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« Who needs to know what from whom about climate science | Main | MAPKIA! "answer" episode 1: The interaction effect of religion & science comprehension on perceptions of climate change risk »

Religiosity in the Liberal Republic of Science: a subversive disposition or just another manifestation of the pluralism that makes scientific knowledge possible?

A thoughtful correspondent writes in connection with the "religiosity/science comprehension interaction" post:

you are on the verge of unearthing something very important with this religion inquiry, in my mind.

i bet the key thing you are missing here is a "trust in science" measure, which would tie it all together. 

My response:

could be ... can you think of a good test for that? It would have to be something, of course, that doesn't treat "belief" in evolution or even "climate change" as evidence of "trust in science" as an analytical matter--since what we are actually trying to figure out is whether the effect of religiosity on positions on evolution and climate change is a reflection of the association between religiosity and "distrust" in science or something else.

I can think of two competing hypotheses here (a single hypothesis is like a single hand clapping!)

The first is the one that might be animating your surmise: the classic "secular/sectarian conflict thesis," which asserts a deep antagonism between religiosity & science that manifests itself in a kind of immunity to assent to core science insights, as manifested by the failure to become convinced of them even as "ordinary science intelligence" (let's call the latent nonexpert competence in, and facility with, scientific knowledge that a valid measure of "science literacy/comprehension" would measure that) increases.

The second is the "identity expression thesis." Religiosity and acceptance of science's way of knowing are completely compatible in fact (& have achieved a happy co-existence in the Liberal Republic of Science).  But rejection of some "positions" -- e.g., naturalistic evolution -- that involve core scientific claims are understood to signify a certain identity that features religiosity; and so when someone w/ that identity is asked whether he or she "believes" in that position they say "no." That answer, though, signifies their identity; it doesn't signify any genuine resistance or hostility to science. Indeed, it isn't a valid measure of either ordinary science intelligence  or assent to the authority of science as a way of knowing at all. It is a huge mistake -- psychometrically but also conceptually & philosophically, morally & politically -- to think otherwise!

I am inclined to believe the 2nd.  But I think the state of the evidence is very unsatisfactory, in large part b/c the measures of both ordinary science intelligence and assent to the "authority" of science's way of knowing  are so crude.

But consider: In the Liberal Republic of Science, do relatively religious folks distrust GPS systems because they depend on general relativity theory? Do they think the transit of Venus was a "hoax"?   Do they refuse to take antibiotics? View childhood vaccines as ineffective or risky?

Some people do indeed believe those things & likely are relying on anti-science mystical views (religions of one sort or another, including "new age" beliefs)-- but they are a fringe -- even highly religious people shun them as weird outliers....

Honestly, I don't think even the most religious citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science -- of our society as a necessarily imperfect realization of that regime -- can even imagine what it would look like to accept some alternative to science's way of knowing as normative for their beliefs about how the world works! 

What's more, just like everyone else, they love Mythbusters! How much fun to watch curious people answer a question ("would a penny dropped from the top of the Empire State Building really penetrate someone's skull?") through disciplined observation & valid causal inference .... Creeping "anti-science" sentiment in our society? C'mon!



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Reader Comments (16)

Interestingly enough, it may be that Kahan has done more to assure that efforts to stem global warming fail than any man in America with his report on science literacy and the Tea Party. However much he insists that his findings are being wildly misinterpreted, the results appear to have provided exactly what many on the right have longed for - validation of their ideas. However unintended the results of his work have become, the fact is that his study may very well be the reason that efforts to address issues like global warming will continue to be met with denial on the right.

Personally, I will bet that his work will be found to be incorrect in the near future by other researchers.

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVince White


You seen this study? Very much consistent with your position.

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdmk38

I appreciate your reply and I attempted to digest the study you referenced. I will admit that I would need more time to fully comprehend much of what is contained in the study.

I have always wondered what internal struggles scientists deal with when their work leads them to a conclusion that they themselves know or fear can and will be used to severely damage the human condition. What is their responsibility to the human race at that point? Is there ever a point where knowing something can cause far more damage and death than not knowing? What are the moral implications of that scenario for a scientist?

Thanks for the reply! Cheers!

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterVince White

"Interestingly enough, it may be that Kahan has done more to assure that efforts to stem global warming fail than any man in America with his report on science literacy and the Tea Party."

He'd have to go a long way to beat Michael Mann!

"However much he insists that his findings are being wildly misinterpreted, the results appear to have provided exactly what many on the right have longed for - validation of their ideas."

Nah. The right see their ideas validated all the time. (Who doesn't?) What surprised them was seeing a liberal psychology professor apparently being open to the idea too! That was novel!

Although given the aftermath, I'm not expecting we'll be seeing it again any time soon. ;-)

"I have always wondered what internal struggles scientists deal with when their work leads them to a conclusion that they themselves know or fear can and will be used to severely damage the human condition."

Ah, yes. What happens when scientific principle comes into conflict with politics?

The universe is what it is. Pretending otherwise usually doesn't work well, or for long.

Some scientists think that each of us has to decide what the right balance is between being effective and being honest. But the moment anybody realises you even have to think about that question, you'll no longer be either.

If you destroy our reasons for trusting in the integrity of science, how badly will *that* damage the human condition?

November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

There is another possibility. That people only accept the science that makes sense to their life experience and ignore or reject whatever doesn't. If you haven't seen measles or polio, but believe you've seen damage from vaccines, you might be easily persuaded to ignore the evidence in favor of vaccines. If the Bible has been a meaningful source of wisdom in your life and "believing" in evolution isn't particularly useful to you, it might be easy to ignore or reject (and even condemn) that science. If you believe you have experienced ESP, you will be dismissive of whatever science might say to the contrary. If you believe men and women are equal, you may feel the need to reject (or even condemn) science that describes differences. You can take a look at the science behind climate change and believe you seen a great many holes. It may have less to do with protecting one's identity and more to do with choosing to validate one's own experience and reject the "objective" view of science. Formulating identities is not a one-way street. More like a whirligig.


November 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth


In an earlier post Dan referenced a paper that described it very well. If the science fits your preconceptions, you ask yourself "Can I believe this?" If it does not, you instead ask yourself "Must I believe this?"

The influence of cultural networks may be indirect. People pick up knowledge and evidence selectively from the people they talk to, or read. If you think as a result that some piece of science is well-settled, you'll set higher standards of evidence to overturn it. And you may be more aware of the counter-evidence and counter-arguments against a position from a network that is interested in and spreads such arguments than one that doesn't.

For example, in the climate debate, there are a lot of believers who have heard of ClimateGate but whose networks have dismissed it as "out of context" or "contains no solid evidence", which they have been happy to accept, and so have never read it. Sceptics, on the other hand, have often read from it extensively, can quote it at length, and often do know the context. The information is passed around, discussed, explored, expounded upon, condemned, extended, indexed, summarised, paraphrased, explained, because sceptics are interested, and find it useful in making their arguments.

And their standard of evidence for it is different. They ask "can I believe this?" where a believer asks "must I believe this?"

In other words, it's not that people are 'motivated' to accept or reject the conclusions, but that people are 'motivated' to seek out or dismiss counter-arguments and counter-evidence. Those that find it, believe or disbelieve on the grounds of that hard evidence they found, and get very annoyed at being told they only believe because of their politics. Politics comes into it - obviously, since politics is correlated to belief - but not necessarily in such a direct way as Dan is suggesting.

November 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


I think most people don't bother to seek out evidence either direction . . . and that most people really don't like to go against the tides unless their personal experience forces them to . . . I think most people don't have time or energy to waste on anything approaching an inquiry into the scientific evidence for climate change or evolution or vaccines. Someone has an openly gay child, and they change their mind about gay marriage. Propinquity. Exposure. Those are much more powerful influences in people's lives than science ever will be.

I also think this "Dan, you're really onto something with this religiosity thing" comes from someone who thinks *they* and *their group* give science its proper decision-making (moral) weight and religious people erroneously place too much decision-making (moral) weight in religious things. I have found no groups and only a very few (really odd) individuals who give scientific inquiry any real moral weight. Science is something to pull out when one needs reasoning for an already-held position. It is not a moral polestar.


November 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth


"Propinquity. Exposure."

I.e., evidence.

Many people seem to think that 'Science' is an arcane and esoteric art practised by men in white coats using bunsen burners and particle accelerators after many years of training. Something not to be attempted by mere mortals.

But science is a much more mundane thing. Mostly it is about what is sometimes called 'critical thinking' - insisting on evidence, checking sources, being aware of some of the ways one can be fooled, and the methods that can help avoiding that. Anyone can do it, at a simple level, and a lot of people do without even realising it.

To pick up your example - having an openly gay child would motivate you to find out more about it. You're interested, it's relevant. Some of the things you learn will be of the sort that you say "Must I believe that?" to, but sometimes the evidence is strong enough that you must, and so people change their minds.

I note that you said 'Propinquity' and 'Exposure'. You didn't say 'Family' or 'Loyalty' or 'Unconditional Love'. It's not that you're saying somebody is suddenly in favour of gay marriage simply because it is their own child that it gay, it is that their child being gay resulted in them obtaining the evidence (whether they deliberately sought it out or not) and it is on the basis of the evidence that they formed their new views. Propinquity brought about exposure to new information, and provided a social network of people knowledgeable and motivated to know about the subject, who provided the arguments and evidence to back up their worldview.

In the climate debate, too, it is perfectly true that very few of the people with an opinion know much of the deep technical science. But that doesn't mean their views are not based on evidence. There is quite a lot of evidence that is readily apparent or accessible to the non-expert, and a lot of even quite scientifically ignorant sceptics are aware of it. People have heard of 'hide the decline', they've heard of 'the pause', they've heard of the Himalayan glaciers and the errors in Mann's hockeystick (even if they don't know the maths, they know that other people do). They often know that a climate scientist once said "Why should I make the data available to you, when your aim is to try and find something wrong with it" and they know why that's bad, bad science; bad reasoning.

Some of their evidence and argument is weak, or even wrong, and they probably couldn't sustain it against someone who knew what they were talking about, but it's nevertheless still evidence they are basing their beliefs on, not simply that their friends said so.

The same goes the other way, too. Believers believe because they've heard the Arctic ice is melting and the polar bears are dying and there's Katrina and all these wildfires and weather we've been having. They're not believing it simply because Al Gore told them to, or that they heard that good liberals all do. They base their beliefs on evidence. Even those who fallaciously believe because "peer-reviewed literature" or "consensus of experts" are basing it on evidence of a sort - it's not just that they're trusting them because they're liberals.

They believe because as liberals they *have* heard that the polar bears are dying, and they *haven't* heard the arguments and evidence to say that they're not. Given what they know, they're not being unreasonable or irrational, but what they know depends on their social network. Whether they seek out more information depends on how much it conflicts with their prior beliefs. "Can I?" "Must I?"

It's true that 'science' is not a moral polestar for most people - but things like 'truth' and 'integrity' quite often are.

November 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

For example, in the climate debate, there are a lot of believers who have heard of ClimateGate but whose networks have dismissed it as "out of context" or "contains no solid evidence", which they have been happy to accept, and so have never read it. Sceptics, on the other hand, have often read from it extensively, can quote it at length, and often do know the context.

Unfortunately typical. According to NIV's taxonomy on the one hand, a "believer" (by definition) is someone who is a "low information" participant while a "skeptic" is, by definition a high information participant. The game is rigged.

In point of fact, the vast majority of participants on both sides are low information.

Again, NiV, you conflate the outliers you read in the "skept-o-sphere," (or perhaps those in your own personal circle) with the general reality.

Ironic since you self-identify as a "skeptic," and yet do this over and over.

November 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


Well, quite possibly. I haven't conducted a scientific survey, or seen any of the professionals conduct one. But it seems odd to me that despite the vast majority of people being 'low information', that I can have managed to have wandered around for all these years and never met one of them. *Every* sceptic I have come across has heard of ClimateGate. It was in all the newspapers. *Every* sceptic I have ever come across has a list of arguments and evidence in support of their views - often third hand and of dubious quality, but evidence nevertheless. Same for the believers.

They may be 'low information', but they're *not* 'no information'.

It's one of the reasons I keep muttering about all the professional studies that only ask what people's beliefs *are*, but show no interest in asking people *why* they believe what they do.

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

I don't think that "religiosity" can be considered on some scale from less to more, without considerations of theology. Even if only Christianity is considered. As I mentioned someplace my Methodist childhood contained every Sunday singing of the "Doxology": "As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be, World without end.... Certainly some measure could be devised showing who was taking that literally and who was just singing because it was what was traditionally always sung. And I would presume that that data might impact propensity to accept scientific analyses of global climate change. But the Jehovah's Witnesses have been at my door recently. And their literature seems to imply that climate change can be seen as a predicted sign that we are now entering the "End Times". A net positive, apparently, if only we will listen to, and accept, what they have to say. So they might have a strong correlation with "religiosity" and belief in global warming without much correlation with science at all when it comes to the impacts of warming.
If we expanded this analysis to religions other than Christianity I am sure that the correlations with global climate change would be even more complex. They vary in openness regarding different ways of knowing, on a philosophical basis, not just regarding science. And individual religions vary in rigidity over time and space.

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGaythia Weis

Even on a website dedicated to the exploration of differing cultural world views, it feels like people are stuck yelling across the group-grid at each other: you shouldn't believe that/feel that way about it/understand your experiences that way . . .

November 27, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth


It's okay. those guys actually like each other. In fact, they share a cultural style that is more important than either of the opposing ones that seems to be motivating their respective arguments.

November 28, 2013 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

I can confirm that, from my side at least. I enjoy Joshua's critical comments, both for the intellectual challenge of arguing with them, and as a valuable check on my own cognitive blind spots and preconceptions. It's the reason for debate. And though we usually disagree, Joshua is always civilised about it.

Some people think that a discussion is a failure if it doesn't result in agreement, or the other party being persuaded. But for me, while agreement is nice if you can achieve it, by far the greatest value is in broadening the range of viewpoints I get to see, challenging assumptions, testing claims, and understanding other people's points of view and other people's ideas - the more different the better. Understanding them doesn't necessarily mean agreeing with them, but I like to have at least thought about it.

And a diversity of viewpoint is valuable in science, and in the public debate too. Sadly, places where different viewpoints are tolerated and the two sides can communicate ideas with one another are all too rare.

As Milton said of the search for truth: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

"Dust and heat" is what we often get, but the prize is worth it.

November 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

Isabel - what else would you expect?

IMO, shouting across group-grid is pretty much a given. What matters most is how folks response to what ensues - whether people take in information that can help them understand how their group identifications biases their understanding.

And as soon as NiV presents to me an argument that helps me see the limitations of my own, I will take it in. I promise. :-)

November 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"In fact, they share a cultural style that is more important than either of the opposing ones that seems to be motivating their respective arguments."

I very much agree with that statement :)

And if my discomfort is any guide, it seems I may not share that cultural style. I therefore reserve the right to express my discontent with its expression.



December 1, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel Penraeth

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