Americans’ knowledge of evolution isn’t that bad—if you ask them about elephants

Hans Hillewaert/Wikimedia Commons /(CC-BY-SA-4.0 )

Americans’ knowledge of evolution isn’t that bad—if you ask them about elephants

*For our full coverage of AAAS 2016, check out our meeting page.

WASHINGTON, D.C—A new poll shows that the way you ask people about evolution can drastically change their response. For decades, it was thought that Americans had a relatively poor understanding of evolution. In 2014, a poll by the National Center for Science and Engineering Statistics showed that just 49% of Americans agreed with the statement: “Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals.” On the other hand, people living in Europe, Canada, and Japan all agreed at a rate of at least 70%. But it’s difficult to tell whether those numbers measure ignorance about science, because belief in human evolution is closely tied to religious belief, especially in the United States. Today, researchers at the annual meeting of AAAS (which publishes Science), previewed data from a recent poll showing that when the word “human” is replaced with "elephant” in the evolution question, 75% of Americans agree—about 25 percentage points higher than before. Plus, the new elephant question does a better job of predicting general science knowledge than the human question, especially among those who say they don’t believe in evolution. So it seems that America’s dismal performance on past evolution polls can be blamed at least partially on this disbelief, rather than a lack of knowledge.

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