The Straight Dope®

I saw an article the other day saying that 45 percent of the U.S. population believes that the earth is less than 10,000 years old. That would certainly explain the election results of the past few years, but I don't believe it. A near majority of Americans simply cannot be that retarded. I looked on the Web and did find a claim that a 2004 study showed this. But it provided no cite and I haven't been able to find any such study. Does it exist, or is this just an urban myth being passed witlessly around by the lower grade of media? (Don't use my name if you publish this, as it could affect my military contracts.) —Anonymous, via e-mail

Before you start excoriating the numbskulls, bub, you'd better make sure you've got the facts straight yourself. Though some percentage of Americans doubtless believes in a "young earth" (i.e., our planet is less than 10,000 years old), as far as I can tell that wasn't the subject of the 2004 study. Most likely what you heard about was a 2004 Gallup poll that asked about the less bizarre though still pretty out-there belief that humanity is less than 10,000 years old. Gallup first surveyed U.S. adults on this score in 1982 and has asked the same question several times since, most recently in May 2006. Participants can choose one of three answers:

· "God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time within the last 10,000 years or so." It's fair to describe this as the creationist view.

· "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process." We'll call this the theistic view.

· "Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process." I'll term this the naturalist view.

Between 1982 and 2006, the number subscribing to the creationist view has ranged from 44 to 47 percent, while those who buy the naturalist take on things account for 9 to 13 percent. The middle-ground theistic position gets 35 to 40 percent of the vote. There's no clear trend over the 24 years; if anything, the naturalists have gained a few percentage points. Polls by the Pew Research Center and NBC News have found similar support for creationist belief, while surveys by CBS News from 2004 to 2006 and a 2005 CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll give it a slim majority, at 51 to 53 percent.

To a degree, survey results reflect how the question is framed. Pew Research notes that its polls have found much wider belief in evolution than Gallup's, 26 percent versus 13 percent. The reason, Pew speculates, is that it doesn't mention God in the choices it offers participants, while Gallup does. Not wishing to declare themselves unbelievers, more Gallup respondents opt for the wishy-washy theist choice. The creationist numbers, on the other hand, can't be so easily explained away. Face it —despite seemingly abundant scientific evidence that humans are part of a primate family tree going back tens of millions of years, roughly half the country isn't having any of it.

If you've a mind to put a blue state/red state, slicks/yokels spin on matters, the polls offer lots of ammunition. A 2005 Harris poll reported that 73 percent of Republicans believed in creationism as opposed to 58 percent of Democrats and 57 percent of independents. (The numbers are higher across the board likely because of phrasing that, again, seemed to equate creationism with belief in God.) This poll also found that people in the northeast and west were much less likely to believe in creationism than those in the south and midwest, and that people over age 55 were much more likely to believe than those under. A 1991 Gallup survey found that college graduates were less than half as likely to believe in creationism as those lacking a high school diploma. Likewise, those with an income greater than $50,000 per year were half as likely to be creationists as those with an income under $20,000. In 1997 Gallup reported that 5 percent of scientists believed in creationism, which depending on how you look at it is either alarming or a relief.

How does the U.S. compare with other countries in terms of belief in evolution? Not so hot. A study of attitudes in 34 countries published in Science in 2006 shows that the United States ranks last in popular acceptance of evolution except for Turkey. Almost 40 percent of Americans in this study flatly rejected evolution, whereas the comparable numbers in European countries and Japan ranged from 7 to 15 percent. That may partly reflect U.S. high school kids' dismal math and science scores relative to other developed countries, which to my mind underscores a home truth: the more you know, the less you take on faith.

Comments, questions? Take it up with Cecil on the Straight Dope Message Board, www.straightdope.com, or write him at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611. Cecil's most recent compendium of knowledge, Triumph of the Straight Dope, is available at bookstores everywhere.

 
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