A ray of hope about acceptance of evolution?

June 3, 2012 • 8:22 am

After yesterday’s post about the lack of America’s progress in accepting evolution, I heard from reader Steve Bracker, who claimed that one could perhaps find a glint of hope in the data:

I think you are being a little too pessimistic about evolution acceptance. I’ve used Excel to replot the God had no part in evolution data [see below] with a more sensible vertical scale, and superimposed a linear trendline. Sure, things could be better, but this isn’t “flatlined”. Religiosity is a dire disease; we shouldn’t expect its cure to be quick.

Obviously we don’t want to lean too hard on the trendline as a predictor, but if by 2035 ~20% of the population really is onboard with fully ungodified evolution, that’s a success! Yes, your book may have done its part, perhaps even a vital part. No (the dilemma of, teachers everywhere) you may never really know.

It’s easy to make up all sorts of stories that make the linear trendline completely useless as a predictor. Maybe the goddists finally take over the schools and drive all secular education underground. I can see the headlines: “Santorum lights one for Jesus at NCSE auto‐da‐fe”. Maybe we’ve just picked the low‐hanging fruit, and we will have to work much harder/smarter to pick up the next few percent.

But maybe the linear trendline is too pessimistic. Perhaps people will feel more free to say that gods aren’t needed for evolution any more than they are needed to stabilize planetary orbits. Add just a few percent more vocal nongoddists, and the odds that a given young person can grow up without ever encountering an antidote to his preacher’s mind‐poison go way down. Think of a young epidemic (or forest fire) of respect for reason and evidence! Maybe we’re just creeping up the very early portion of a logistic curve.

Here’s Steve’s plot of the percentage of Americans who, when asked about the evolution of human beings, felt that “humans evolved, but God had no part in the process”:

I noted this trend in my Evolution paper on the topic, but didn’t know if it’s statistically significant. I still don’t: I asked Steve if he could test whether this trend was more than a chance fluctuation, and he responded that:

I don’t know, because I don’t know what the errors are on the individual points. (I didn’t go back to the original data; I just “digitized” the data from the graph you posted.)  As a quick check, I generated a dozen dummy data sets, setting each data point to the measured value (from the original graph) + a random number uniformly distributed in (-3, 3).  I doubt the survey results are much worse than that. As expected, the slope of the trendline wandered around a bit, but it did stay resolutely positive, sometimes above 0.2315 and sometimes below (0.2144, 0.2529, 0.1762, 0.1471, 0.2415, 0.2725, 0.2190  etc.)  So based on this admittedly ruffianly test, I’d say the trend is fairly robust.

For what it’s worth, r2 [the proportion of the total variation in evoution-acceptance explained by the succession of years] is 0.7412 on the original fit.

Using Steve’s best-fit line, I calculated that we’ll finally see 80% of Americans accepting naturalistic evolution in the year 2294. Only three centuries to go, folks!

65 thoughts on “A ray of hope about acceptance of evolution?

  1. IMO, you are making a mistake in trusting such surveys. It costs people nothing to lie to a collector of information and it might “cost them their soul”. Most people treat religion like a lottery – you try to buy at least one ticket.

    The only real test for evolutionary belief is one where the rubber meets the road – what do they do if their life depends on their choice?

    If they are dying of a disease, do they want a treatment which allows for the evolution of the bacteria — and has been intelligently designed?

    1. You may be right, but the problem is, I fear, that many people similarly succumb to Pascal’s Wager when they teach their children, vote for the School Board, etc. So if they don’t really believe in magic, they are swayed by their perception that most people do.

      If more and more people stand up to BS every time they catch a whiff of it, the scientific worldview will slowly become unremarkable and mainstream.

  2. This certainly is an interesting phenomenon.

    On the topic of linear versus exponential curves, I’d like to suggest that I’d expect much greater than linear. Why? Social networks.

    It appears from cognitive science that tipping points in social trends often occur around the 10-15% range: http://www.trendsspotting.com/blog/?p=2123

    Of course religion isn’t merely a fashion trend so this doesn’t fit exactly. But there is a major fashion trend component to it. Religions have historically survived on both ignorance and on local community. The internet itself is doing a big job on getting rid of the ignorance but the local community pressures don’t go away as easily. (That is, being the lone atheist in your neighbourhood is still scary, and you still get a lot of your views from your local peer groups.)

    Social networking is doing a lot to change the community component. These days, “local community” is more and more meaning people of similar backgrounds on the internet and less and less about physical neighbours. Heck, even this blog has its own little community, but take a look at something like reddit, especially the atheism subreddit (www.reddit.com/r/atheism) which regularly has converts.

    While religion can still have a strong hold on minds, it may no longer be able to pull back the agnostic fringe. Even a slight curiosity these days can lead down a trail towards non-belief. Even better, an interest in learning atheist arguments to better attack them can do the same. I think religion is quickly losing its protective social shell which may be a tipping point.

    1. I should apologize for using the word “convert”. I meant it metaphorically, of course. It’s really just losing a belief as in Santa or the Easter Bunny.

    2. I’ve often wondered about this.

      Will religion (or denial of evolution) decline slowly over time, or will it reach a tipping point where it suddenly drops off?

      Or perhaps there will always be a certain proportion of the population that needs/wants to believe and the drop will level off at a new equilibrium.

      It‘s encouraging to see how the proportion of people who take religion seriously seems to be dropping quite quickly with each generation. We also have an asymmetry of conversion on our side: it seems that people brought up to believe are more likely to lose their faith than atheist/agnostics are to take up religion.

    3. Social Networks? (my ears prick up, as that’s my field)

      I have to agree… public acceptance of various ideas is very much a non-linear thing. It has everything to do with so-called “diffusion of innovations” which seems to be very unlike the old “telephone tag” way of message propagation. Rather, there really seems to be tipping behavior nearly everywhere you look. I’d be interested to know how religiosity in Scandinavian countries varied over the last century — I’d wager you’d find big shifts in very brief timescales. (it would have everything to do with peer negotiation – and these system feedbacks are decidedly non-linear / chaotic).

      1. I have seen an avalanche of unbelief in my lifetime in New Zealand. I think US isolationism has a lot to do with it. You look more and more like The Handmaid’s Tale to us.

        1. It’s strange – I mentioned Scandinavia, but also had New Zealand in the back of my mind. If you’re reading this, could you better describe this avalanche? What time period are we talking about?

            1. BTW, I used a polynomial extrapolation to analyse the NZ census figures. There is census data going back to the late 19th century, and from memory the trend toward non-religion is fairly steady but jumps in the 1960’s and 70’s to the present trendline.

            2. “NZ Atheism on target to overtake Christianity in next five years”

              one of the very reasons I moved here.

              wanted to witness this for myself.

              On the ground, it is so.

              Even Tamaki and his destiny church fraud are “retreating to higher ground”

      2. Indeed, decidedly nonlinear:

        “Here we use a minimal model of competition for members between social groups to explain historical census data on the growth of religious non-affiliation in 85 regions around the world.

        … logistic growth.

        Our assumption that the perceived utility of a social group remains constant may be approximately true for long stretches of time, but there may also be abrupt changes in perceived utility, a possibility that is not included in the model.”

        [In either case, it ends well:

        “We found that a particular case of the solution fits census data on competition between religious and irreligious segments of modern secular societies in 85 regions around
        the world. The model indicates that in these societies the perceived utility of religious non-affiliation is greater than that of adhering to a religion, and therefore predicts continued growth of non-affiliation, tending toward the disappearance of religion.”]

        Here is an abrupt change in perceived utility and its rapid induced change:

        “When secularization seriously had spread during the 1900s, and theology as a scientific study in earnest came to be questioned in Sweden much by philosophy professor Ingemar Hedenius, it became important for theology to show their academic eligibility.

        As a consequence, it was the term “theology” in the Swedish academic world, in part, to be replaced by “religion”. Thus, the term has now two main meanings in Swedish, partly confessional beliefs and reflections on their own god, and also the scientific subject. In the public debate in Sweden, as in Swedish universities, is now “theology” primarily in the sense of “religious studies”.” [Swedish Wikipedia on theology through Google Translate; my bold.]

        1. Sweet! Fantastic stuff. Thanks very much for this. This is very much consistent with the picture of a social structure whose connections form a power law type of distribution. “Small world” stuff indeed. In such a network, influences can seem to percolate or meander (and sometimes die out) when negotiations are happening peripherally. A bit of steam builds up as the core is quickly reached (as certain ideas become banalized, for instance, and larger numbers of people find them easier to accept), then BAM. The thing tips (and what was once predominant becomes the thing on the run). Whatever happened to bell-bottom jeans, anyway?

          Nowdays most people would not be caught dead in them outside of Halloween parties, and I’m hoping religion is going into that dark and uncomfortable closet, too. A lot could happen, though, depending on the environment, energy, economies, supply chains. We could have a mini enlightenment and go right back, if conditions go south.

  3. I think an important consideration about the state of religious belief is the age of the population cohort rather than a cross section of the general population.

    In Canada, for example, the news is very good indeed: there is a significant and stable shift away from religious belief by our youth and this is the key area where we need to look to see if long term change is actually happening. Because this cohort of youth is really the first major cohort immersed in the internet (where religions come to die), I think we have every reason to be confident that the tide of belief has already turned and a site like this one – quoted widely, I have found – is doing a vital job in providing youth excellent reasons – by providing compelling and accessible evidence – to make this shift.

  4. It appears to me that the trend line in your post mirrors closely the emergence of people who declare themselves to be non-religious or unaffiliated. If Wikipedia is to be believed, this group has increased from 8% in 1990 to 15% in 2008 – which isn’t that far off from the number of people who espouse belief in naturalistic evolution over the same time period. That is why I think it’s significant, and it also supports your overall thesis that religion is the problem with acceptance of evolution.

    Of course, I think that people who believe in god and also accept evolution will out of instinct claim that god had a part in that evolution, even though that opinion probably isn’t formed by any particularly deep thought about the subject. Once they drop their belief in god, they will also stop believing that god had any part in evolution.

    1. exactly what I was going to say.

      The “god had no part in evolution” people are virtually the same group as the “there is no god people”.

      The only people I could imagine saying they believe in god but that he had no part in evolution would be true deists, whom I assume are a very small group.

        1. But evolutionary creationists can come down anywhere in response, depending on how the question is formulated. Somewhere they do believe a god had part, however they profess an outward semblance of evolution.

          Jacob’s observation on statistics makes me think very few ECs responded “god had no part” here. Good for them.

  5. One problem with the Gallup poll numbers is that it focuses on humans, where many people make feel impelled to an exception to their beliefs. Would they say the same thing if asked whether (say) salmon and tuna fish evolved from a common ancestor millions of years ago?

    There are some interesting articles on this: One is in the Reports of the National Center for Science Education:

    George F Bishop, Randall K Thomas, Jason A Wood, and Misook Gwon Americans’ Scientific Knowledge and Beliefs about Human Evolution in the Year of Darwin Reports of the Nationakl Center for Science Education, Volume: 30, Issue: 3, pages 16-18, May-June 2010

    which can be found here

    there is a detailed article by George Bishop in RNCSE in 2007 going into the results of multiple polls. It is not available on line but fortunately here is a version.

    By the way, the Gallup poll was a survey of 1,012 adults. From that one should (with some effort) be able to work out the significance of the trend.

    1. One problem with the Gallup poll numbers is that it focuses on humans

      whereas it should have, of course, focused on cats.

  6. God had no part in evolution

    I think you’re setting the benchmark too high. What we should hope for first is to get Americans to accept that evolution occurs at all, even if they wish to assign some role to God. Demonstrating that God has no role at all is an impossible task.

    1. We can demonstrate that there is zero evidence that “God” exists or has any role in anything. Would that work for you?

      1. No. That really moves the discussion into being about theology rather than evolution. People that wish to believe that God determines the mutations or quantum fluctuations can still operate successfully in a science-based world, so while the belief might be flaky, it’s not a real problem.

        1. As Jerry has shown, theology is the major barrier to acceptance of evolution. Therefore, theology probably is the ground we should fight on, when fighting creationists of various flavors. At least some of us need to be there.

        2. So they want pervert physics in order to pervert biology. (You can’t “determine” quantum fluctuations while staying unnoticeable, no hidden variables allowed in QM.)

          Somehow I don’t think that should be seen as “operating successfully”. Maybe “balderdash successfully”?

  7. Because the response variable is binary (does/does not accept naturalistic evolution), logistic regression is more appropriate than linear regression. Assuming the sample size for each poll was 1000 (the most recent was 1012), the result is highly significant (chi-square=40.9, 1 d.f., P less than 0.00001).

    Fitting the logistic regression line to these data and extrapolating, it will only take until 8:09 p.m. on March 20, 2149 for 80% of Americans to accept naturalistic evolution. Something to look forward to!

  8. I think it will accelerate down the road. There’s always a certain amount of perceived danger in admitting to others what you believe is outside the socially accepted realm. It’s also difficult to accept the belief that is shunned by society if only because you understand that you will be ostracized.

    But as more come out of the closet, as your belief becomes larger in the social group, it tends to grow faster over time as the alternative social structures start to form.

    I think you can see this best, right now, in the acceptance of gay marriage.

    Going to HS in the 1970s, gay marriage wasn’t even considered. Hell, gay rights were actively frowned upon as was the ERA plus a lot of hold-over animosity to the Civil Rights movement.

    My youngest is in high school right now. By-and-large people in her peer group are still split on gay marriage. But it’s not the 4-to-1 against of my parent’s generation or the 2.5-to-1 against of mine.

    Plus close to 70% accept gay-relationships. Something, as a senior in HS, was still almost completely unacceptable (hell, in 1987, eight years after I graduated HS, it was still polling at 74% always or almost always wrong).

    Now, will it be 100%?

    I don’t see how. There’s always going to be a minority of humans who can’t deal with reality.

  9. Using Steve’s best-fit line, I calculated that we’ll finally see 80% of Americans accepting naturalistic evolution in the year 2294. Only three centuries to go, folks!

    Well, that’s not too bad. We might have widespread acceptance of evolution before there is widespread acceptance that there is global warming problem.

  10. Matlab:

    » r = sqrt(0.7412);
    » N = 11;
    » t = r/sqrt((1-r^2)/(N-2));
    » nu = N-2;
    » x = nu/(t^2+nu);
    » P = betainc(x,nu/2,1/2)
    P = 0.00067
    % two-sided

    The significant level of this trend is high.

  11. Religiosity is too intertwined with socioeconomic inequality to be defeated by pure reason.

    Bubba Watson, after winning the 2012 Masters golf tournament on Easter Sunday (the final round has fallen on Easter Sunday 16 times previously) said:

    Yeah, this is the day Jesus is risen. Good Friday was when He was crucified on the cross, and today is Easter where we celebrate He’s risen. For us, that’s salvation to go to Heaven. He took all of our sins from us. So for me, it’s just a dream come true. My dad is not here. I hope he’s watching in heaven.”

    Bubba’s wife Angie tweeted, somewhat incoherently:

    Baby Caleb, a green jacket, none compare to the price Jesus paid to make today possible!”

    Actually, Bubba, you hit the ball three miles and won on a golf course that has traditionally rewarded length off the tee.

    To simply accept their good fortune would be an act of un-Christian arrogance to these people. It would also mean admitting that global socioeconomic inequality is man’s folly, instead of being an unwelcome consequence of “God’s plan”. It would mean Angie confessing to that poor dirt farmer in Africa (with six diseased and disfigured children) that her life of comfort is justified because Bubba’s pretty good at whacking a ball around with a stick.

    How can that knot be untwisted? Certainly not with with reason.

  12. It’s tempting to note that the upticks in ~2001 and ~2009 happen to coincide with 9/11 and the publication of WEIT, respectively. But the Gallup poll article says the 95% confidence interval is +/-4 points, making the zig-zags in the curve almost certainly the result of statistical variation.

    1. Yes, or logistic regression used (as was done in comments 10 and 15 above. (I suspect it might not make much difference anyway as the numbers never get very close to zero).

  13. I think what this prediction is failing to take into account is the very real culture war the religious right has been waging. All of that news about voting rights suppression, anti-womens’s rights laws, gerrymandering… these are all designed to make Christianity the law of the land by making it impossible for other societal views to take hold. Republican politicians are just “the useful idiot” by which they reach these goals. (Funny how it started out with the Republicans seeing the religious right as the “useful idiots”.)

    The religious right are sneaky, dishonest, and determined to make America their private Iran. If they’re not stopped in the next few elections, the chart will point downwards simply because no one is allowed to say otherwise.


    1. Yes, I’m concerned about that. But, I remain optimistic. Otherwise I’d have to flee to NZ or somewhere.

      1. oh, you’ll realize it’s inevitable.

        you’ll be with us here in Hobbitton soon enough, helping us fight off the orcish invasion.

  14. We need to accept the dominance of childhood thinking and magical delusional thinking in the majority of the population in the richest country in the world and in the history of the world.

    Serious and perhaps critical policy needs to be evaluated and enacted by the population as a whole.

    Truthfully, we don’t know if any rational or logical fact-based talk will be possible given the lack of free will.

    Maybe that’s the answer — it truly makes no difference what people say they believe.

  15. If we are lucky we will get to a point where we will hit a critical mass and go from a line to a hockey stick. America no longer will want to be seen with the fuddy-duddy religios. It will be so cool to hang out with those fab science geeks instead.

  16. “Only three centuries to go, folks!” – Yes, if we assume that this is an unchanging gradual proces. But this proces is quite complex and multifactorial, so could we not expect some sudden change at some point in the (near?) future – a paradigm-shift in public perception of evolution?

      1. Funny – I should’ve read the comments before posting up above. It turns out the physicists have been rediscovering social network science, and planting flags left and right. Good for them. It would be nice though if they at least acknowledged similar work that has been going on since the 1960s (really picking up steam in the 1980s).

        I cannot tell if these folks (I’m unfamiliar with any of their names) did precisely this – cannot even get the refs, unfortunately. If anyone has institutional access to this article, would appreciate a forward to: quintus (at) earthlink.net.

        1. Belay that request. I should’ve looked harder (the arxivs).

          Here’s the pre-print version.

          It seems they did reference many in the social networks field (Harary, Friedkin, Granovetter) in their expo. Kind of funny that they even italicise “Diffusion of Innovations” yet fail to cite Rogers. Oh well.

      2. It would be interesting to know how these physicists define and measure (or verify) the unshakability of beliefs.

        1. Precisely. By my quick read of the thing, it is merely a “toy model”, based on a presumption of a belief as some kind of binary variable, and its “unshakability” being one of the problem givens.

          You just assume a belief to be unshakable and an either/or thingy, then the consequence is the thing inexorably tips if you are past a 10% threshold.

          Typical physics simplification of social processes. You want to know how elephants interact in a herd, so here’s how you approach the question:

          First assume perfectly spherical elephants in an adiabatic chamber…

    1. Here’s [PDF] a (Free) ton of antecedent work to the flurry of stuff the physicists have been doing recently. Note that some of the work on adoption goes back to the 40s, studying adoption of hybrid corn in Iowa, of all things. (stuff I was unaware of before downloading this synopsis). See pg 38 for general curves. showing the “take-off” phase. Pg 53 for the hybrid corn adoption curve. This piece is peppered with examples, though.

  17. Why in the world would you assume this would be linear? There is a tipping point, I’d bet, where as soon as the graph hits a magic value, the lemmings will all follow suit.

  18. As I outlined in my latest post on HuffPo: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rev-michael-dowd/evolving-gallup-evolution-poll_b_1564081.html?ref=religion-science I predict we’ll see progress within years rather than centuries when a fourth question is added to the menu of possible responses:

    4. Human beings emerged naturally from a long process of physical and biological creativity that can be spoken of religiously as “God’s creation” or scientifically as “evolution.”

    1. Hmmm, very clever. Waitaminnit… No it’s not. (*buzzer*)

      Esp see sections in the above link on:

      Multiple choice questions where it says “Beware of leaving out an answer option, or using answer options that are not mutually exclusive.

      Asking two questions at once (double-barreled questions), under the heading “Avoid these common question design pitfalls”.

      You’ve managed to bork the survey by committing TWO basic errors with one question. But thanks for playing.

  19. To my eyeballs, that looks like an exponential curve would better fit those data points. If that turns out to be the case then we should reach 20% quite a bit sooner than 2035.

    Here’s hoping…

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