The New Pew Report on Science and America

By Chris Mooney | July 9, 2009 6:30 pm

Everybody today wants to know our take on this massive data dump, not surprisingly. Certainly, the timing could not be better, given that our book emerges at the same time as this raft of new information on science and the public, which I’ve only begun to wade through.

Basically, my sense so far is that our book puts the flesh on the bones of the Pew data, but is broadly consistent with it. Pew gives lots of new raw numbers, some of them exceedingly alarming (e.g., “significantly fewer Americans volunteer scientific advances as one of the country’s most important achievements than did so a decade ago [27% today, 47% in May 1999]“); we narrate how things got to be this way.

What’s really excellent about the Pew study–conducted in partnership with the American Association for the Advancement of Science–is that it doesn’t just do the standard thing, e.g., survey the public and see how bad its responses to standard science questions are. Rather, it surveys *both* the public and a sampling of 2,500 scientists, and instead finds out how *different* they are.

This is the whole point of Unscientific America, too–the “two cultures” approach, now with additional survey data–and the answer is: Boy are these two groups different. No wonder they talk past each other. No wonder we have so many conflicts, over science in politics, the media, religion, and more.

We’ll have more on the Pew data soon. Meanwhile, check out the report

Comments (48)

  1. Pew gives lots of new raw numbers, some of them exceedingly alarming (e.g., “significantly fewer Americans volunteer scientific advances as one of the country’s most important achievements than did so a decade ago [27% today, 47% in May 1999]”); we narrate how things got to be this way.

    That’s hyping a perception that is probably due to the rather accurate assessment that US leadership in science is declining, as is probably inevitable. It’s probably mostly a good thing, too, as other countries become better at doing science. Sure, maybe not North Korea’s improved science, but science in most other places.

    The truth is that perceptions of science and scientists appear to have been fairly stable (aside from stuff like the above, which seems reasonable) for a couple or three decades–oddly unaffected by “counterproductive” new atheists. That’s not necessarily encouraging, since tripe like creationism is extremely enduring in this country, but not something that needs to be hyped as some emerging problem.

    Glen Davidson
    http://tinyurl.com/mxaa3p

  2. Jennifer B. Phillips

    e.g., “significantly fewer Americans volunteer scientific advances as one of the country’s most important achievements than did so a decade ago [27% today, 47% in May 1999]

    I’m not sure this is as significant as it sounds, in context. The other choices for the ‘most important achievement’ category are: 1. Civil rights/equal rights 2. War and Peace 3. Economy 4. Other and 5. Nothing/Don’t know. Values for 2-5 stayed pretty constant between 1999 and 2009. The Civil/equal rights category, however, went from 5% to 17%. Does anyone find this remotely surprising given that the poll was taken just months after we elected our first minority president?

    I’m not disputing that there is a disconnect between scientists and the general public–this is not news to any one, least of all the scientists. I’m just not sure if this result, in particular, is specifically indicative of that.

  3. Screechy Monkey

    Glen: “The truth is that perceptions of science and scientists appear to have been fairly stable (aside from stuff like the above, which seems reasonable) for a couple or three decades–oddly unaffected by “counterproductive” new atheists.”

    Yes, that was something I noted as well. With the public having a positive image of scientists (by an 84-6 margin), and 70% of them saying scientists contribute a lot to society (compared to 40% for clergy), it seems that the Angry Militant Meany New Atheist Noise Machine hasn’t harmed the reputation of scientists.

  4. Peter Beattie

    One bit seemed to me to stick out of all this data. There is a strong positive correlation of a lack of belief in the supernatural with the acceptance of evolution; and a very strong positive correlation too of church attendance with the rejection of evolution. (See Section 5 of the report for details.) One wouldn’t exactly expect this distribution if there actually was no conflict between science and religion, would one? On the other hand, if they were in conflict, that’s exactly the kind of distribution one would expect. Hmm…

  5. Peter, the question one should then ask (IMO) is: Why is there a conflict?

    Most of the New Atheists I’ve read on the net contend that this conflict is a conflict of diametric proportions, and that the two shall never meet. However, at sites like this, and by others such as Ken Miller, it is a matter of education and current misunderstanding.

    How you perceive that question is how you temper your interactions and responses to the individuals who currently consider themselves in conflict. You either ridicule or seek to exclude them (and if you read Jerry Coyne you go so far as to suggest that even those who are religious AND hold to evolution should be excluded from the defense of evolution), or you try to engage and educate.

  6. Peter Beattie

    TomJoe, it very plainly is a fundamental conflict from the philosophical point of view, i.e. the question of how best to think about the world. As PZ has said, the opposition is between “legitimate science, which questions traditional dogma, and religion, which is traditional dogma”. Science is a toolkit designed to overcome all sorts of bias and to get at a reasonable representation of the world. Religion usually is a bias towards a certain interpretaion of the world. When the Dalai Lama says that if science shows a tenet of Buddhism to be wrong, then Buddhism has to change, you can see how that’s a world of a difference from the more dogmatic religions, especially the Big Three.

    Now if that’s true, in my opinion we should ask: What do we do about that? Does religion have to change? What would happen, for instance, if Christianity gave up the tenet of Jesus’s reincarnation? My point of view is, absolutely nothing. Except deliver a blow to the power structures within the church. Which is probably exactly why it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

    But seriously. Would Jesus be less of a role model if he had been a mere mortal? I don’t see why; either his words and actions are commendable or they’re not. Would the Bible be a less important book if we finally acknowledged that large portions of it are bigoted, racist, and genocidal? Why would it? After all, nobody would then be led to all sorts of mental contortions in order to defend the clearly objectionable parts as ‘metaphor’ or ‘mysterious’. It would do our mental health a whole lot of good. It would, however, undermine authority and require, as well as foster, independent thinking. To which anybody who values Enlightenment ideals as manifested in our democratic societies should give at least three cheers.

  7. Peter Beattie

    I’m sorry, I failed to properly close an anchor tag in the previously submitted comment. Could somebody fix that, please? Thanks. (This post is then probably best deleted.)

  8. Bob Thomas

    My take home message is that people judge scientists favorably, because they see value in the products coming from scientists. I wonder if the lower opinion of journalists/clergy/etc. comes from a lessor perception of value in the products from these professions. Perhaps journalists need to better frame their product. Alternatively, maybe communication isn’t the key, but instead the real time needs to be spent on producing the best science possible. Just an opinion, but it seems to be supported by as much evidence as any of the opinions being tossed around.

  9. NewEnglandBob

    (and if you read Jerry Coyne you go so far as to suggest that even those who are religious AND hold to evolution should be excluded from the defense of evolution)

    That is not a true statement. That is what is expected of “Stale Atheists” like TomJoe.
    He says they should not couch the defense in the terms of moo, lie Collins does.

  10. Jennifer B. Phillips

    He says they should not couch the defense in the terms of moo, lie Collins does.

    Ah yes, we’re all kicking ourselves for agreeing to the terms of moo–those cows were just so stinkin’ wily, we didn’t realize their true motives until it was too late.

    And ‘lie Collins does’? I can’t stop giggling about that one.

  11. Jerry Coyne

    Coyne steps out from behind the sign, as in Annie Hall:

    “Excuse me. I’m Jerry Coyne and I couldn’t help hearing what you said. Actually, you know nothing about my work. I have never said, anywhere, that religious people who accept evolution should not be allowed to defend evolution.”

  12. GinaMel

    How much of this undermining seen in the last decade is due to the concerted War on Science by those who controlled Congress for much of the last decade not to mention the White House? Having a vigorous response from the scientific community would have been great but there really isn’t one monolithic scientific community.

  13. Jerry, let me remind you of your very words:

    By trotting out those “religious scientists”, like Ken Miller, or those “scientific theologians,” like John Haught, we are tacitly putting our imprimatur on their beliefs, including beliefs that God acts in the world today (theism), suspending natural laws.

    Taken from here.

    So, why should Ken Miller not be given the same avenues to defend evolution as an “atheist scientist”?

    Game, Set, and Match indeed Ophelia.

  14. Ben Nelson

    TomJoe, that’s not quite right. Ophelia, and others, make pains to point out that there is a “brute force” sense in which science and religion can be held simultaneously: i.e., they are “compatible” in the sense that they can live together for social purposes, while they’re entirely incompatible as far as cognition is concerned (i.e., they require compartmentalization). Moreover, Mooney agrees with the rest of them that there is no epistemic compatibility, as he admits that religion does not produce facts.

    I strongly suspect that both articulated sides are mistaken in thinking that the continuity/discontinuity of science with philosophy is especially relevant to the disagreement over cognitive compatibility. But this is a bit of a spectator sport at the moment so I’ll let that lie.

  15. Ben Nelson

    (That was a reply to TomJoe @5 btw.)

  16. Ben @13: Ophelia, and others, make pains to point out that there is a “brute force” sense in which science and religion can be held simultaneously: i.e., they are “compatible” in the sense that they can live together for social purposes, while they’re entirely incompatible as far as cognition is concerned (i.e., they require compartmentalization)

    Ben, I know she does, and I’ve asked for what sort of evidence she would require to reconsider her opinion that they are “entirely incompatible”. Oddly enough, she’s had time to cheerlead Jerry Coyne in this thread, and ignored my question of her only a few entries down. Since she’s reading this thread, would she like me to provide her with a link? I’d love to see her response.

  17. John Kwok

    I’m not sure what to make of these poll results, especially with the choices to one of the questions noted by Jennifer B. Phillips (@ 2). It’s an understatement to say that they are confusing.

    @ TomJoe (@ 15) -

    Again I endorse your request to Ophelia Benson which she has refused to acknowledge for several days now.

    What she, Myers and Coyne are missing, is this astute observation by someone whom I believe is an atheist, noted physicist Lisa Randall:

    “This reinforced for me why we won’t ever answer the question that’s been posed. Empirically-based logic-derived science and faith are entirely different methods for trying to approach truth. You can derive a contradiction only if your rules are logic. If you believe in revelatory truth you’ve abandoned the rules. There is no contradiction to be had.”

    You can read the rest of her comments, as well as Coyne’s essay proposing the very question she tried answering here:

    http://www.edge.org/3rd_culture/coyne09/coyne09_index.html

  18. Ben Nelson

    TomJoe, I believe the reply would be that compatibility could be confirmed if cognitive dissonance were disconfirmed: which is to say that if the relevant sets of propositions and activities that are rooted in actual religious practice (i.e., not ad hoc stuff) were shown to be consistent with actual scientific theories (at minimum; bonus points if scientific practice is also recognized).

    I suspect Unitarian Universalism might be consistent, but I’d have to look into it. It doesn’t seem like one of those religious religions.

  19. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TomJoe @12: This quote from Coyne in no way supports your claim that theistic evolutionists should be ‘excluded from the defense of evolution’ (from your comment # 5 in this thread). In fact, you’ve got it exactly backward! Coyne is voicing an objection to the clear favoritism given to these theistic evolutionists, often to the exclusion of *atheistic* evolutionists, in public fora, which he reasons might give the impression that they speak for all evolutionists. He’s not arguing for any kind of ‘exclusion’ at all–just for equal time, if religion has to come into it at all.

  20. TB

    @ 18 Jennifer

    Well, no, he’s arguing that there should be no outreach in science advocacy to religious people, because he feels it gives tacit approval to religion. (I don’t agree). Or, if that outreach occurs, then there should be time given to atheist scientists to, presumably, be free to contradict whatever is being done by the other outreach.
    Neither would, in my opinion, advance science literacy and so I don’t know how fairness applies.

  21. TB

    http://blog.jmlynch.org/2009/07/09/scientists-religion-evolution/

    In the third chart, where attitudes are broken down by age, seems to show acceptance of evolution will only increase with time. Isn’t this the kind of thing you would see if the “accomodationist” approach used over the last 25 years (to use a span of time used by Coyne) were working?

  22. Jennifer B. Phillips

    TB, I disagree with your interpretation as well. The title of the post in question is “Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?”. He is voicing a criticism of the NAS/NCSE, et al in striking an accommodationist stance by *always* putting forth examples of scientists who are also religious in their outreach efforts. He certainly does NOT call for cessation of ‘outreach in science advocacy TO religious people’ at all; he’s simply arguing that it should be done from a purely scientific position, and not some science/faith hybrid position that is neither representative of scientists as a group nor germane to the task at hand:

    I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do just that, and that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That’s not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren’t. End of story.

  23. Peter Beattie

    TomJoe, there very plainly is a fundamental conflict from the philosophical point of view, i.e. the question of how best to think about the world. As PZ has said, the opposition is between “legitimate science, which questions traditional dogma, and religion, which is traditional dogma”. Science is a toolkit designed to overcome all sorts of bias and to get at a reasonable representation of the world. Religion usually is a bias towards a certain interpretaion of the world. When the Dalai Lama says that if science shows a tenet of Buddhism to be wrong, then Buddhism has to change, you can see how that’s a world of a difference from the more dogmatic religions, especially the Big Three.

    Now if that’s true, in my opinion we should ask: What do we do about that? Does religion have to change? What would happen, for instance, if Christianity gave up the tenet of Jesus’s reincarnation? My point of view is, absolutely nothing. Except deliver a blow to the power structures within the church. Which is probably exactly why it’s not going to happen anytime soon.

    But seriously. Would Jesus be less of a role model if he had been a mere mortal? I don’t see why; either his words and actions are commendable or they’re not. Would the Bible be a less important book if we finally acknowledged that large portions of it are bigoted, racist, and genocidal? Why would it? After all, nobody would then be led to all sorts of mental contortions in order to defend the clearly objectionable parts as ‘metaphor’ or ‘mysterious’. It would do our mental health a whole lot of good. It would, however, undermine authority and require, as well as foster, independent thinking. To which anybody who values Enlightenment ideals as manifested in our democratic societies should give at least three cheers.

  24. TB, I disagree with your interpretation as well. The title of the post in question is “Must we always cater to the faithful when teaching science?”. He is voicing a criticism of the NAS/NCSE, et al in striking an accommodationist stance by *always* putting forth examples of scientists who are also religious in their outreach efforts. He certainly does NOT call for cessation of ‘outreach in science advocacy TO religious people’ at all; he’s simply arguing that it should be done from a purely scientific position, and not some science/faith hybrid position that is neither representative of scientists as a group nor germane to the task at hand:
    I think that organizations promoting the teaching of evolution should do just that, and that alone. Leave religion and its compatibility with faith to the theologians. That’s not our job. Our job is to show that evolution is true and creationism and ID aren’t. End of story.
    Sorry… forgot to say great post – can’t wait to read your next one!

  25. Jennifer, you can disagree with as many interpretations as you wish. The beauty of it all though is, Jerry was here and now he can answer for himself. I await his response. Ophelia is also free to chime in as well.

  26. TB

    @ 20 Ben
    I don’t believe that to be a fair measure. For one, it seems to put the onus on beauracracy and not acknowledge diversity of views among individuals who are religious. We know there are Catholics, for instance, who disagree with the church’s position on abortion and birth control.
    Put it another way – we wouldn’t say that travel faster than the speed of sound isn’t possible simply because the majority of people in the world haven’t done it.

  27. @ 26 and 28 Jennifer

    I appreciate that you disagree, but I’m comfortable with my characterization of his opinion. I think it takes into account effectiveness. Science advocacy is not science, and providing a spokesperson to a group where said spokesperson may have a specific quality that could bolster his/her credibility with that group is not necessarily a bad thing – if you’re specifically addressing advocacy.
    And, as the Pew poll shows, there is a percentage that deserves to be represented. I’m not saying religious scientists should be all there is, but I do say they have a role to play in advocacy.

    And that brings up another question: On the idea of “always” putting forth religious scientists – is that really true or is it just perception? I think I’d like to see an historic breakdown, some hard data to back that assertion up.

  28. John Kwok

    @) Jennifer -

    I respectfully have to disagree with your assumption that all Coyne wants is “equal time” for atheistic evolutionists. He is getting “it” in the sense that there are “atheistic evolutionists” like physicists Lawrence Krauss (who participates with him, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and, if I’m not mistaken, David Dennett, in The Reason Project) and Lisa Randall and physical anthropologist Eugenie Scott (Executive Director, National Center for Science Education). In being so strident in making his case, I believe that all Coyne is doing is trying to “set the table” so that he could, in the words of his colleague, eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson, advocate atheism as a “stealth religion”.

  29. Ben Nelson

    TB, the object under analysis is ultimately a collective, for the purposes of making responsible attributions to the collective.

    Your opposition seems to be based on the “save the ad hoc” model, but it is an absurdity to credit deviants for the vindication of any system whose ultimate purpose is to conserve doctrine and bring behaviors in line.

    It seems to me that stronger arguments can be made in other directions.

  30. Skeptic

    I think we are still waiting for that thoughtful, substantial response to PZ’s second post. Take your time, but please tell us when you plan on doing that.

  31. TB

    @ 33.   Ben Nelson Says: 
”TB, the object under analysis is ultimately a collective, for the purposes of making responsible attributions to the collective.”

    My point stands. If you wish to make “responsible” attributions to the collective, it must account for the diversity found in that collective.
    For instance I wouldn’t object if you said the Roman Catholic hierarchy, while having made some progress under the previous pope, continues to be embroiled in debate on how to reconcile specific, official beliefs with modern science. That’s a completely accurate statement, and it wouldn’t contradict two other statements:
    - There are strong fundamentalist elements in the Catholic church that would seek to derail the debate
    - There are elements in the church that do work in science and oppose the fundamentalist elements.

    “Your opposition seems to be based on the “save the ad hoc” model, but it is an absurdity to credit deviants for the vindication of any system whose ultimate purpose is to conserve doctrine and bring behaviors in line.”

    Using labels such as “ad hoc” and “deviants” is simply dismissive and doesn’t address the condition that a diversity of views exists under what you call a collective. What it also does is attempt to address the problem by advancing a personal definition that would result in removing certain elements outside this “collective” in order for your idea of what that collective is to conform to your conclusion.
    I find it much more interesting to consider this: http://www.theage.com.au/articles/2002/12/22/1040510964110.html
    That tells me there is active discussion and questioning. I don’t think it’s a question of vindication, but rather that religious belief is not set in stone, but changes to establishment beliefs -from within and outside – do face significant opposition and so change is glacial in speed.

    “It seems to me that stronger arguments can be made in other directions.”

    Only if you insist on narrowly defining your dataset so that it does not include the diversity of views that actually exist under that “collective.”
    Ultimately, I wonder if this will just lead into an argument over definitions. If that’s the case – I don’t know about you , but it’s Friday and I’d rather not. Perhaps we’ve arrived at a point where we agree that we’re going to disagree, respect that, and wish each other a pleasant weekend?

  32. Jennifer B. Phillips

    **Chris and Sheril, comment #28 was not written by me–it seems to be some sort of spam that recapitulates my #26 for the purposes of linking to some commercial site. I’d appreciate it if you could delete it as soon as possible**

    @TomJoe; TB/Tim Broderick (are you the same person?) Coyne is perfectly capable of defending his own words, but in both (all?) of your comments I saw some sentiments attributed to him that are very clearly different than what he has already said. I think that there are many legitimate problems to address within the differences of his views vs. those of CM, SK et al., but these issues are continuously obscured and confounded by a propensity on both sides of the argument to misinterpret and misrepresent the other viewpoint. I find this very frustrating and I’d like to get past it. To that end, please not that I did not make any attempt to attack the validity of *your* views, but merely to clarify Coyne’s actual words. Beyond that I’ll let Coyne speak for himself if he wishes, and let the conversation get back to the Pew Report findings.

    @Kwok:
    You are correct–he isn’t arguing for ‘equal time’ and my initial wording on that score (#21) was extremely clumsy and misleading. I tried to redirect by quoting the man himself in #26, but I apologize for the original misrepresentation.

  33. Ben Nelson

    TB, if we stipulate that “all religion” necessarily has the primary function of accommodating past doctrine, then we can go to town with our criticisms based on the epistemic and moral standing of those doctrines. (Call this the paleo-conservative sense of religion.) To the extent we want to call a community religious, yet also note that it isn’t terribly interested in preserving past doctrine, we arrive at a crossroads in the argument. But the concept construal above is plausible, in the sense that I think it captures a fairly wide range of those social things we call “religions”. For this function is reflected in typical and clear motivations that are open to empirical scrutiny. Plausibly, a religion is like a time capsule, an attempt for men to conquer time itself after they’ve died: hence the obsession with immortality, reincarnation, and so forth. Moreover, ultimately I think that, as criteria go, the criterion of paleo-conservatism will be more reliable than other criteria over time: after all, that’s the point.

    I do not mean to be dismissive when I use terms like “ad hoc” and “deviant”. I use those terms in order to give nodes by which we can actively engage with an articulate vision of what a religion is, at least according to the view I have presented here. Diversity is relevant in some sense, but is it relevant for religion qua religion? Or is it instead relevant for religion qua philosophy?

    It will matter how we define these matters, of course, but not all definitions are equally relevant (giving the most bang for your inferential buck) and clear (give us some intelligible set of instructions for sussing out the denotation).

    I won’t bully you into continuing the argument, and agree that I should spend more time outside in my hammock reading detective stories. But in any case you should feel free to respond if you think I’ve been unfair or am mistaken.

  34. TB

    @36 Jennifer

    First, weird about that comment.

    Next, yes I’m TB/Tim , cleared my cache and cookies and logged in differently unintentionally. But now that it’s changed, I think I’ll leave it TB. I’d rather search engines point to my website rather than here, for commercial reasons :) Sorry for the confusion though.

    “I think that there are many legitimate problems to address within the differences of his views vs. those of CM, SK et al., but these issues are continuously obscured and confounded by a propensity on both sides of the argument to misinterpret and misrepresent the other viewpoint. ”

    I’ll concede that it’s possible I’m not representing his views correctly – in truth I’ve stopped reading him so my opinion is not of his current thoughts. I hope I wasn’t disrespectful of your opinions – I didn’t intend that.

    In addition, I didn’t mean this as a challenge:
    “And that brings up another question: On the idea of “always” putting forth religious scientists – is that really true or is it just perception? I think I’d like to see an historic breakdown, some hard data to back that assertion up.”
    But as a genuine inquiry. The Pew study shows that most people get their science news from TV, from shows such as Nova. To me, that suggests that most people see the scientist put forth as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an atheist.
    I’m honestly wondering if there is something to that assertion, or if there’s a strong perception because many people will remember the person who irritates them more than someone who doesn’t.

    OT: My daughters really enjoy Nova, Nova Science Now and Tyson. And it doesn’t go unnoticed by me that many of the scientists Tyson profiles are women. That’s something I really appreciate.

  35. TB

    @ 37 Ben

    “I do not mean to be dismissive when I use terms like “ad hoc” and “deviant”. I use those terms in order to give nodes by which we can actively engage with an articulate vision of what a religion is, at least according to the view I have presented here. Diversity is relevant in some sense, but is it relevant for religion qua religion? Or is it instead relevant for religion qua philosophy?”

    Interesting. I’m going to give my reply to this some thought over the weekend.

    (OT for all except Ben: As for detective stories, you might be interested in clicking the link to my home page.)

  36. Jennifer B. Phillips

    Thanks for all the clarifications, TB.

    I hope I wasn’t disrespectful of your opinions – I didn’t intend that.

    So far I haven’t actually presented any of ‘my’ opinions, per se, I’ve just been attempting to parse Coyne’s, so no worries there. By my comment: “please not(e) that I did not make any attempt to attack the validity of *your* views” I did not mean to imply that my own views had been attacked–I was attempting to say that I was not presenting any argument against your own presented opinions, but merely a clarification of what you (mostly TomJoe, actually) appeared to be arguing against (i.e. Coyne’s opinon). I hope that makes sense.

    On the idea of “always” putting forth religious scientists – is that really true or is it just perception? I think I’d like to see an historic breakdown, some hard data to back that assertion up. The Pew study shows that most people get their science news from TV, from shows such as Nova. To me, that suggests that most people see the scientist put forth as Neil deGrasse Tyson, who is an atheist.

    On the face of it, I think it’s a good question, but again, I feel I have to clarify that Coyne is NOT saying “theistic scientists always get the good shows/interviews/whatever”. The ‘putting forth’ of religious scientists is specific to the efforts to increase public support for Evolution as a scientific fact and educational standard by the NCSE and the NAS, which invariably seem to focus on pointing out that there are plenty of scientists who are also religious, ergo science (including acceptance of evolution) and religion are compatible. Coyne presents the idea that this should be a non-issue. We shouldn’t have to preempt any compatibility issues, but rather the science should stand on its own merits as factual reality. Your point about Neil DeGrasse Tyson kind of makes this case, I think. He’s an atheist, AND he’s a scientist–does it follow then that science and religion are incompatible? I think not. Some may find his lack of faith disturbing :) , but as it doesn’t factor into his presentation of astrophysics or whatever other science he’s covering in the least, I’d wager that most viewers don’t know/care what he actually believes. I think this should be the default position, because at the end of the day I think discussions about the personal faith beliefs (or lack thereof) of scientists *as they pertain to the acceptance of science* is a losing proposition. Ken Miller and Francis Collins and the like are perfectly free to believe what they like, and to discuss their personal reconciliations of faith and science until the cows come home1. *No one is trying to silence them*. I just think it’s a mistake to hitch all the outreach wagons to their stars, if you see what I mean, and that is what seems to be happening.

    OT to your OT:
    I appreciate Tyson’s efforts in this regard as well. I am a research biologist and I do a lot of outreach activities with the local schools. The teachers and parent chaperones for these groups frequently express delight that the kids get to see a *woman* scientist in action, but so far the kids have found my gender completely unremarkable. How fantastic would it be if this up and coming generation were to find nothing remotely novel about women in science?

    1 Under the terms of moo (see comment #11), I am required to include this phrase.

  37. John Kwok

    @ Jennifer -

    Here’s a few dirty little secrets which Coyne and Myers don’t want you to hear:

    1) Religiously devout scientists can – and do – function like their atheistic and agnostic colleagues when conducting their scientific research (I know personally a few whom I’ve interacted with – and I am not including Ken Miller – and when it came to science, they were focused completely on their scientific research, without having any consideration for their religious views.

    2) Ken Miller has said that those who embrace faiths hostile to science should discard these faiths ASAP, preferably immediately.

    3) Ken Miller has also said that where science and religion may intersect, then science takes precedence above everything else (A sentiment strongly endorsed too by Vatican Observatory astronomer and planetary scientist Guy Consolmagno, during the World Science Festival session “Science Faith Religion” – which Coyne denounced vehemently at his blog, rejecting in a rather boorish fashion, a generous invitation offered by the WSF founders and directors, physicist Brian Greene and his wife, journalist Tracy Day – last month here in New York City, on the campus of New York University.)

    4) If you believed Coyne and Myers then “theistic” scientists like Miller and Consolmagno would consider first and foremost, their devout religious devotion to Jesus Christ. Not true.

    5) According to polling data from the late 1990s, approximately 56% of evolutionary biologists regard themselves as religious (I heard this during a talk given by vertebrate paleobiologist Donald Prothero here in New York City back in January).

  38. Jennifer B. Phillips

    @JK
    None of these things are secrets. Can you find a source where either Coyne or Myers refute any of these items? I’m not sure what your point is, but if you’re concerned I haven’t properly exposed myself to opinions on both sides, you needn’t worry.

  39. John Kwok

    Jennifer -

    Glad you recognize this, but if you read Coyne’s and Myers’s columns on “accomodationism” etc., starting of course with Coyne’s New Republic review of Miller and Giberson’s new books, you might come away with a completely different picture, which, I should note, that TomJoe, among others, has recognized. The way they have been advocating their positions, including condemnation of any kind of “accomodationism”, has led me to the conclusion that there may be much validity to eminent evolutionary biologist David Sloan Wilson’s contention that atheism is a “stealth religion”.

    Anyway it’s getting late and I’ll be turning it shortly.

  40. Sorbet

    Chris you are being insufficiently critical. There seems to be a gap here because I don’t think what the public means by “science” is what we mean. For the public science means cool gadgets and computers, but for us it means mainly the scientific method. I don’t find this poll encouraging and it’s misleading (Why, if the public thinks scientists are cool is there so less enthusiasm for basic science?).

  41. @ 37 Ben

    Since I’ve had more time to go through the Pew report, I think regarding your question I would say the people who would be subject to your description would make no distinction, and so in the interest of clarity I would say the definition needs to include all.

    Look at this chart: http://people-press.org/reports/images/528-60.gif

    There, people who self-identified as religious were broken down into their views about natural selection. Among those identifying as religious, there’s significant disagreement over evolution as a natural, unguided process. While the dogma of their particular organization may say otherwise, it does not negate the opinions of those who make their religion compatible. And according to these poll numbers, those who do seem to make up a significant percentage.

  42. Ben Nelson

    Hi Tim, it’s difficult to interpret the data, since we’re now at the level of demography, whereas my points are at the level of social psychology. So it’s all speculation and inference from here on in (well even moreso).

    I haven’t read the report myself; perhaps you have a leg up on me and could answer my preliminary thoughts if I have missed something obvious.

    Out of the respondents, only 84% could answer the question about their beliefs concerning evolution. If I’m interpreting this right, 49% of weekly churchgoers accept the literal truth of Genesis, that we were like Adam and Eve; 21% believe in the metaphorical truth, and that God exerted supreme guidance. That’s 70% out of all respondents; but out of those that responded to that set of questions, it’s 83%, the solid majority. If we were to presume that avid churchgoers (weekly) is a measure of diffidence (semi-plausible), and presumed that avid churchgoing is a reflection of possessing a more authoritarian personality the casual churchgoer (an incredible assumption made for the sake of argument; perhaps it is bolstered somewhat by supposing that doctrinal diffidence is a measure of the authoritarian personality), then we’d have to conclude that lives lived around weekly religious services trend towards diffidence, and therefore towards the authoritarian personality.

    The question is then: of that second group, to what extent were the metaphorical (brute force compatibilist) interpretations themselves guided by church doctrine and behavior? That would require, at least, a breakdown of the frequency of churchgoing by sect. If it turns out that all religions show a significant minority who both attend frequently and who defy the literal doctrine, then that’s one thing in your favor, but if the metaphorical interpretation is being taught outright in their religious communities (Pope John Paul, for example) then it’s another thing entirely.

    We might try going backwards, and pegging the authoritarian personality to particular religions, but that would be even more problematic.

    As these things go, though, it will all depend on degrees of deviance from the local clerical authority. It is not possible to determine from that table whether or not the metaphorical interpretations are the norm within some community. (Again, we’re making big and unwarranted assumptions, i.e., that free-thinking and the authoritarian personality cannot coincide; but otherwise the data would just be impenetrable as far as my concerns go.)

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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