Using statistics for political grandstanding is nothing new and it's always going to be rationalization and cherry-picking about evolution, or any science, when it comes to portrayals of opponents. It would obviously be a bad idea for Democrats to criticize black evangelicals on evolution, for example, though they have overwhelming denial of evolution, because they vote solidly Democrat. They also aren't itemized separately in the latest Pew evolution results, though white evangelicals are, oddly(1), so the news has instead been about Republicans.
I have made no secret of my irritation with right-wing denial of biology, especially given their claims to be more rational and independent than their opposition. I have encouraged America's foremost conservative magazine, National Review, to jettison the anti-evoluton shills masquerading in their pages as good conservatives with the secret agenda to promote their nonsense. Instead, they have adopted the same 'I will believe your cause if you believe mine' big tent mentality that progressives also use. But are they that much worse?
How much does religion have to do with science acceptance? Hybrid graphic created from Shutterstock and vitalik.wapday.com images.
If this were still 2005, we could pretend that global warming and evolution (and also, weirdly, being vilified for obeying a predecessor's federal law restricting human embryonic stem cell funding while still funding it for the first time in history) were the only science issues, and it would look pretty bad for Republicans. Yet even if 100% of Republicans denied evolution, the latest results would still mean that almost 50% of Democrats did also.
But does that mean a giant swath of America distrusts science, or they just don't like some scientists? The public trusts scientists overall but not climate scientists, and right behind them are biologists. For the left, biologists can't be trusted when it comes to food or medicine. For the right, biologists can't be trusted about evolution. What's odd is that both sides insist biologists can't be trusted because they are controlled by the government.
Two generations ago, when science academia was as politically balanced as mainstream America, conservatives led all groups in trust of scientists. Today, they do not have anywhere near as much confidence, though moderates don't either. Only self-identified "liberals" show the same trust in scientists and a look at the demographics show why - academics, including in science, are on the left, and overwhelmingly so, which was never the case in the past. As the ratio of self-professed "liberals" in academia doubled over the last generation (as did independents, though almost none of those professed independents in academia vote Republican), the political partisanship became more apparent and right-wing people lost confidence in their objectivity.
But that is about scientists, not science. Actual science literacy is the same for people on the right and on the left, and American adults lead the world in science literacy. Given that literacy, why do so many people deny evolution? Is it due to religion or science or scientists? Yes it is. Just as some anti-GMO people insist that everyone who defends genetics must be on the take from Monsanto, some right-wing people believe that evolution has become an atheist Democratic conspiracy.
But even that doesn't tell the whole story of why Americans just don't buy it.
These results look bad for Republicans. Unfortunately, some of the other results look bad for everyone. Link: Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project
Some framing of these latest results was used to trot out the old 'Republicans are anti-science' shtick again but it didn't resonate outside the people so polarized they think voting Republican causes cancer - too many biologists have been forced to speak out against 'greens' and their war on biology to believe one party is the party of science, not to mention the anti-vaccine and anti-energy movements and their overwhelmingly skewed voter registration. (2)
It clearly isn't a science literacy or faith issue, since Republicans are scientifically literate and Democrats go to church. One real issue never brought up in the culture war is that evolution is hard, so hard to understand we've had discussions about whether or not it should be taught in high school. When something is complicated, it is harder to teach and when it is hard to teach it can be easy to instill doubt. We don't teach quantum mechanics in high school but we teach Newton, for example.
What most evolution-accepting people, on the left-wing or atheists who say they accept science, actually know about adaptive radiation could dance with that right-wing angel on the head of a pin - they just have unwavering faith in science rather than an oddly medieval-European-looking Jesus. It may be that Europeans seem to accept evolution more because they lack critical thinking and simply believe what experts tell them to believe.
So if we know what the results don't mean, what do they mean?
Women Don't Accept Evolution Either
When you look at the data, they show that despite hysterical claims of a decade ago that George W. Bush had ushered in some Dark Ages Science Inquisition due to evil religion, the opposite is true. Americans on both sides of the political aisle have gotten more scientifically literate, not less.
Older people are the ones who deny evolution the most - in both parties. Though American adults lead the world in science literacy and that science literacy has tripled since 1988, it has increased among the younger demographic. With literacy comes understanding and acceptance. That means that regardless of what averages in surveys show, science has already won when it comes to evolution. Young people get it. Now, there is also less formal religious belief in young people and the great thing about finding two similar curves and declaring correlation-causation is that it makes life easy. That doesn't make it valid.
Like racism, sexism and lots of other -isms, you can't legislate culture out of existence. Old people with those beliefs will just be replaced over time. Making political hay out of it in the meantime seems silly.(3)
And overtly dishonest. Along with black evangelicals, you won't see the people inclined to declare that Republicans are anti-science go after women even though the gap between women and men regarding evolution acceptance is larger than the gap between Republicans and Democrats, in all but this latest poll (it's usually around 9 points).
Oops. Will those people who find flaws in Republicans note how lopsided evolution acceptance is when women are compared to men? Link: Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project
Only 55% of women accept evolution and almost 40% more women than men think mankind has always been just like we are. But it's unrealistic to expect to see those people who are highlighting the problems of the GOP mention the science acceptance of women any time soon.
Statistics are funny business anyway, but people who like what they see don't look too hard to find flaws.(4) Pew actually used two surveys, for a total of 4,006 interviews. The weighting, including correcting for "known demographic discrepancies", is subjective. Among black people, Republicans and women, the ratios of evolution denial all seem to have gone up. It doesn't mean that the results are flawed, but it does mean that declaring a big change is not warranted, especially when the results are substantially different from other surveys. There is a reason simple poll averaging works in presidential elections but relying on one poll isn't a good idea.
So are women and black people and Republicans more anti-science than men and white people and Democrats? They are if you want to believe it. What should make you suspicious are pundits who only focus on one of those things.
(1) Catholics and White Protestants look quite rational by comparison, though Catholics have always been pro-science, unless you read the claims of critics who lack a clue about basic history. Specifying white evangelicals but not black seems intentional or a real flaw. Hispanics are likely primarily Catholics so that can go without issue but evangelical and 'born again' are synonymous in mainstream religious demographics, so how they determined white evangelicals but not black is a mystery. 61% of black people describe themselves as 'born again' but only black Protestants, the minority, are listed separately. The Wheaton article say this lack of nuance about black people has "to do more with political demographics than religious characteristics." Even religious people refuse to give real answers, making the Pew categorization suspect anyway; 75% of Southern Baptists don't agree they are either 'evangelical' or 'born again'. So are they mainstream Protestants? It's too subjective to pass without comment.
In looking at this particular chart, I have to wonder if Pew truly thinks evangelicals, as many as 90 million Americans, are solely white "Duck Dynasty" viewers. It really weakens the whole study overall to have a big flaw like this.
(2) If you want another thoughtful look at what the results mean, including the insight that just because the left claims to accept more evolution doesn't mean they really accept more science, Kenneth Silber puts the results in context. He's no shill for the right, and he apparently didn't like Science Left Behind (Whaaaa? If you read it today, not only is everything in there completely correct, it has become more obvious to anyone not already in the bag for one side or the other) and he probably got a nice shot of dopamine beating on that dopey GOP for evolution acceptance. But, he's right. They can't claim to be the party of reason and act like Greenpeace or Nancy Pelosi, just about different stuff. If no one on their side calls them out about evolution, then they are just like Democrats when it comes to GMOs, energy, astrology, psychics and all of the other nonsense that rarely gets mentioned when the anti-science discussion/politics meme is invoked. So call them out, Republicans. Well, all 5 of you under the age of 60 who still somehow got hired in academia.
(3) Put in another topic and it becomes obvious. 44% of white evangelical Millennials (ages 18-29) favor allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, compared to only 12% of evangelical seniors and 19% of evangelicals overall.
(4) Critics of American education, for example, focused on one international standardized test that found Finland had the highest scores. What happens to all of those Finns after middle school, since American adults lead the world in science literacy? It didn't matter, it gave critics a chance to say how bad American education is. They did not realize they were endorsing Finland's "conservative" approach to education, where bad teachers are fired and kids are not steeped in social engineering.