Gallup reports that a recent survey of Americans indicate that a majority (52%) believe that between 20% and 25% of the population is gay/lesbian, the average estimate being 25%. What’s more, a sizable number of additional respondents (26%) think that between 10% and 20% of the population is gay.
Although the true number of gay people in the US remains unknown, most data-driven estimates give a percentage that is under 5%. You’d never know it from the poll; only 4% of respondents made an estimate in that ballpark.
The highest estimates in the Gallup poll were given by various groups: young people, the less educated, Democrats, liberals, women. But it’s just a matter of degree. Those who were rich, well-educated, older, Republicans, conservatives, or male gave very high estimates as well. No single group estimated the number as under 15%, and most of the groups were in the 20s.
What is going on here? I can think of a number of possibilities, not necessarily mutually exclusive:
—people are stupid
—people are ignorant
—the media and entertainment focus on gay issues has led people to believe there are far more gays than actually exist
—the people are correct and the scientists are wrong
—the people are using a more elastic definition of gay than researchers have, perhaps one that includes those who have participated in even a single gay act
[NOTE: It is interesting that much the same survey was conducted in 2002 and the results were not all that different. The estimates were slightly lower, and more people said they didn’t know, but the variation between than and now was not all that great: the average guess was between 21% and 22%, and a quarter of respondents thought the figure was 25%.]