate tone – although I was never an ally – and that what counted wasn’t the poll’s accuracy, but rather that it was (supposedly) useful as a propaganda tool.”

    Yeah, they (or rather, Andrew Copson) did say that. And I wish I’d been less apathetic at the time and complained about it myself. I’m a member of the BHA, and happy to be so. I like the work they do generally, and specifically the campaigning on my behalf. I’m happy to pay someone else to do that for me, because of the aforementioned apathy.

    But I thought Copson’s “who’s side are you one?” defence was outrageous. Why Andrew, I’m on the side of reason, rationality and evidence — who’s side are *you* on?

  14. Jeremy Stangroom

    Owen

    Ah, I’d forgotten that Copson contributed to the original threads.

    I’m a member of the BHA, and happy to be so. I like the work they do generally, and specifically the campaigning on my behalf. I’m happy to pay someone else to do that for me, because of the aforementioned apathy.

    I think it’s (partly) the fact they are de facto the public face of British secularism – however regrettable that might be – that makes it so important they’re not sloppy in their public utterances.

    The trouble is they are very sloppy. Their web site is full of highly suspect stuff (some of it written by the philosophers James mentions above).

    I was going to do a series of posts pulling it apart. But when it came to it, I couldn’t be bothered! (There’s that apathy thing!)

    Mind you, it might be fun to offer to do so on behalf of some Christian organisation. Maybe Theos. That would be amusing! :-)

  15. “The trouble is they are very sloppy. Their web site is full of highly suspect stuff.”

    What, really? I’d love to see you talk about that (if you ever get around to it…).

    I can’t say I’ve delved too deep into the site itself, but I’ve just pulled this off the main page:

    “The British Humanist Association…
    …is the national charity supporting and representing people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs. Our vision is of a world without religious privilege or discrimination. We promote Humanism, campaign for an open society and a secular state, and work with others of different beliefs for the common good.
    Humanists…
    …are atheists and agnostics who make sense of the world using reason, experience and shared human values. We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfillment. We seek to make the best of the one life we have by creating meaning and purpose for ourselves, individually and together.”

    The implementation might leave something to be desired on occasion, but I’m quite happy with the aims.

  16. Jeremy Stangroom

    Owen

    Well this bit for starters:

    We take responsibility for our actions and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, happiness and fulfillment.

    Ignoring the whole responsibility for our own actions thing (because I’m not sure what that means – it sounds Christian to me!), why do I have to be some kind of consequentialist about ethics to be a humanist (because that seems to be implied here)?

  17. Try reading it this way:

    We take responsibility for our actions instead of blaming things on demons/original sin/the stars, and base our ethics on the goals of human welfare, as opposed to copping out and doing whatever someone claims God says.

    The bits I added are what I consider to be implicit. The focus is not on prescribing a particular ethical system, rather recognizing that it’s up to us as humans to determine our ethics — we’re not getting them passed down to us from on high.

    I believe the fundamentals of humanism involve two things:

    * Responsibility for your own behavior lies with you, the individual human — not gods, authority figures or anyone claiming to speak for them.

    * Other people matter too.

    I think the BHA blurb is compatible with these. It may well be that a consequentialist style of ethics is entailed by these principles. I haven’t thought that through enough to come to a conclusion, but I’m not too worried about it because my personal ethics are largely consequentialist anyway.

    (There’ll be those who quibble about the focus on human welfare above, say, primates and other animals, and those people might reasonably object to humanism on those grounds. I think I can be respectful of the rights of other species while still being a humanist, but others might disagree.)

  18. Merlijn de Smit

    I’m not sure how either of those two fundamentals serve to distinguish humanism from various strands of religious thought. My impression is that divine command theories of ethics (“what is good is whatever God tells you so”) are very much in a minority position, and a popular strand of apologetics tries to deduce God precisely from some kind of innate, commonly-human sense of right and wrong (I think this effort is misguided but that aside).

    I don’t see why a humanist could not agree with a similar kind of Kantian moral imperative ethics while disagreeing on the God part. Vice versa, it would be quite possible for a Christian to embrace some kind of consequentalist or teleological ethics (one in which, say, Christ serves as an example of human moral perfection, or a situational ethics where love is the primary justification for any action – but one which eschews any abstract rules).

    Original sin is, in most varieties of Christianity, not available as something to blame things upon. Maybe Calvinism gets close in that a Calvinistic understanding means we can’t get anything right. The downside being we’re still held responsible (and perhaps a bit overly harshly so). Responsibility lies very much with ourselves – it’s just that it is God that does the punishment part. But otherwise original sin/the fall is a metaphor or a religious image for the human condition. Exceedingly bleak views on which are not unknown with secularist authors as well (thinking here of the late Dutch psychiatrist Piet Vroon, or maybe John Gray). Granted, these aren’t usually very humanist secularists…

  19. Think it over, I have to confess that there is an element of truth in your opinion: Humanism cannot be split off from either of the fundamentals. I would rather think humanism is in overlapping relationship to religion. Similarly, the divine command theories of ethics may also be overlapping with some apologetic understanding of ethic issues. Of course, the possibility cannot be ruled out that some apologetic position may spring from personal understanding and interprestation. I do not want to comment on it this way or that. But the personal interpretation of religion does result in divergence in understanding in some aspects. But I don’t think this is a crucial issue, as the framework is still there.

    I think one can have the free-will choice in embracing any thread of ethics. But the problem involved is whether the personal belief system is coherent, consistent and reflects a genuine whole picture of personal existential state. For instance, if one chooses both a Kantian position and a Christian position (if the two positions agree with each other, so far so good), and if the two positions are in conflict, the belief crisis may thereby arise, and one may find it very difficult to handle some issues.

    To my understanding, original sin is indeed a metaphor capturing a particualr state of human condition, but it also provides a perspective of understanding the nature and cause of this condition. Think about this: if we take the position “humans are good by nature,” our understanding and interpretation of many practical issues may be entirely different! But if this interpretation cannot pass muster, we may be likely to shift to the original-sin position. Calvinism provides a more humane (and self-excusable) outlet…Whatever kind of understanding,harshness of life still exists….

  20. My husband and myself are both members of the British Humanist association, I joined a few years ago and he joined recently. The reason for joining our local group in Sutton Surrey is not just because we are both atheists but also we agree with many of the Humanist ideas ie evolution etc. And we have found that we have always been Humanists but did not know about the association. Since joining we have had many discussions on certain topics and the speakers who have come to tell us about many aspects of Humanism such as how Humanism was practiced in ancient Greece and democracy, and we have had talks on Charles Darwin and Albert Einstein. I am so pleased I found out about our Humanist group we enjoy our regular meetings once a month and the like-minded people that we meet there.

  21. I missed this. Sutton, Surrey. Friends Meeting House, Cedar Road?

    Maybe not, but that’s where these things are usually held in Sutton!

  22. Jeremy Stangroom if you happen to return to this site anytime and are interested in our Sutton group the venue has now moved from Cedar road Sutton to the Prince of Wales public house Malden road Cheam village Surrey. (we have a private room at he back of the pub) you would get a warm welcome from the other members. you can just come along to listen to one of our talks which take place the first Wednesday of each month. Or view our site for information (Sutton Humanists)

  23. Carole, I’m not a humanist, and I live in Toronto, Canada, so I’ll give your meetings a miss. But… I know the Prince of Wales pub. Nice place.

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