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The pharmaceutical industry depends on good science. So what does it mean when a majority of the US population turns its back on one of the fundamental insights of modern biology?
The Religious Right, including many —but not all—born-again Christians, Evangelicals, Catholics, and Mormons, probably enjoys more power and influence today than at any time in the past. And support for some of its political positions has been growing. If this support continues to grow, it is likely to influence the future of medicine, healthcare, and medical research.
Religion, politics, science, and healthcare touch in many places. The Religious Right tends to have strong and different opinions on evolution, embryonic stem-cell research, abortion, end-of-life issues (remember Terry Schiavo), sex education, HIV prevention, contraception, and abstinence. Members of this group may also have different opinions and priorities on Medicare, Medicaid, healthcare reform, and support for international programs on everything from SARS and avian flu to family planning and HIV/AIDS.
Many people in the scientific community were alarmed by a recent Harris Poll showing an increase in the already large number of people who do not believe that human beings evolved from other species, and who think that creationism and intelligent design should be taught in public schools along with evolution. For those who believe in evolution, the numbers are pretty scary:
It is reassuring to note that education makes a big difference and that college graduates, and especially postgraduates, are much more likely to believe in evolution. But it is remarkable that even among those with a postgraduate education, fully one-third do not believe that humans evolved from other species.
Do you think human beings developed from earlier species or not?
This, of course, is an issue where Americans look very different from Europeans. Surveys there have reported that between 70 percent and 95 percent of the public, varying from country to country, believe that humans evolved from other species.
Another interesting finding is that public attitudes are often not ideologically consistent. Many people who agree with the Christian Right on evolution and creationism support embryonic stem cell research, the withdrawal of food and water from Terry Schiavo, sex education, abortion rights, and the use of condoms to prevent HIV/AIDS. But public opinion has often changed in the past and will do so in the future.
The pharmaceutical industry, as a major science-based industry, should be deeply committed to promoting the public understanding of, and support for, good science. If so, the possibility of the Christian Right having more influence over science-related policies may sound some alarms.
Humphrey Taylor is chairman of the Harris Poll, Harris Interactive. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org