Ecklund vs Larson & Witham on Religion Among Elite Scientists

By Chris Mooney | May 3, 2010 6:54 am

I’m interviewing Elaine Ecklund for Point of Inquiry today (the show airs Friday), and here’s one thing I’m definitely going to ask her.

Prior to Ecklund’s study, the most prominently cited study of religious beliefs among elite scientists that I know of was by Edward Larson and Larry Withham in Nature in 1998. They surveyed members of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and found that only 7 percent embraced a belief in God. At the time, this result got a lot of news attention, and it continues to be discussed today–e.g., in Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Ecklund’s findings are very different–she gets 36 percent belief in God, and 50 percent religiosity among scientists at elite universities (the difference is apparently due to the large percentage of scientists who claim some type of religious identity but do not believe in God; many are Jewish).

I want to know the reason for this large apparent divergence in findings.

Some possible explanations: The ten year gap between the two studies; the greater age of NAS members; different polling questions, or different definitions of religion; Ecklund’s inclusion of social scientists in her study, where Larson/Withham only polled natural scientists. Or perhaps there’s something inherent in getting to the level of NAS member that selects for more strongly atheistic scientists than merely getting a post at a top university.

If anyone has an answer–or cares to speculate–leave a comment below….

Comments (24)

  1. Gus Snarp

    Seems like you’ve likely hit on the difference – sampling. The NAS is a very narrow sample, possibly unrepresentative, depending on how you want to define scientist. And certainly adding social scientists makes a significant change in sampling as well.

    Then again, it may also be the wording of the questions and the labeling of groups, but I don’t know nearly enough about either study to really comment on that.

  2. Dave Schwartz

    I identify myself as *culturally* Jewish, but I’m by no means religious. If they’re including that as “religiosity,” I think they’re doing it wrong.

  3. GM

    And certainly adding social scientists makes a significant change in sampling as well.

    And it certainly isn’t right, as isn’t the inclusion of mathematicians and computer scientists, if (as I guess) this is also the case.

  4. The real question is whether they believe in a god or not, being “religious” is vague.

  5. Chris Mooney

    Having read Ecklund’s book, I can at least answer one of these questions. She says social scientists define religiosity in 3 ways, based upon self-labeling, beliefs, and practices. If you just focus on beliefs, you get 36 percent of her scientist sample who are religious. If you add in self-labeling, I guess that brings you to 50 percent. We’ll talk about this more on the show, but that is my sense of things, though I want to check it with her.

    Re social scientists: Certainly it changes the sample, but Ecklund says they are not much different from natural scientists in terms of religiosity or the lack thereof….it’s not like they are way more religious or anything.

  6. vel

    I’m curious on how “god” was defined in both studies. Is it BibleGod who is petty, wrathful, ignorant, etc, or is it some self-created version where the believer has decided that they know what God “really” is and it isnt’ the biblegod.

  7. Dan

    I believe that the numbers reflected in those two studies are not true indicators of religious belief. In order to achieve a more accurate reading, one must be able to determine the motive for participating in the study as well as not participating. In short, the 7% was always rubbish. It could have meant that 93% were too scared to come forward. The 36% number shows that more people are willing to risk losing their jobs.

  8. William Furr

    @vel: There are LOTS of other definitions of “God” besides the two you cited. The concept of “God” varies immensely across time and culture.

  9. Is it BibleGod who is petty, wrathful, ignorant, etc, or is it some self-created version where the believer has decided that they know what God “really” is and it isnt’ the biblegod.

    I doubt there is a single religious person who believes in what you call BibleGod. Only people who don’t believe in Judaism or Christianity describe God in that way.

    If you want to know what religious people believe, you can’t exclude definitions that religious people would actually apply to their own beliefs.

  10. in short, the 7% was always rubbish. It could have meant that 93% were too scared to come forward. The 36% number shows that more people are willing to risk losing their jobs.

    Too scared to come forward? In an anonymous poll? Do you really think most scientists are afraid that they’d be fired if they claimed to believe in God? Can you give us any examples of scientists being fired for believing in God?

  11. GM

    In short, the 7% was always rubbish. It could have meant that 93% were too scared to come forward. The 36% number shows that more people are willing to risk losing their jobs.

    Who exactly has lost his job for that kind of stuff? As far as I know people are becoming NIH directors while involved in egregious abuse of the scientific method that should and would get them fired if it was done in their actual scientific work.

  12. GM

    I doubt there is a single religious person who believes in what you call BibleGod. Only people who don’t believe in Judaism or Christianity describe God in that way.

    That’s because the rest of people aren’t reading/understanding what’s in their Bible

  13. That’s because the rest of people aren’t reading/understanding what’s in their Bible

    They read it fine. They just don’t interpret it the way you do.

  14. GM

    I don’t interpret it, I read what it says

  15. GM – Old or New Testament? There is actually a realy difference there . . .

  16. I don’t interpret it, I read what it says

    You write like a fundamentalist Christian.

  17. GM

    GM – Old or New Testament? There is actually a realy difference there . . .

    And where exactly does it say that the Old Testament should be read “metaphorically” while the New Testament should be taken more seriously?

  18. Anthony McCarthy

    While it might be interesting to have some numbers about scientists and religion, why is it any more important than plumbers and religion or nurse practitioners and religion?

    Scientists don’t study religion as part of their work, what they have to say about it is no more important than what other non-specialists do.

    The NSA isn’t a representative sample of scientists since they self-select.

  19. Anthony McCarthy

    There are LOTS of other definitions of “God” besides the two you cited. The concept of “God” varies immensely across time and culture.

    Anyone who believes in an all knowing, all powerful, eternal God would know that any concept we would have about it is hardly even a beginning. The attempt to define a God like that would be idolatrous because anything you come up with would be inadequate and a false image. It would be like trying to draw the universe on a note pad.

  20. Philip Jr.

    @ GM #17:

    And where exactly does it say that both should be read literally? The Bible is the only work of fiction I know of that people (both religious and not) will readily admit is fiction yet read in a 2nd grade manner, as if literary devices don’t exist.

  21. Petra

    How most believers read the Bible:

    - interpret selections literally which fit your preconceived views of the world; interpret selections metaphorically when they don’t

    How fundies read the Bible:

    suddenly become woefully ignorant of metaphor, allegory, and other literary devices, and declare that a literal reading is the only “true” meaning. Focus only on the happy parts, and pay the rest little lip service.

    How an atheist reads the Bible:

    - suddenly become woefully ignorant of metaphor, allegory, and other literary devices, and declare that a literal reading is the only “true” meaning. Focus only on the nasty parts, and pay the rest little lip service.

    A commonality between all three? They believe their way is the only “right way,” and everyone else just doesn’t get it.

  22. Jack Lewis

    >> While it might be interesting to have some numbers about scientists and religion, why is it any more important than plumbers and religion or nurse practitioners and religion?<> Scientists don’t study religion as part of their work,
    You would have to define what “studying religion” means. I’m sure that some scientists have read the bible and laughed at the notion that this book was inspired by an all knowing all powerful creator that doesn’t even know the world is not flat.

    >> what they have to say about it is no more important than what other non-specialists do.
    You do have a point; hardly nothing important can be said about a work of fiction written by goat herders thousands of years ago. Still it is quite fascinating to see people looking for wisdom in *that* direction.

  23. Oliver

    If you look at the previous study it asked the scientists if they believed in a “personal” god – this is a theological term meaning a god with a personality, a god who is a distinct being with wishes and interests, who intervenes in the world – like the Bible one. Some scientists have a vague belief in a higher power of some kind but do not believe in a personal god, or their use of the term may be even lack anything strictly supernatural at all. In Einstein’s case he used the term God, but said he just meant by it his sense of wonder at the majesty of the universe and the laws of physics. I would guess the new study just said “do you believe in God”.

  24. Jon Jermey

    Since nobody can force you to take a survey against your will, I assume that the respondents were self-selected. So ask yourself; who’s more likely to respond to a survey about beliefs: a boring old atheist who believes the same as everyone else, or a crackpot with some whacko shiny new conspiracy theory of everything which he (rarely she) thinks is going to save the planet?

    I’d need to see details of how the survey was conducted before I put any credence in the results.

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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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