Does public opinion always agree with scientific fact?

New Pew Research Center poll on scientists’ views versus public views

A new poll by the Pew Research Center has highlighted some stark differences between views of leading scientists, in particular members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), and those of the general U.S. public. The results are summarized in this NPR report, while the full results are available from the Pew website.

Here are some of the poll’s findings:

  1. 98% of AAAS scientists agree that humans have evolved over time, versus only 65% of the U.S. public.
  2. 88% of AAAS scientists agree that it is safe to eat genetically modified foods, versus only 37% of the U.S. public.
  3. 87% of AAAS scientists agree that climate change is mostly due to human activity, versus only 50% of the U.S. public.

Other polls on evolution

With regards to the first item, the results on the public view of evolution are generally consistent with those of a 2013 poll by the Pew organization, which found that when given a choice “Humans existed in present form since the beginning of time” or “Humans and other living things have evolved over time,” 33% of American adults selected the first option. Along this line, a 2014 Gallup poll found that 42% of Americans believe that “God created humans in their present form within the last 10,000 years.”

Similar polls in other nations show similarly high skepticism of evolution, although generally not as strong as in the U.S. For instance, in 2009, a U.K. poll found that half of U.K. residents were either strongly opposed to the theory of evolution or else confused by it. 22% preferred either creationism or intelligent design. Similarly a 2013 Australian poll found that 30% questioned whether evolution is occurring, and 73% agreed that “the earliest humans lived at the same time as dinosaurs.”

The Discovery Institute list of dissenters from Darwinism versus Project Steve

As noted above, the scientific view of evolution differs rather starkly from the public view — more than 98% of scientists belonging to the AAAS agree that humans have evolved over time. So is it really true that there is this high degree of consensus on evolution among leading scientists? Actually, the true figure is probably even higher than 98%.

For example, in 2001 the Discovery Institute, which sponsors research associated with the intelligent design movement, formed a dissenters from Darwinism list. In particular, those on the list were asked to affirm that

We are skeptical of claims for the ability of random mutation and natural selection to account for the complexity of life. Careful examination of the evidence for Darwinian theory should be encouraged.

As of the present date (30 January 2015), the list contains approximately 910 names. So does this mean that evolution is a “theory in crisis”? Is there a growing scientific movement to reject evolution?

First of all, note that the Discovery Institute statement is only a very brief, general statement questioning whether random mutation and natural selection are sufficient by themselves to explain the proliferation of life. It most definitely is not an endorsement of young-earth creationism, as preferred by many according to the polls mentioned above. In particular, the statement does not question the basic notion that evolution has occurred over millions of years as documented by biologists and geologists.

In response to the Discovery Institute list, in 2008 the National Center for Science Education (NCSE) launched Project Steve (in honor of deceased naturalist Stephen J. Gould). They invited scientists whose first name is Steve (or variants such as Steven, Stephen, Stephanie, Stephan or Estephan) to submit their names as affirming the following statement:

Evolution is a vital, well-supported, unifying principle of the biological sciences, and the scientific evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of the idea that all living things share a common ancestry. Although there are legitimate debates about the patterns and processes of evolution, there is no serious scientific doubt that evolution occurred or that natural selection is a major mechanism in its occurrence. It is scientifically inappropriate and pedagogically irresponsible for creationist pseudoscience, including but not limited to “intelligent design,” to be introduced into the science curricula of our nation’s public schools.

As of the present date (30 January 2015), the NCSE list has 1359 names. Both the Discovery Institute list and the NCSE list are open to scientists of any nationality or residence.

In October 2012, one of the present authors did an analysis of these two lists. He found that if we restrict these lists to those persons who have a Ph.D. degree and/or professional position in a core field closely related to evolution (Anatomy, Anthropology, Bacteriology, Biochemistry, Biology, Biophysics, Botany, Ecology, Entomology, Epidemiology, Genetics, Geology, Geophysics, Molecular Biology, Microbiology, Neurophysiology, Paleontology, Physiology, Taxonomy, Virology or Zoology), then 55.6% (683 persons, as of October 2012) of the NCSE list are so qualified, versus only 28.1% (236 persons, as of October 2012) of the Discovery Institute list.

But given that persons named “Steve” or one of the variants mentioned above constitute only about 1% of the U.S. population, we should further reduce the Discovery Institute list by a factor of 100, to make a fair comparison. This reduces this list to just two persons, compared with 683 in the NCSE list. In other words, roughly 300 times as many qualified scientists agree that evolution is beyond reasonable doubt as question it.


No matter which data we use as a basis of comparison, the vast majority (more than 98%) of qualified scientists agree that evolution is real. Francisco Ayala, a renowned evolutionary biologist and recipient of the National Medal of Science and the 2010 Templeton Prize (and also a former Dominican Priest), stated the consensus of the field in these terms:

The overwhelming majority of biologists accept evolution. Those who know professionally the evidence for evolution cannot deny it. Scientists agree that the evolutionary origin of animals and plants is a scientific conclusion beyond reasonable doubt. The evidence is compelling and all-encompassing because it comes from all biological disciplines including those that did not exist in Darwin’s time. …

Because the evidence is so overwhelming, … evidence for evolution no longer engages the interest of biologists except when explaining evolution to the public or arguing with those who refuse to accept evolution. Although not sought and no longer needed, the evidence for the fact of evolution continues to accumulate.

Does science matter in public opinion?

All of this raises the question of whether science can or should matter in public discourse. Some may question the authority of scientists on matters of public policy, but what recourse do we have? Take a public opinion poll on whether high school students should be taught that the earth is 6,000 or 4.56 billion years old? Take a public opinion poll on whether vaccination prevents the resurgence of potentially deadly diseases such as measles? Clearly not. We have no choice but to pay careful attention to the consensus of peer-reviewed scientific research.

As Gary Cutting wrote in a recent New York Times op-ed on climate change,

[O]nce we have accepted the authority of a particular scientific discipline, we cannot consistently reject its conclusions. To adapt Schopenhauer’s famous remark about causality, science is not a taxi-cab that we can get in and out of whenever we like. Once we board the train of climate science, there is no alternative to taking it wherever it may go.

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