September 30, 2010

Why should we care what people think when so many are so dumb?

Q. The debates over global warming, abortion, and offshore drilling are habitually buttressed with what percent of the public believes this or that, as if the majority should rule on such issues. Would you consider a poll to determine how many people believe in ghosts, UFOs, astrology, evolution, lucky numbers, black cats, knocking on wood, WMDs in Iraq, Jews control America, Africa is a country, afterlife, reincarnation, etc.? Then after reporting that such and such a percent of Americans believe we should do X, you might add that this is the same percentage of Americans that believe in, say, flying saucers. By no means am I making the case that polls are useless or harmful. I just believe that we should view public opinion for what it is, not a way to find truth or the right answer necessarily.

The Pew Research Center is a non-partisan fact tank; it does not take sides in policy disputes. What our polls provide is a valuable information resource for political leaders, journalists, scholars and citizens. How those political actors choose to use that information is up to them. We just ask that they cite our polls accurately and in context.

We do, in fact, provide such findings as:

— Among the public, one-in-four (25%) believe in astrology (including 23% of Christians); 24% believe in reincarnation; nearly three-in-ten (29%) say they have been in touch with the dead; almost one-in-five (18%) say they have seen or been in the presence of ghosts.

— While 87% of scientists say that humans and other living things have evolved over time and that evolution is the result of natural processes such as natural selection, just 32% of the public accepts this as true.

We also conduct polls to educate the public on how educated the public is about politics and policy. However, we take no position on what, if anything, these opinions and understandings about public affairs signify for public policy.

Jodie T. Allen and Richard C. Auxier, Pew Research Center