Thursday, November 10, 2005


What Polls Don't Tell Us

Much has been made lately of a poll conducted by the Lawrence Journal-World that shows about half of all Kansans say they know what intelligent design is and half of that group believes it should be taught in school. The poll was random sample telephone survey based on 800 interviews completed between Sept. 30 and Oct. 5 spread across each of the state’s 10 State Board of Education districts. The margin for error was plus or minus 3.5 percentage points.

Likewise, a poll conducted by the The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life last July showed that a plurality of Americans, some 48 percent, say that humans and other living things have evolved over time. Nearly as many, roughly 42 percent, hold a creationist position, saying that humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.

These results are troubling to scientists, educators, and supporters of science education who know that these public perceptions reflect a lack of understanding about science and evolution. They worry that social conservatives will use that knowledge to push an antiscience agenda in the area of public education.

The vote in Dover, however, like the 2000 Kansas State School Board of Education election before it, demonstrates something supporters of science and science education should not lose sight of -- something the polls don't show.

Polls, we think, tend to reflect the respondent's unexamined sense of fairness. As they respond to the pollster's questions, they think to themselves, "Yes, let's be fair. Let's teach all sides."

Elections, when they involve incumbents with an established track record, tend to reflect the experience voters have had of seeing the intelligent design forces in action -- particularly in situations where they've used an elected position to push their own narrow social agenda at the expense of the interests of the whole community.

In these cases, the issue is not just about an abstract sense of fairness. The intelligent design activists are running on a known track record -- a record that may involve abuses of power and a pattern of having played fast and loose with the truth.

Voters may be embarrassed -- as they were in Dover -- by public statements made by intelligent design activists that reveal an unseemly ignorance. That ignorance, the voters may feel, is a poor reflection on the school district, community, or state where they live.

Other issues, such as funding for education, vouchers, treatment of teachers, and the like, may also play an important role in convincing voters that while fairness is important in an abstract sense when they are answering a pollster's questions over the phone, competence, honesty, and wisdom are more important -- far more important factors when they enter the voting booth to elect the men and women who will guide the education of their children.


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