Field of Science

Manipulative, cynical nonsense

I'd like to offer an alternative analysis of the Theos survey on British attitudes to evolution. (The following is copied from my personal blog, and the style reflects this.)

Last year Christian think-tank Theos argued that because most of us know the Easter story, therefore most of us literally believe in the Easter story.

From the same people who brought you this unfathomably crap interpretation of their own, agenda-ridden research, now comes a sparkly new survey on the public attitude to evolution.

Or so say rubbish science journalists who didn't even bother to look at the research, blindly trotting out their own version of the Theos press release all round the internet today. (You'd think science journalists would be the one kind of journalist most likely to do their fucking job and go and look at the so-called science, but no.)

The research never actually asked people a fair, balanced question about their belief in evolution, defined simply as a process of natural selection. Oh no. Do you want to know what it actually asked them?

What the actual survey actually asked about evolution was two separate questions, one on "theistic evolution" and one on "atheistic evolution". The latter definition and question read:

Atheistic evolution is the idea that evolution makes belief in God unnecessary and absurd. In your opinion is Atheistic evolution: [and then the choices]

Just confusing the two separate issues of a/theism and evolution was obviously going to result in weird answers from the start, especially since they don't even bother to spell out simply what the actual theory of natural selection says or associate it with either view.

Moreover, when people were being asked to assent to "atheistic evolution" they weren't just being asked to assent to evolution-minus-God, they were being asked to assent to the view that evolution necessarily implies that there was no God.

Now, I think that evolution is true and I think that belief in God is unnecessary and absurd, but I still might well have said that "Atheistic evolution" as defined in this survey was probably not true, because I don't think that one does necessitate the other. Evolution has nothing to say about the origin of the world, for example.

Answering this survey, I might well have been waiting for a third, good, neutral statement of evolution before I plumped for it.

Worse still is the interpretation which Theos then puts on this already flawed data. Having found probably even lower levels of general assent to the theory of evolution than we should want and expect – and would get if we asked better questions – they go on to conclude (in their press release) that the hopeless confusion we're all is the fault of atheists:

Unfortunately, he [Darwin] is being used by certain atheists today to promote their cause. The result is that, given the false choice of evolution or God, people are rejecting evolution.

"Darwin has become caught up in the crossfire between creationists on one side and certain public atheists on the other. It’s a battle in which everybody suffers."

That's right. Who's to blame for Creationism and ID? Is it the proponents of Creationism and ID? No. It's atheists! And why should we blame the atheists, Theos? Well, because they conflate Darwinism and atheism giving people a false choice between the two, says Theos. Oh, right, I get it, exactly like your survey cleverly demonstrates by doing exactly that? Um, yes, yes that's what we, um, intended, says Theos.

Of course, there are a whole bunch of reasons why Darwinian evolution is associated with atheism. This isn't a story about evolution getting "caught in the crossfire" between warring fundamentalist theists on one hand and marauding atheists on the other, as if Richard Dawkins (doubtless the intended ring-leader of the "public atheists" mentioned) has single-handedly warped a theory which was otherwise neutral with regard to God. The reason evolution is associated with atheism is because prior to Darwin the church said quite emphatically that God created the Earth and all living things in seven days. During the bronze age! Religion got caught with its panda's thumb up its giant red arse on this issue, forcing them ever since to either dig in and become full blown fundamentalists, or to pass off centuries of previous heretic-burning as a crazy, mistaken, drunken game, because they didn't really literally believe in Genesis, no, no, it was an allegory all along. For something.

The dawn of evolutionary theory is the great naturalizing moment of the last two centuries. It completely reversed the way we had to think when trying to explain the construction of living forms. It blew away the need for design, and a designer, previously the greatest single argument for the existence of God, with an idea of simple beauty and devastating cogency. Atheists didn't manufacture a wargame here – if anything it was the vicious response of religionists in Darwin's own time which show exactly why so many people regard evolution as literally bringing the riddle of life back "down to earth".

But none of this means that when you ask people about evolution you should imply that they have a choice between "theistic evolution" and "atheistic evolution". That's just bollocks.

Theos is basically attempting to do exactly what it pretends not to be doing. They are accepting that it's not okay to be a biblical literalist, but also trying to blame anyone who expresses both atheism and evolution for other people's confusion and ignorance, thereby leaving "theistic evolution" as the only option on the table.

Well, no, damn it! We must be free to express the fact that evolution leads us to thinking about life in a naturalistic way, without being branded some kind of intellectual warmongers. Being free to say that evolution is part of our atheism is like saying that Galileon cosmology leads us to thinking less anthropocentrically about the nature of the universe; and like saying that Newton leads us to think that maybe there is a coherent underlying structure to the universe, which is not interfered with by capricious deities.

Theos point the finger. But they are the ones shamelessly playing games with science.

5 comments:

  1. Bob, your blog is most informative - but - speakin' of thingys folk think are there but ain't.....check your Websites link to the Yahoo Group.

    I know the Easter story and this one, too.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZzY2bVsZK5s

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sckuqPulRGk

    Stay on groovin' safari,
    Tor

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  2. Thanks for that analysis. The results sounded suspect when I heard about them but I did not have the time to check out the original study. Given the mendacious interpretation of the results and the tendentious framing of the questions, I approach even the hard numbers with a somewhat sceptical eye. Yet, if they are accurate, they do seem to suggest something that Theos would not be altogether happy about, i.e. that roughly a third of UK citizens are hard-core atheists who believe that religion is unnecessary and absurd. Not a bad result that. There is a further result that one can squeeze out of this bag of tripe. For each of young Earth creationism, 'theistic evolution' and 'atheistic evolution' one can add up the percentages who thought the alternatives were either definitely true or probably true. Given that the three options are presented as inconsistent with each other, no-one should have assented to more than one of them. That should mean a total of less than 100%. Yet, adding all the numbers, one gets 110, meaning that at least 10% of respondents replied yes to at least two mutually contradictory options. It seems probable that most of these people said yes to the first two options, rather than the third one. If so, then I think Theos has identified their hard-core constituency.

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  3. Thanks Tor. I see you mean the link in the sidebar - I can't fix that. Admins?! There's a broken link to the Yahoo! group in the sidebar.

    Konrad, well done on illuminating further problems with this data.

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  4. Ah, very interesting. I thought something fishy would have gone on with the wording of the questions. Thank you for analysing the survey so everyone else didn't have to. ;p

    Cheers,
    Jack

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  5. Theos has a track record of churning out slanted opinion polls, designed to try to prove some particular point of view and get media rather than shed light on the subject.

    Their first poll asked the question 'Is religious a virus, like smallpox but only worse?' (i.e. the Dawkins quote). They were hoping to get a popular rejection of Dawkins. Unfortunately, most people they asked agreed with the statement (although they didn't mention that in the press release)

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