New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers June 18, 2015

New Research on the Science vs. Religion Debate Looks at the Effectiveness of Different Science Popularizers

In a new study appearing in the journal Public Understandings of Science, Rice University’s Elaine Howard Ecklund and West Virginia University’s Christopher P. Scheitle wanted to find out the effect different “science popularizers” had on the question of whether science and religion were compatible.


So they went right to the extremes, using Richard Dawkins (an atheist scientist who says science and religion are in conflict) and Francis Collins (an evangelical Christian scientist who says science and religion are compatible).

Here’s the gist of their study:

It all boils down to how respondents regard their beliefs about science and religion.

1) They’re in conflict and I’m on the side of religion
2) They’re in conflict and I’m on the side of science
3) They’re independent things (“non-overlapping magisteria,” to use a famous phrase)
4) They’re both compatible with each other

Obviously, most readers of this site (and Richard Dawkins) would fall under #2.

The Collins contingent would fall under #4.

Survey respondents were asked whether they had heard of the two guys. 21% had heard of Dawkins while only 4% had heard of Collins. No surprise there. Dawkins has a very visible image to the point where his tweets often make international news. Collins has a relatively low public profile, despite heading up the National Institutes of Health and having directed the Human Genome Project.

The researchers asked the people who had heard of each of the two men which category they (the respondents) fell under. In both cases, most of them fell under #4 (compatible) with the next highest group being #3 (independent). Odds are, if you know who they are, you’re also familiar with the science/religion debate, so it’s no wonder the results were similar.

But then came the real test: What about the people who were unfamiliar with them? Would learning about them make a difference in how the public viewed this debate?

So let’s take the Dawkins people for a moment. The researchers took the respondents who were unfamiliar with him and split them up into two groups: 90% were just straight-up asked which category they fell under… while 10% were read a short description of Dawkins and then asked which category they fell under.

Here’s that description:

Dr. Richard Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist and emeritus fellow at Oxford University. Dr. Dawkins is also an outspoken atheist who has said that the existence of God and miracles is “very improbable” and that religion and science are in conflict with each other.

Check out the results:

You can see there’s not a *huge* difference there. Even after learning who Dawkins is, it didn’t move very many people to his particular category.

What about Francis Collins?

Dr. Francis Collins is a geneticist who has directed the Human Genome Project and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Collins is also an outspoken Christian who has said that God is capable of performing miracles and that religion and science are “entirely compatible.”

Here are his results:

This time, there’s a noticeable difference.

Learning a little bit about Collins significantly increased the likelihood that people would agree with his take on this issue.

What are we supposed to learn from this?

Correct answer: Not that much.

The wrong takeaway would be that there’s something awesome about Collins that changes people’s minds and Dawkins doesn’t have that skill.

But you have to keep a few things in mind:

1) Telling people Dawkins is an atheist (and that Collins is a Christian) doesn’t help.

Even the researchers admitted this:

While Dawkins and Collins might both be perceived as having the credentials to make them an expert, research has shown that the US public is generally distrustful of atheists and view them more negatively than most other ethnic, religious, and minority groups… On the other hand, religious individuals are often perceived as more trustworthy, especially as viewed by other religious individuals.

So when the general public learns that a brilliant Christian feels a certain way about this issue, they’re likely to agree.

2) Among scientists, Collins holds a unique view that most people aren’t used to hearing:

… it is possible that the existence of an accomplished and high-profile scientist who holds Francis Collins’ views on religion and the religion–science relationship does come as more of a surprise to many people. As a result, reading about Collins has a larger impact on individuals and moves them toward Collins’ position.

In other words, when a credible Christian scientist says science and religion are compatible, many people (most of whom are religious) think, “I never knew that was a legitimate option, but it makes me not have to choose one over the other! Yay! I like that!”

It’s the same sort of logic climate-change deniers use to sway the public. They quote the handful of scientists who promote that view in order to give it an air of legitimacy, ignoring the fact that those scientists are very much in the minority of experts in the field. When people learn about those scientists, of course some of them will move in that direction.

None of that, though, means there’s any legitimacy to that option.

The researchers also suggest tone makes a difference here — Dawkins being a vocal atheist and Collins being the grandfatherly Christian (my words, not theirs) — but I don’t buy that. If you’d never heard of Dawkins before, you wouldn’t know what kind of tone he takes. Any negative impression people have of him, then, has to do with the description of him as an atheist, period. (They wouldn’t know that he’s often depicted as an “angry” atheist.)

The one thing this suggests for me is that scientists who are known for being atheists will have a hard time moving the public with them because of social prejudice. In that sense, Neil deGrasse Tyson would be more successful in promoting the view that religion and science are in conflict (and science always wins) because he doesn’t have the atheist stigma attached to his name.

On a side note, if this whole paper sounds like something straight out of the John Templeton Foundation, which does all it can to put religion on the same pedestal as science, well, that’s because the John Templeton Foundation funded the study.

Make of that what you will.

It’s also worth pointing out that one of the researchers, Elaine Howard Ecklund, has a long history of using Templeton money to try and show why religion and science are compatible.

Jerry Coyne, who literally wrote the book on why they’re not, has written extensively about problems with her research. I would urge you to read his posts to get better perspective on this issue.

(Top image via Shutterstock)

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