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….
Saturday evening I published a few lines about how Richard Dawkins’ Oxford book of modern science writing features just 2.5 out of 83 essays by women. I wasn’t particularly surprised or harsh in tone, as the purpose was mainly to make the point out that we have a lot of work to do toward breaking through the gender divide across the sciences. I have written extensively on this topic in the past and continue to believe we will not achieve balance unless the institutional framework of academia fundamentally changes. Dawkins responded:
It is not an anthology of “science writing”…[but] a collection of writing by good scientists, many of them dead and very distinguished. I am not one of those who thinks men are genetically better equipped than women to become distinguished scientists. Presumably for other reasons, it is a regrettable fact that the great majority of distinguished scientists of the past 100 years, as measured by Nobel Prizes, Fellowships of the Royal Society, numbers of science publications, etc, have been male. That imbalance, and not an imbalance in my preference or my choice, is what is reflected in the anthology.
Later in comments, he also clarified that the view from Oxford is that the twentieth century is modern. However, while undoubtedly, the book includes an excellent collection of essays, the lack of female contributors matters because it perpetuates underrepresentation. And Tara is right: Science is, unfortunately, often a boys club. It needn’t be, but a shift in attitudes takes time. Mike Dunford added:
I am not disappointed because Dawkins failed to bend over backward to make sure that the scientists included in his anthology matched some sort of set of diversity statistics. I am disappointed because Richard Dawkins, a man who is as gifted and talented a communicator of science as anyone alive today, clearly failed to consider the message that his choice of authors might send to quite a few of his readers, and the good that might come from putting a bit of thought into finding even one or two more talented scientists to include in the anthology who were not white men.
DrugMonkey and drdrA feel similarly, while a post by Miranda objects to ‘inclusion for inclusion’s sake’ and Dawkins agrees. Of course, inclusion for inclusion’s sake would be ridiculous and there are many, many layers to this issue. Most of all I’m glad it’s being discussed around the internet and hope the conversation continues.
What I know for sure is that there are certainly more than 2.5 noteworthy female scientists who have written extraordinary essays over the past century making great contributions in science–some even leading to a paradigm shift in her respective field. Yes, perhaps, they often did not garner the same level of attention and recognition as male colleagues, but I argue it was often due to oversight, rather than lack of skill, creativity, or curiosity.
Got myself an early yule present today; “The Oxford book of modern science writing” edited by teh Dawkins d00d. A first glance of the table of contents sends happy shivers down my spine – a great collection of 83 pieces of science writing. Extracts from key classics and more recent texts as well as shorter pieces like JBS Haldane’s heartbreaking but very funny “Cancer’s a funny thing”.
But since I can’t seem to leave my gender glasses behind ever, I started counting. And that takes me to the first complaint. Of 83 texts Professor D has selected 3 written by women. That’s about 3.6 %. How hard could it be to find a handful more?
While I don’t own the book itself, I skimmed the table of contents at Amazon and it appears she’s onto something. No, I’m not surprised, however, Dr. Isis, Rebecca, Sci, Sciencewomen, Janet, Zuska, Tara… we have work to do.