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I've seen this claim stated in many places, for example the talk.origins FAQ:

Of the scientists and engineers in the United States, only about 5% are creationists, according to a 1991 Gallup poll (Robinson 1995, Witham 1997). However, this number includes those working in fields not related to life origins (such as computer scientists, mechanical engineers, etc.). Taking into account only those working in the relevant fields of earth and life sciences, there are about 480,000 scientists, but only about 700 believe in "creation-science" or consider it a valid theory (Robinson 1995). This means that less than 0.15 percent of relevant scientists believe in creationism. And that is just in the United States, which has more creationists than any other industrialized country. In other countries, the number of relevant scientists who accept creationism drops to less than one tenth of 1 percent.

Original source: Newsweek?

Now, with some source-hopping I found the source of the claim to be a magazine article:
Larry Martz & Ann McDaniel, "Keeping God Out of Class (Washington and bureau reports)". Newsweek (Newsweek Inc.) 1987-JUN-29, Pages 22 & 23. ISSN 0028-9604.

I don't know if this is the original source, or if it refers to a scientific study. I'd like to know that.

Quote from the Newsweek article

Wikipedia also makes a reference to the Newsweek article in question. They have a footnote quoting Newsweek:

By one count there are some 700 scientists with respectable academic credentials (out of a total of 480,000 U.S. earth and life scientists) who give credence to creation-science, the general theory that complex life forms did not evolve but appeared 'abruptly'.

Now, I can't get my hands on the Newsweek article in question. However, it sounds to me that there's one magazine article from 1987 that talks about "one count" without references. And this gets cited all around the web.

The questions

Does the Newsweek article say any more about this count? Is there some proper research behind the claim, and if so, what are the methods for counting? Is the fraction of creationists in life scientists in the US really only 0.15%?


I say only because using a source talk.origins used, too, in 1997 a full 44% of American adults believed in creationism. Of all scientists, the amount was 5%. I'm used to seeing figures like these, so 0.15% for a specific group of scientists seems very little. However, if only is offensive to some and removed again, I'm not going to argue.

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OK, I'm beginning to see the problem here. This site talkorigins.org/indexcc/CA/CA111.html quotes "Robinson 1995" as one of the sources for the figure, without giving the full reference for the paper. The supporting link it gives is to this page: religioustolerance.org/ev_publi.htm which in turn links to this page religioustolerance.org/ev_publia.htm which quotes Newsweek but doesn't quote the paper and doesn't give any precision to the Newsweek reference. –  DJClayworth Sep 19 '11 at 18:26
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This page bellaonline.com/articles/art55244.asp gives the full Newsweek quote as "Newsweek magazine, 1987-JUN-29, Page 23", so anyone with access to a library could check it up. –  DJClayworth Sep 19 '11 at 18:29
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@dancek I can think of several reasons for the difference. First the 5% might take a less narrow view of what "scientist" means. It's reasonably well know that more engineers than life-scientists believe in Creationism. There might be measuring and sampling issues on both sides. But all of this would be speculation. –  DJClayworth Sep 19 '11 at 18:34
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Of course what we really need is the full reference for the mysterious "Robinson 1995" paper is. –  DJClayworth Sep 19 '11 at 18:37
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Let’s not get too fixated on the Robinson paper. This may be the origin of this particular claim but as far as I know there are more recent polls among scientists about this, if somebody could dig those up this might also be beneficial (I vaguely remember something in The Greatest Show On Earth …). –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 20 '11 at 13:52

3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted
+25

The Newsweek article which appears to be the ultimate source of this quote does not seem to give any explanation of where the figure comes from. Here's the whole paragraph:

Changing strategy: In the Louisiana case, the fundamentalist forces had seemed on the best legal ground since the famous "monkey trial" of 1925, when biology teacher John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in Tennessee. That outcome was overturned on a technicality, but Clarence Darrow's humiliating grilling of the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan effectively beat back the anti-evolution cause for years. In the 1970s, however, the fundamentalists devloped a new strategy; to establish the Biblical account of creation as a respectable scientific theory and demand equal time for its teaching. By one count there are some 700 scientists with respectable academic credentials (out of a total of 480,000 U.S. earth and life scientist) who give credence to creation-science, the general theory that complex life forms did not evolve but appeared "abruptly." The first state law demanding equal time for this notion, in Arkansas, was struck down by a federal court as a transparent promotion of religion. But in Louisiana Keith's bill was carefully tailored to omit religious overtones, and it had a specific secular purpose: to promote academic freedom by ensuring that all sides are taught.

"By one count" is one of those phrases articles use when they really aren't very sure about the provenance and accuracy of the figure. That's not to say the figure has no value at all. But it shouldn't be taken as an accurate figure, and certainly not be as frequently quoted on the web as it appears to be.

The quote is certainly nothing to do with the 700 signatories on the Discovery Institute's widely criticised "Dissent from Darwin list. The quote is from 1987 and the Dissent from Darwin list started in 2001.

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700 scientists is quite likely an over-estimation.

The Discovery Institute can only be described as a pro-creation, anti-Evolution think-tank.

Started in 1996, the Center for Science and Culture is a Discovery Institute program which:

  • supports research by scientists and other scholars challenging various aspects of neo-Darwinian theory;
  • supports research by scientists and other scholars developing the scientific theory known as intelligent design;
  • supports research by scientists and scholars in the social sciences and humanities exploring the impact of scientific materialism on culture.
  • encourages schools to improve science education by teaching students more fully about the theory of evolution, including the theory's scientific weaknesses as well is its strengths.

They run a petition for scientists to publicly express their doubts against evolution.

Now:

  • The Institute is farily well known among creationists;
  • The Institute is openly biased towards creationism (it has interest in showing a number of scientists which is as large as possible);
  • The petition is open to scientists from all over the world (not only the US);
  • The petition is open to any kind of scientist (not only from related fields)

So one would expect that the numbers of these petition are certain to be much larger than the life-scientists who support creationism in the US.

How many signatories do they have?

700

What are the possible reasons for this number being so low?

  • There is overwhelming scientific support for evolution. The empirical proof is super-solid and extensive. People in the sector will be exposed to it.
  • There is a strict correlation between level of literacy and disbelief in creationism. E.g. see this 2010 Gallup poll.

    Americans' views on human origins vary significantly by level of education and religiosity. Those who are less educated are more likely to hold a creationist view. Those with college degrees and postgraduate education are more likely to hold one of the two viewpoints involving evolution.


See also: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_of_support_for_evolution

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I don’t think this list is at all relevant. Life scientists will be very reluctant to sign it with their name since that would effectively cut them off from the scientific community and lose them their job. Now, I don’t agree with the babble put forth in Expelled but I doubt many life science institutes would hire openly admitted creationists: they are clearly disqualified professionally. –  Konrad Rudolph Sep 20 '11 at 14:54
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@KonradRudolph I think the "creationist closet life scientist" is not a very realistic scenario. These people would be basically lying for a living (they would be using/adoption/teaching evolution while secretly thinking it's all hogwash). Ok that people are incoherent, but this seems a bit too much. –  Sklivvz Sep 20 '11 at 15:22
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I seem to recall that an individual actually tracked down all 700 "scientists" on that list, and came away with even more surprising discoveries. 1) The original statement they signed was changed, and did not reflect the creationist slant originally. 2) Most of the "scientists" were actually not actual scientists (i.e. received diplomas at diploma mill institutions). 3) Some of the individuals that singed didn't really seem to be concerned with science, just generating publicity. Larian showed me a video on that research once. –  Brightblades Sep 20 '11 at 18:04
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On a skeptics site, vague recollections shouldn't be on-topic, even in comments. –  DJClayworth Sep 20 '11 at 21:06
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@DJClayworth I beleive they are referring to this video: youtube.com/watch?v=Ty1Bo6GmPqM DonExodus is a YouTube personality (I think he's either has or is doing a PhD in biology) that has taken up the torch against creationism and has a long educational video series teaching biology and evolution. I think he did a followup some year later where some of the people claimed they've asked the discovery institute to be taken of the list, but haven't been. –  Kit Sunde Oct 9 '11 at 18:26

We don't know. The claim made by Newsweek is unreliable.

This is only a partial answer. It only addresses the specific claim made in Newsweek on June 29, 1987, cited by some others. It doesn't address the actual number of creationism-supporting life scientists.

After showing this question to some friends, I got access to the Newsweek article (behind a paywall). The article is about the debate on creation "science" in public education.

The electronic version makes no reference to outside sources*. The full paragraph including the 700/480,000 figure is as follows:

Changing strategy: In the Louisiana case, the fundamentalist forces had seemed on the best legal ground since the famous "monkey trial" of 1925, when biology teacher John Scopes was convicted of teaching evolution in Tennessee. That outcome was overturned on a technicality, but Clarence Darrow's humiliating grilling of the fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan effectively beat back the anti-evolution cause for years. In the 1970s, however, the fundamentalists devloped a new strategy; to establish the Biblical account of creation as a respectable scientific theory and demand equal time for its teaching. By one count there are some 700 scientists with respectable academic credentials (out of a total of 480,000 U.S. earth and life scientist) who give credence to creation-science, the general theory that complex life forms did not evolve but appeared "abruptly." The first state law demanding equal time for this notion, in Arkansas, was struck down by a federal court as a transparent promotion of religion. But in Louisiana Keith's bill was carefully tailored to omit religious overtones, and it had a specific secular purpose: to promote academic freedom by ensuring that all sides are taught.

As there's no mention on who did the counting and how, the specific claim made by Newsweek has no known scientific basis.

* It's conceivable but improbable that the physical magazine has content the online (text-only) version doesn't.

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I think it's the same count from the Discovery Institute which I provided. –  Sklivvz Oct 10 '11 at 15:31
    
I have to agree that this is weak support for the claim, especially a claim that has been widely disseminated. However that's not the same as "the claim has no basis". If this answer had stuck to the facts, instead of pushing an agenda, it would get an upvote. –  DJClayworth Oct 11 '11 at 14:42
    
@DJClayworth I tried to keep this answer factual (I already showed my POV enough or maybe too much in the question) and not address whether the actual percentage would be lower or higher than 0.15%. I changed to "no scientific basis", which I think accurate. Do you agree? –  dancek Oct 11 '11 at 15:28
    
I don't think that "scientific bases" is correct, and in fact, it is not a correct answer to your title question. If one data source is invalid, the answer should be that we don't know. Like this it reads like 700 is a wrong number: you haven't proved it! –  Sklivvz Oct 13 '11 at 7:52
    
@Sklivvz Good points. I answered a question in the body, not the title, without realizing it. Is this better now? –  dancek Oct 13 '11 at 7:58

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