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« More on Pew's evolution survey & valid inferences about polarization | Main | Weekend update: Non-replication of "asymmetry thesis" experiment »

What sorts of inferences can/can't be drawn from the "Republican shift" (now that we have enough information to answer the question)?

Okay, so Pew, not surprisingly, happily released the partisan breakdown for all parts of its evolution question.

Pew also offered a useful explanation of what it admitted was a “puzzle” in its report--viz., how the proportion of Republicans "disbelieving" evolution could go up while the proportions of Democrats and Independents as well as the proportion of the general population "believing" in it all stayed "about the same"? Should be obvious, of course, that this was something only Pew, & not others without access to the necessary information, could do.

So now I’ll offer up some reflections on the significance of the “Republican shift”—the 9 percentage-point increase in the proportion of Republicans who indicated that they believe in the “creationist” response and the 11 percentage-point decrease in the proportion who endorsed either the “Naturalistic” or “Theistic” evolution responses to Pew’s “beliefs on evolution” item.

I’ll start with two background points on public opinion, including partisan divisions, on evolution. They are pretty critical to putting the “shift” in context.  Then I’ll offer some points that counsel against treating the “shift” as a particularly important new datum.

But to give you a sense of the theme that motivates the presentation of this information, I think the modal response to the Pew survey in the media & blogosphere was absurd.  Paul Krugman’s reaction is typical & typically devoid of reflection: “Republicans are being driven to identify in all ways with their tribe — and the tribal belief system is dominated by anti-science fundamentalists.”

He and many others leapt to a conclusion without the evidence that logic would have told them was not supplied in the original Pew summary. That’s pretty embarrassing. 

And not surprisingly, the theme of their interpretation – “more evidence of Republicans being driven to anti-science extremism!” – is a testament to confirmation bias: the use of one’s existing beliefs to construe ambiguous data, which is then treated as corroborating one’s existing beliefs.

Background point 1: “Beliefs” on evolution lack a meaningful relationship to understanding evolution, to science literacy generally, or to being “pro/anti-” science.

Only aggressive disregard of empirical data—lots and lots and lots of them!—can explain why popular commentators start screaming about science illiteracy and creeping “anti-science” sensibilities in the U.S, every time a major polling outfit releases an “evolution belief” survey (about once a year).

As I’ve mentioned before, there is zero correlation between saying one “believes” in evolution and being able to give a passable (as in pass a highschool biology test) account of the modern synthesis (natural selection, random mutation, genetic variance) account of it.  Those who say they “believe” are no more likely to have even a rudimentary understanding of how Darwinian evolution works than those who say they “don’t believe” it.

In fact, neither is very likely to understand it at all.  The vast majority of those who say they “believe in evolution” believe something they don’t understand

But that’s okay.  They’d not only be stupid—they’d be dead—if people insisted on accepting as known by science only those insights that they actually can intelligiently comprehend!  There’s way too much scientific knowledge out there, and it matters too much!

What’s not okay is to march around smugly proclaiming “my side is science literate; your’s isn’t!” because of poll results like this one.  That’s illiberal and ignorant.

It is also well established that “belief” in evolution is not a valid indicator of science literacy in general

Answering “yes” to the simplistic “do you believe in evolution” item in the NSF’s “science indicators” battery doesn't cohere with how one does on the rest of this science literacy test—in part because plenty of science know-nothings answer “yes” and in part because plenty of “science know a lots” answer “no.”

The item isn’t measuring the same thing as the other questions in the battery, something NSF itself has recognized.  What it is measuring is a matter I’ll address in a second.

Finally, as Pew, in one of the greatest surveys on U.S. public attitudes toward science ever has shown, “disbelieving” in evolution is not meaningfully associated with being “anti-science.”

The vast majority of people who say “I believe!” and those who say “I don’t”—“tastes great!” vs. “less filling!”—all have a super positive attitude toward science.

The U.S. is an astonishingly pro-science society. If you think otherwise, you just don’t know very much about this area.

Background point 2: “Belief”/“disblief” in evolution is a measure of identity, not a measure of science knowledge or attitudes.

As I’ve indicated, answering “I believe!” to a simple-minded “do you believe in evolution? Huh? Do you? Do you?” survey question is neither a valid measure of understanding evolution nor a valid indicator of science comprehension.

What it is is a measure of cultural identity.  People who say “yes” are expressing one sort of cultural affiliation & associated outlooks; those who say “no” are expressing another.

Religiosity is one of the main indicators of the relevant cultural styles.  The more religious a person is, the more likely he or she is to say “I don’t believe" in evolution.

Again, “belief” has nothing—zero, zilch—to do with science literacy.

Partisan self-identification—“I’m a Democrat!”; “I’m a Republican” (“tastes great! …”)—is simply another indicator of the relevant cultural styles that correspond to saying “believe” & “not believe” in evolution.

The partisan divide on evolution is old old old old news.

"MAFY" (i.e., “Making a fool of yourself based on uniformed reading of Pew poll") point 1: Well, what do you know! Democrats don’t believe in “evolution” either!

Now that Pew has released the partisan breakdowns on its entire evolution item and not just the first half of it, it is clear, as anyone who knows anything about this area of public opinion could have told you, that the vast majority of the U.S. publicDemocrat, Republican, and Indpendentsay they “don’t believe” in evolution.

Pew initially released the breakdown only on that 1/2 of the question that asked whether respondents believed “Humans and other living things have evolved over time” or instead “Humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

The next 1/2 asks those who select “evolved” whether they believe that “Humans and other living things have evolved due to natural processes such as natural selection” or whether they believe instead that “A supreme being guided the evolution of living things for the purpose of creating humans and other life in the form it exists today.”

Get that, Paul Krugman et al?  The first position is Darwinian evolution; the second isn’t—it’s something goofy and non-scientific like “intelligent design”!

Only 37% of Democrats say they believe that humans have evolved as a result of “natural selection.”  Over 40% of the Democrats who “believe in evolution” buy either the “supreme guidance” variant or “don’t know” if evolution operates without or without God involved.

Does this mean they are “anti-science”?


What it means to say one “believes” or “disbelieves” in evolution is a complicated, subtle thing.

What groups “believe” about evolution certainly tells us something about their attitudes toward science!

But for sure what it says can’t be reduced to the simplistic (genuinely ignorant) equation “disbelieve = anti-science.”

If you would like to understand these things, rather than be a pin-up cheerleader for an embarrassingly, painfully unreflective bunch of partisan zealots-- your tribe!--then you’ll have to simply accept that the world is complicated.

“MAFY” point 2: There was no meaningful “shift” in the proportion of Republicans who reject “naturalistic” or “Darwinian” evolution.

Now that Pew has released all the numbers, we know that 23% of self-identified Republicans in 2009 said they “believe” in “naturalistic” evolution—evolution via “natural selection” rather than divine “guidance”—and that 21% said that in 2013. 

Not within the statistical margin of error, as far as I can tell.

And definitely not practically significant.


“MAFY” point 3: The Pew survey is really interesting but does not in itself support any inference about a significant “change” in anything since 2009.

As I indicated, the partisan division on evolution is old old old old news.  That’s because the tendency of people with culturally opposing styles to take opposing positions on it—ones that express their identity and not their knowledge of or attitudes toward science—is old old old news.

The question is whether the Pew poll—which is really an excellent piece of work, like everything else they do—justifies concluding that something material has changed in just the last four years.

I've thought & thought about it & concluded it really doesn't.  Here's why.

1st, as emphasized, the shift in the percentage of Republicans who say they believe in Darwinian or naturalistic evolution was a measly 1%.

2d, Pew has given us 2 data points.  Without knowing what the breakdown was on their question prior to 2009, it is logically fallacious to characterize the 2013 result as evidence of Republican “belief in evolution” as having “plummeted.”  For all we know, non-belief is “rebounding” to pre-2009 levels.

I don’t know if it is.  But the point is, all those asserting a shift don’t either.  They are fitting their interpretation of incomplete, ambiguous data to their preconceptions.

3rd, if something real had changed, it wouldn’t show up only in Pew’s data. Gallup has been doing polls on evolution regularly for decades.  It’s numbers show no meaningful change in the numbers, at least through 2012 (go ahead, if you are a story teller rather than a critical thinker, and invent some ad hoc account of the amazing event in 2013 that changed everything etc).

More likely, then, Pew’s result reflects just a blip. 

Also supporting that view is the pretty big discrepancy between the percentage who identify as “naturalistic” as opposed to “theistic evolutionists” in Pew’s poll and those who do so in Gallup’s.  The questions are worded differently, which likely explains the discrepancy.

But that the slight word changes can generate such big effects underscores how much of a mistake it is to invest tremendous significance in a single survey item. 

Good social scientists--& I’d definitely include the researchers who work for Pew in that group—know that discrepancies in the responses to individual survey items mean that individual items not a reliable basis for drawing inferences about public opinion. Because what individual items “measure” can never be determined with certainty, it is always a mistake to take any one item at face value.

Look at lots of related items, and see how they covary.  Then consider what sorts of inferences fit the overall pattern.

Here, the “overall pattern” is too indistinct, too uneven to support the inference that the 9% “shift” in the proportion of Republicans who indicated they “believe” in “creationism” in the 2009 Pew survey and the 2013 one means the world has changed in some way bearing on the relationship between beliefs in evolution and the sorts of identities indicated by partisan self-identification.

Maybe something has!

But the question is whether the survey supports that inference.  If you want to say, “Oh, I’ll construe the survey to support the conclusion that something interesting happened because I already know that’s true,” be my guest.

It’s a free country, as they say, and if you want to jump up & down excitedly & reveal to everyone in sight that you don’t know the difference between “confirmation bias” and valid causal inference, you have every right to do so!

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Reader Comments (19)

But without relying on this supposed "confirmation bias", how am I to score cheap political points while arguing with strangers on the internet? Tell me that, Professor.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew Lloyd

MAFY 2 seems iffy, bordering on disingenuous. There was no meaningful “shift” in the proportion of Republicans who reject “naturalistic” or “Darwinian” evolution vs Supreme being guided evolution. But there's a large jump in the number who say humans have always existed in their present form (presumably as created by a Supreme Being.) That went from 39 to 48, which I believe is a significant change.

Perhaps it is just a temporary blip, but eliding it to make your point feels similar to what you accuse Krugman et al of doing.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJon Marcus

I"m sorry, but if you tell me you don't believe in evolution, this tells me that you're superstitious and ignorant. It's not a "culture".

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAlfredo Louro

Dan Kahan, all you seem to want to count is the change in how many people do not believe in God.

As Jon Marcus noted above, there is value in counting the change in how many believe in some kind of evolution (even if their understanding of how this works is a bit loose).

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterNicolas

Your conclusion is nonsense. If you believe that an invisible man-wizard in the clouds has fuck-all to do with evolution or the current state of animal and plant (and fungus and prion) configurations, you may not be specifically "anti" science but you clearly are choosing to ignore reality. And science is about recognizing reality.

The mere fact that lots of Dems are just as wacked as Repubs hardly justifies your claims, either.

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterCarl Witthoft

Hi Dan,

This is a bit off topic since it is referring to an earlier post of yours, but hopefully you can give us a quick answer.

A group of us are in the midst of a vigorous discussion on the white male effect and are discussing your chart showing that the white-male-effect is driven by HI white-males.


In all 4 quadrants the white mail curve extends below 0 and beyond 7 by 1 notch whereas the other 3 curves do not. Why is that?

Also, is there a way to access the data points that were used to create the 4 charts? An Excel or csv download maybe?



January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterGroff Bittner

Dan -

"3rd, if something real had changed, it wouldn’t show up only in Pew’s data. Gallup has been doing polls on evolution regularly for decades. It’s numbers show no meaningful change in the numbers, at least through 2012 (go ahead, if you are a story teller rather than a critical thinker, and invent some ad hoc account of the amazing event in 2013 that changed everything etc)."

First, I think that the fact that the significance of a difference in the number of Repubs who answered the the same question in the same poll at different times is not necessarily undermined by a lack of difference in the number of Repubs who answered a different question in a different poll at different times. As you point out, the lack of congruity could be a reflection of differences in the questions asked. Thus, the lack of congruity would not undermine the validity going either way as any comparison would be problematic.

Second, you have no more evidence that there wasn't some factor that could result in a different result in 2013 than in 2012 than someone else would have to speculate about what such a factor might be. The point is that you don't know, and that not knowing should weaken the conclusion that anyone could draw. Seems to me that your conclusion that there could not be any viable explanation is pretty ad hoc also.

Look at the 12% change, in only two years, between Gallop's findings on the comparative number of respondents overall who believed in god-guided evolution vs. god creating humans in current form, respectively, in 2010 and 2012 (2% difference in 2010, 14% difference in 2012) .

I would imagine that change over only a two-year period would probably be bigger among Republicans only if the data were broken down by party affiliation.

Anyway, I do think that there is more significance than you seem to allow for: (1) the rather stunning number of people (Repubs, Indies, and Dems) who believe that humans were created in the present form less than 10,000 years ago and, (2) the significance of those different %'s by party affiliation.

I don't think those numbers justify the argument that Repubs are "anti-science," but it is rather stunning that so many people flat-out reject basic scientific evidence of the fossil record, and I think it is significant that more Repubs are willing to state beliefs that flat-out reject basic scientific evidence of the fossil record.

Don't you find that rather stunning?

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

I find it interesting that so many people think that science theories are so basic when so many people reject them. I for one reject the theory of evolution because Darwin himself gave criteria for rejection. If something was found to be irreducible complex or there was a gap in the fossil records then his theory would be wrong. Well, there is tons of examples of irreducible complexity and even MORE gaps in the fossil records. What, we have less than a hand full of "step" examples like Ambulocetus. I need more proof than that to believe in it.

This brings up a good point of the article. Just because I dont believe in evolution doesnt make me a wack job who hates science. I have just started studying this but I think people think since I dont believe in evolution then I dont believe in the scientific method. And because I dont believe in the naturalism version of the scientific method then I MUST be anti-science. Well, there are more versions of the scientific method that have been used for hundreds of years. And just because I believe in God doesnt mean I dont think we should find out how something functions/works. Some of the greatest scientists in history believed in God or a supreme being guiding science. In fact, that was a motivation for learning more science. If God created things then it was done logically because He is logical. So if that is true, then I should be able to find out how He made it because its logical. I love science. I love finding out how things work and move. I also believe there is more than the metaphysical. But dont let my love and search for God in the things I do get between you and your ignorant, arrogant, sometimes bigoted thoughts of who a smart/intelligent/scientist ought to be...

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJimmy

Jimmy -

Do you believe that god created humans in their present form less than 10,000 years ago? If so, how do you explain the evidence of a fossil record? If not, what do you think is the explanation for how some people dismiss the evidence of a fossil record? Would you regard such a viewpoint (rejecting the fossil record) as rejecting fundamental scientific evidence?

January 7, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

You can plot three numbers that add up to 100 on a "triangle plot" (see ). If we take the three percentages (Evolution, guided evolution, and creation) and ignore the undecideds, we can calculate three new percentages that add up to 100.

Republican 2013.............24............22...........54
Democrat 2013...............40............30...........30
Republican 2009.............26............30...........44
Democrat 2009...............41............25...........34

On a triangle plot, the three corners represent evolution (E), guided evolution (G) and creation (C). I wish I knew how to upload a jpeg file, or do better html, but the plot looks vaguely like this: (Use mono-spaced font to get the right spacing)


d1=Democrat 2009
d2=Democrat 2013
r1=Republican 2009
r2=Republican 2013

It looks to me like the republicans are heading towards about 90% creation, 10% evolution mix, while democrats are heading towards 60% guided evolution, 40% evolution. Of course this is not a "prediction", just an indication of trend. I'm puzzling over what this all means. Also, I don't think of guided evolution as anti-scientific, its just refusing to give up the role of God in the face of scientific facts, much as the Catholic church had to do regarding a heliocentric solar system.

@Dan - I gave a rather detailed criticism of the heirarchy question set on the "Clueless Bumblers" thread. Hmm - wait, that doesn't sound good. Anyway, I would be interested in your thoughts.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterFrankL

I think that the real issue is whether people trust scientists to be their representatives in scientific matters, because all the science in the world is impossible for any one person to comprehend.We need trustworthy proxies to make scientific judgements that will benefit us.

So do you trust your congressman who you share some values in common with or some scientists that you don't know at all to make judgements about Climate change or stem cells, or sex education or any number of science related issues? When people are scared they tend to go with what is familiar, even if they know it is not the most rational thing.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Crumpton

Interesting. But doesn't this suggest that those people are either dogmatist or irrational? If they do in fact understand how evolution works, and realise that there is overwhelming evidence that this is how we came about, and yet they hold a belief: 'humans were created' or 'evolution was God-guided', then either their belief trumps their understanding (i.e. they're dogmatist), or they hold conflicting beliefs without caring about the contradiction (i.e. they're irrational). It's like someone told you: 'I understand basic physics and astronomy, but I choose to believe that the Earth is flat and stars are holes in the sky'.

Besides, this doesn't answer a more basic charge. If those people who don't believe we evolved through natural selection do in fact understand it, then they treat science as something that one can choose to believe in - or not.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

I found this post tremendously informative—a lot of the old news hadn’t reached me yet. All of Prof. Kahan’s conclusions interpreting the Pew data strike me as sound. The piece was also superbly written: academic craftsmanship. It wrestles to the ground some points I have had real trouble articulating. A tour de force.

To show my appreciation, I offer some support for a key point: “What it means to say one “believes” or “disbelieves” in evolution is a complicated, subtle thing. “ Especially when considering the concept of intelligent design.

Randomness is a key element in Darwinian theory, and some infer that a system which functions, in part, randomly cannot be the product of intelligent design. Either or.

Nonsense! Excel is a system designed to generate random values with the function =rand(). [I left out the “intelligent” part as a sop to the Microsoft-phobic.] The function was included because it is useful for designing robust systems, and other purposes.

Darwin addressed differentiation (evolution), not creation. His use of the term “Origin” turned out to be unfortunate, although not incorrect, because the careless construe origin as meaning “in the beginning.” But his theory is confined to the origin of species, not life. In the beginning, for Darwin the scientist, there was already life.

The words “non-scientific like ‘intelligent design’” gave me a start because I didn’t know whether to take the non- as extra- (outside the realm of, as in extraterrestrial), or as anti- (inherently conflicting).

But under the “Only 37% of Democratic…” header the anti- interpretation was rejected. I like the extra-scientific handle because the credibility of science is enhanced by scientists’ avoiding issues where observation and experimentation are impossible. Recognition of relevant ranges and limits is significant and important.

January 8, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterTerry


I think those who "understand" but don't "believe" either (a) simply get the theory but find they don't believe it -- that's not "irrational," although it might be "wrong" or "unjustified" if you think that they are not giving evidence tghe weight they should; or (b) are answering a question different from the one that those who pose it have in mind--i.e., aren't saying "as a historical fact, ..." but rather "I am ...!"," something that certainly is not irrational.

But an even more challenging case for your question would be beliefs about risks like climate change or nuclear waste disposal or impact of gun control etc.

There I think people really are saying that they believe "the facts are ...," yet clearly there answers strongly correlate with "I am ...!"

The correlation is a consequence of the interaction of their commitment to being who they are -- people with identities that reflect commitments they share w/ others -- and the faculties that they use to assess information about how the world works.

Is this process irrational?

I don't think so...

January 8, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I just realised my example maybe sounded too strong. I don't mean to say that any person who drives an SUV is therefore stupid. All I want to say that in some cases people don't make rational choices - I'm sure that some of the smartest people fail to do the right or logical thing sometimes, even if they know exactly what they should do, because of weakness of will, or conflicting interests, or just sheer selfishness. Doesn't mean they are a bad or stupid person, we all have our faults and weaknesses.

January 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

@Dan - Thanks for a thoughtful reply.

Perhaps 'irrational' is a bad word. But however you call it, there is something wrong about saying: 'I know that X, but I don't believe it'. I mean, if someone told you: 'I know that all science tells me that the Earth revolves around the sun, but I choose to believe that it's the other way around', would you really say that they are simply exercising their right to free opinion? The cases are no different, just that one has been discussed several hundreds years ago, and the other is discussed (for some reason, still) now.

I'm not sure what you mean by the difference between 'historical fact' and 'I am'. Is that a difference between agreeing that 'as a historical fact, evolution happened', but 'I am no mere bald monkey!'? I think that this is a very likely scenario, but it's a perfect case of irrationality, or whatever you want to call it. It's a case of: I want to feel important, so I'm going to disregard all the facts and pretend the world is the way that makes me feel important. Incidentally, I think this is pretty much the same reasoning that made people deny that it's not the Earth that's the centre of the Universe.

You are definitely right that similar fallacies and failures in drawing consequences are present everywhere. Eg.
1. We should battle climate change
2. to battle climate change, all people should save energy
3. I am a person
Therefore: I should sa... no way *I'm* giving up my SUV!!!

But surely this sort of failures is exactly what we call 'being wrong, stupid, irrational'

Still, I have two more questions to you:

- do you think that it is all right to 'choose to disbelieve' scientific evidence? Don't call it irrational if you don't want to, but don't you think it's acceptable of a reasonable person?

- Don't you think that a mark of a rational person is that, when faced with evidence showing that their views - ideological or otherwise - are wrong, they change their views?

January 10, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterSimon

What'd be really helpful is if Dan would release publicly the underlying data in his research -- I'm not exactly ready to pay the $39.95 ScienceDirect wants for a full copy of the article -- showing that there's no "meaningful difference" between a creationist and an evolutionist in terms of being able to give a satisfactory explanation (i.e., HS passing grade) of the theory of evolution.

What I suspect is going on here is that the overall rates of "satisfactory explanation" are so low that it's difficult to parse out the difference between the two groups, not that there really is no overall difference. I'd also want to see if the research tests for the reverse; that is, creationists have disseminated amongst themselves uniquely (deliberately, and horribly) wrong "explanations" of the theory of evolution that only creationists have. If not, conflating honest mistakes amongst a non-science-literate population with deliberate deception strikes me as a pretty significant error.

January 13, 2014 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew


the lack of correlation between "believing" & "knowing" is reflected in quite a number of different studies, using a variety of methods. Some of the most interesting stuff is experimental: good science educators can figure out how to teach the modern synthesis very effectively, but it turns out that forming a decent understanding of the mechanisms and evidence doesn't cause the kids who said they "don't believe" to change their minds. Stuff like that suggests that how people respond to "belief" not only isn't measuring knowlege, but probably even isn't even measuring belief: the question "do you believe" is understood as "are you this kind of person -- or that kind?" and answered accordingly.

That, in any case, is one interpretation.

For sure you are right that the r = 0 finding reflects in part how unlikely either "side's" members are to be able to give a cogent account of mechanisms like natural selection, random mutation & genetic variance.

For more sources, check out this post, & this one & this one. I try to link to un-paywalled sources, but when I can't find them, I'm stuck. It's still possible, though, that I missed a "free" version lurking out there. YOu'll see to that I report my own data in what I hope is a full & fully comprehensible way & am always open to posting more!

January 17, 2014 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

The proportion of Republicans, who attend services less than once a week, and accept evolution has tanked (71% to 57%).
Does that mean that:
1. Large numbers of Republicans who attend services less than once a week have stopped accepting evolution?
2. Or that large numbers of (former) Republicans, who attend services less than once a week, and accept evolution have abandoned the Republican party?

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