Can Celebrity Scientists Change The Way People Think About Science And Religion? : 13.7: Cosmos And Culture Do people like Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins impact public opinion on how science and religion relate? Tania Lombrozo considers a study on the influence of big-name scientists on the debate.
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Can Celebrity Scientists Change The Way People Think About Science And Religion?

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Interior of St. Vitus Cathedral, Prague, Czech Republic.
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Stephen Jay Gould famously described the relationship between science and religion as one of "non-overlapping magisteria," with science restricted to facts and theories about the empirical universe, and religion to questions of moral meaning and value.

This is one way to understand the relationship between science and religion: two compartments with a solid wall between them, fixed and non-porous.

But it's by no means the only, or even the most popular, approach.

A common alternative is to regard science and religion as partners in a shared enterprise — collaborative and ultimately compatible. Francis Collins, the director of the National Human Genome Research Institute and a devout Christian, is a well-known proponent of a view along these lines. In a 2006 debate arranged by TIME, he argued that "Gould sets up an artificial wall between the two worldviews." Collins went on to explain that because he believes that God created everything in the first place, "studying the natural world is an opportunity to observe the majesty, the elegance, the intricacy of God's creation."

Yet another perspective is that the relationship between science and religion is one of conflict, with the two regarded as fundamentally incompatible. In light of this incompatibility, only one approach can win: either science or religion. Richard Dawkins, the well-known evolutionary biologist and science popularizer, is a forceful advocate for this approach, arguing that the victor is — and should be — science.

In the same 2006 debate with Collins, Dawkins speculated that "Gould's separate compartments was a purely political ploy to win middle-of-the-road religious people to the science camp." Instead, Dawkins argued, religion regularly encroaches on the territory of science, and it's science that succeeds in answering the questions traditionally posed by religion. "The question of whether there exists a supernatural creator, a God," he urged, "is one of the most important that we have to answer." But he went on to claim that it is "a scientific question," and that his answer is "no."

These perspectives on the relationship between science and religion — independence, compatibility, or conflict — have dominated popular debate. But it's natural to wonder whether these views are actually representative of most people's beliefs, and whether the views of scientists and science popularizers, such as Collins and Dawkins, have any real impact on public opinion.

Does learning about Dawkins, for example, effectively change some people's minds, leading them to regard science and religion as conflicting approaches where the former invalidates the latter? Or might his perspective sometimes backfire, leading those with strong religious commitments to concede that there's a conflict, but to opt to resolve it in favor of religion?

In a 2017 paper published in the journal Public Understanding of Science, sociologists Christopher Scheitle and Elaine Ecklund decided to find out. They conducted a nationally representative survey of 10,241 adults living within the United States, where respondents were asked to indicate which narrative about the relationship between science and religion best described their view: one of independence, collaboration, or conflict. Those who chose conflict additionally specified whether they were on the side of science or religion.

The critical experimental manipulation embedded within the survey was a summary of Collins's perspective or a summary of Dawkins's perspective. Specifically, some participants received one of the following two brief descriptions before they reported their own beliefs about the relationship between science and religion:

"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.'"

"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."

Other participants didn't receive either description, but still indicated which of the four views about science and religion came closest to their own, providing a basis for comparison. The researchers could thereby evaluate whether exposure to the perspectives of Collins or Dawkins had any impact on respondents' own views.

Regardless of which description respondents were given, the most popular position was that science and religion can co-exist in some form of collaboration. Almost as popular was the view that science and religion are independent. Conflict came in third, with religion favored slightly more often than science. So overall, Collins's perspective was the favorite, Gould's was a close second, and Dawkins's was a fairly distant fourth.

But for many people, these perspectives weren't deeply entrenched. We know this because learning about Collins's perspective was enough to change some people's minds.

For those participants who were not already familiar with Collins, learning about him for the first time had a significant effect, leading more of them to endorse a collaborative view. Those who did not receive the description about him endorsed a collaborative perspective 35.3 percent of the time, whereas those who did receive the description endorsed collaboration 49.8 percent of the time. Correspondingly, fewer participants who learned about Collins endorsed independence or the view that there's a conflict that should be resolved in favor of religion.

For those participants who were not already familiar with Dawkins, by contrast, learning about him for the first time had no reliable effect. Of those from this sample who didn't learn about Dawkins, 10.7 percent endorsed his conflict view in favor of science; among those who did learn about Dawkins, 12.4 percent endorsed this view. This difference was not statistically significant, nor were there significant differences in the endorsement of any other view.

These findings suggest that celebrity scientist opinions can have an influence on how people think about the relationship between science and religion. But the findings also suggest that such effects may be modest and variable. While Collins had a persuasive effect, learning about Dawkins was neither persuasive nor off-putting.

As always with individual scientific studies, many questions remain open. For example, it's unclear whether learning about Collins had more than a transient effect. Would those participants who learned about him in the survey be any more inclined to endorse collaboration weeks or years later? It's also unclear whether learning about Collins shifted perspectives because he explicitly endorsed collaboration, or because his identity as a scientist and a Christian was itself a challenge to some forms of conflict. Similarly, it could be that Dawkins was unpersuasive not because his perspective was itself unconvincing, but because respondents found him less credible or trustworthy: Research has consistently found that, on average, Americans distrust atheists far more than they distrust religious believers.

In my view, one of the most interesting results was that Dawkins's position didn't backfire by prompting those with religious inclinations to acknowledge a conflict between science and religion, but to choose to resolve it in favor of religion. This could be because the description of his view was — for Dawkins — fairly tame. Elsewhere, he's written that "faith is the great cop-out"; that "there is something infantile in the presumption that somebody else has a responsibility to give your life meaning." This kind of rhetoric might encourage some people to turn to religion in defense, or to distance themselves from what they perceive to be an insensitive perspective, even if they partially agree.

The study by Scheitle and Ecklund is among the first to explore how individuals and the media can influence people's views about the relationship between science and religion, so the conclusions that we can draw are correspondingly modest. We need many studies exploring many factors across many populations before a more complete picture can emerge. Given how powerfully narratives about science and religion seem to be shaping American policy and politics — this is a picture we might want to develop.


Tania Lombrozo is a psychology professor at the University of California, Berkeley. She writes about psychology, cognitive science and philosophy, with occasional forays into parenting and veganism. You can keep up with more of what she is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo