Just how much interest is there in various forms of creationism and has that interest been increasing or decreasing? There have been many polls that that have addressed this question over the past several decades. These polls generally suggest that attitudes toward the age of the earth, the origin of man and evolution have not changed dramatically in the broader population though there have been some large shifts among some age and religious groups. In the past I have taken a somewhat different approach to assessing the popularity of particular creationist organizations. This includes looking at the their productivity in the form of scholarly output (see: The State of Creation Science as Measured by Scholarly Publishing) and website traffic to specific creationists web sites (see: Creation on the Internet: Where do we go to learn about origins?).
Today I will attempt to assess the popularity of creationism using a different tool: Google Trends. This is a search tool that allows one to view the relative abundance of search terms over time and compare them with other search terms. Before you look at the screen shots I took of searches that I did with this tool you should be aware that these data are NOT as easily interpreted as they may first appear. Without any explanation you could easily come to the conclusion that interest in creationism is certainly on the decline. However, you have to consider that the data is normalized to all searches. What does that mean? That means that these are not graphs of absolute numbers of searches but are relative numbers of the use of search terms compared to the total number of searches performed. This means that if the total search volume were to increase 50% over 9 years (2004 through 2013) a flat line on this graph would mean that the number of searches would have stayed the same as a percent of all searches but the actual number of searches for that term must have increased to maintain that percentage. The important point here is that a falling line doesn’t necessarily equate to fewer total searches just a smaller percentage of the entire set of searches.
Several other caveats to keep in mind with respect the data/figures: 1) These are comparison of worldwide traffic for particular search terms. I did these all for USA only and the numbers were not appreciably different. 2) search terms don’t discriminate why a person was searching for that term. For example there is another public figure named Ken Ham (an astronaut) and so some of the recent search traffic for that search phrase is for him (I will explore this more below).
So here we go with some commentary about each figure….
First up we have two search terms “creation museum” and “creationism” Ken Ham’s Creation Museum in Kentucky was opened in 2007 which corresponds to a very large spike in search interest. Since that point you can see the blue line is trending lower. The red line tracks creationism and it has been trending downward throughout this entire period. Don’t forget these numbers still probably equate to more total searches each year but the rate of increase in interest isn’t keeping up with total search traffic increase. In general I interpret this as lower interest by the general population over time. Sure, the total hits are increasing but if interest in creationism in general were increasing then as web searches increased (due to more and more people being plugged in plus spending more time on the internet) then one would expect that search interest in these terms would keep pace or increase relative to all traffic. But I will admit that this data is far from conclusive given that social media might be adding an inordinate increase in web searching that might not be expected to come along with an increase in people searching for creation-related information.
Above we find a comparison of three major personalities in the creationist literature. I did many searches with these names and associated creation terms to be sure that there results reflect the people that we know and not other persons with the same names. What is clear here is that relative to each other Ken Ham has been steadily maintaining his web presence while Hugh Ross and Henry Morris (past ICR president and now deceased) have progressively show reduced search interest compared to all searches.
What I find most interesting about the figure above is that in confirms something that I’ve long suspected was true: that the term “creation science” is falling into disuse. Young earth creationists have more apt to call themselves biblical or literal creationists rather than creation scientists. Creation science was the dream of Henry Morris and it was hoped in the 1980s that as a science creationism would compete in science classrooms. Many books and much YEC literature focused on creation science. Since the many lost legal battles the strategies have changed and now we find the term “creation science” being removed from the common language of creationism. What you can’t see here is that I think that the terms use had probably already fallen very quickly prior to the first data point so this downward trend here is only the tail end of a likely much greater fall in the late 1990s an early 2000s. On the other hand “young earth” has actually increased its presence as a search term. This was one of the few terms other than “old earth” that I actually saw trending upward.
Same trends we have seen before with a steeper down-slope from 2005 through 2007 likely due to the very rapid increase in web search traffic at this time without corresponding increases in interest in these terms. What is tricky is as I pointed out above, does this really represent less interest in the general population or just a growing overall interest in sports, social media etc. that occupy more traffic space over time. It could be that there are the same number of people interested in creation theory today as there were in 2006 but this graph suggests that in 2006 more of them were online as a percentage of the total population or if the same percentage of people with that interest were on-line they did more searches in 2006 than today. It is difficult to draw hard conclusions from these data alone. I would point out that you might wonder if any searches go up compared to all searches. The answer is yes, the term “amazon” has gone way up over the 8 years so despite increased total traffic they have managed to increase their total percentage of all traffic.
This last graph was produced using Google Correlate which allows one to compare terms that Google says are correlated searches. In other words, Google told me that the search profile for “intelligent design” follows that of “discovery institute” and therefore they consider these terms correlated with each other. What we have here I think does speak very clearly. The ID movement has past its heyday which was in the early 2000s. in 2005 to 2006 is when there was a big push by the Discovery Institute to get ID in the high school curricula which spawned many court cases about teaching ID in classrooms. Since that time ID has seen a significant decrease in search traffic that must relate to an actual decrease to total search volume despite increased total web traffic. This probably does not come as a surprise to those that have followed the ID movement over the years and seen how they have struggled to maintain an identity and cause in the wake of their lost court battles of 2005/2006.
If you have come this far with me, I’m sorry, there isn’t really a big message here because the data aren’t particularly compelling. I’m not sure what to conclude from this other than I think there is a weak case to be made from this data that young earth creationism is not a growing movement and that it is probably exhibiting an overall small contraction of total interest. Certainly there has been other evidence that the Creation Museum has lost traction with declining attendance and this data support that.
I also learned one other very important thing: blogging in July isn’t the best use of my time! In every graph, the low point for searches on all topics related to creation/evolution/origins/theology etc.. was in July. Who would have though it, apparently vacations and being outside reduce people’s interest in reading about creation and evolution. I probably didn’t need data to figure that one out:-)