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Are scientists unlikely to be religious persons?! One of the weirdest survey results I've ever seen

That 41% disagree really surprises  That a majority of the public (59%) disagrees with this item shocks me. I would have bet at most only 25% would disagree with this statement; I also would have predicted that religiously inclined people would be much more likely to agree with it.

Can someone explain--and in way that can be tested (i.e., no just-so stories that evade corroboration)?

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Reader Comments (18)

Is it possible that the negation in the prompt ("not") and then again in the response ("disagree") confused respondents? People typically have a tough time when double negation is actually intended, as in the question above. So, it is possible that at least some of the "disagree" respondents meant "agree".

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterKarthik D

I think "not likely" is ambiguous. It invites the responder to imagine a case where a scientist is very religious, and if that's relatively easy to do, answer negatively. In other words, people may not interpret it as asking about population statistics. Even if they can't name a single very religious scientist (which is pretty easy, considering the prominence of NIH director and former head of human genome project Francis S. Collins), they're bound to think scientist and very religious is still a possible combination. In other other words, "not likely" can be interpreted as idiomatic for "not possible".

A better survey question would ask instead about ranges of ratios of "very religious" in the population of scientists, using language like "less than 1 in 5", "between 1 in 5 and 2 in 5", etc.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan

Karthik -

I was going to make the same suggestion before reading your comment.

Could be tested with a non-double negative framing of the question.

That said, I'm not sure why Dan finds the result surprising. I would expect that a high % of people would think that scientists are not likely to be very religious, and I wouldn't think that religious people would be significantly any more likely to think that. In fact, religious people might be more likely to know scientists who are very religious (members of their synagogue community, for example). Also, of course, something that could be tested with an additional survey question.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

WEKS strikes again, it seems, except my Everyone is clearly not yours.

Your stated question would seem to have the strong covariate, "Do you yourself know a religious scientist?" There are so many religious scientists out there that the likelihood you know none is actually pretty small.

If you know a religious scientist but don't know how to qualify "very" religious, you're going to be caught somewhere between disagree and agree, so that checks out.

Furthermore, I expect religious scientists as a group to be socially connected to people all over the religiosity spectrum, so I would expect no effect of religiosity on this response item in the general population. If you were to subsample the people who don't know any religious scientists, I would expect to see them much more likely to agree than the rest of the population.

If you don't see that, then I'm wrong.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

What is a scientist? Are doctors scientists, for instance? There are a LOT of doctors who are active church members; any religious person would know this.. (And I would say, in synagogues, too -- lots of scientists.) I personally am quite religious and would have disagreed with what I understood you to be asking, but you don't want anecdotes.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterServetus

Reading dypoon's comment, I should clarify that religious people might be more likely to be aware that they know scientists 2ho are very religious, by virtue of them being in the same religious community. Non-religious people might be just as likely to know a very religious scientist, but less likely to have knowlwdge of the scientist's religiosity.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

Dan, have you plotted those the right way round? I've looked at several other reports and "disagree" is usually the strongest result.

My understanding was that in the US about 40% of scientists are religious, compared to about 80% of the general population. They're less likely, but they're not unlikely. And although there is a major war between evolutionists and the religious, virtually every other science is pretty neutral about it. (I think astronomy used to be an issue, but the Church pretty much gave up on the sun orbiting the Earth several centuries ago.)

To explain it, we'd first need to know exactly what you think needs explaining.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


1. Thanks. You are correct about "disagree" being most popular.

2. What is source of 40% info.

3. I find it surprising b/c I am used to hearing about religious people being suspicious of science & vice versa. Of course if 40% factoid is right, then scientists are unlikely to be religious, contrary to what public appears to think

4. What dypoon says about personal experience sounds right-- that highly religious will find scientists amongsst their ranks & overestimate population frequency. But what about nonreligious people? They presumably encounter very few religious scientists; why is the relationship between the response & religiosity effectively zero?

April 25, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

"1. Thanks. You are correct about "disagree" being most popular."

You're welcome! :-)

"2. What is source of 40% info."

It was just something I remembered from an old discussion on the topic of the science-vs-religion thing. Digging a little deeper, it seems it's from a 1997 Nature study.

Here's a more recent survey:

And there's more stuff here:

For example...

When asked about terms of conflict between religion and science, Ecklund noted that only a minority of scientists in each regional context believe that science and religion are in conflict. In the U.K. – one of the most secular countries studied – only 32 percent of scientists characterized the science-faith interface as one of conflict. In the U.S., this number was only 29 percent.

"3. I find it surprising b/c I am used to hearing about religious people being suspicious of science & vice versa."

Ahh! Sounds like the liberal media bubble, to me!

I think it's like the question of trust in science, where as you've already noted conservatives are not notably less trusting than liberals. Evolution and topics closely associated to it have become a political shibboleth and staple of the culture war, but it doesn't apply to science generally.

I think that the answer to your question is that the common atheist-liberal stereotype of religious people being anti-science, and science being at war with religion is wrong. Not sure how you'd test it, though, if the "trust in science" result isn't enough.

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV


Dan, did you change the graph or did I just completely misread the graph earlier?

I would agree that it is surprising that as much as 40% would disagree with the idea that scientists are not likely to be very religious. Please note the very as I think that is an important qualifier (one missing from NiV's comment above).

It is quite possible to believe that it isn't unlikely for a scientist to be religious while also thinking that it is unlikely for a scientist to be very to me, in the U.S. at least, being very religious would usually (if not always) imply a belief in creationism, which I would imagine does not apply for a very high % of scientists.

Dr. Brian Alters is an international leader in education and the author of the best-selling book Defending Evolution in the Classroom. He holds dual appointments with McGill University in Montreal and Harvard University. He is also founder and director of the Evolution Education Research Center at McGill.

"Overall, the nation has a big problem," said Alters. "Approximately half of the U.S. population thinks evolution does (or did) not occur. While 99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution, 40 to 50 percent of college students do not accept evolution and believe it to be 'just' a theory," he reported.

Not that I know anything about his methodology and I think his number of 99.9% very is conspicuously high, but....

At least I would be in the category who would answer that it isn't unlikely (as vague as that term is) for a scientist to be religious but that it would be significantly unlikely for a scientist to be very religious

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

@Joshua-- the scatterpoint is fine (mean is between agree & disagree but slightly closer to former). It was the barchart that was mislabeled: 59% of sample disagreed w/ the statement either slightly or strongly. @NiV pointed out the error, which actually makes the finding even more surprising (to me, at least)

April 25, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

Aha! . I had good reason to be dubious

In the article, Brian Alters—a professor of science education then at McGill University, now at Chapman University, and then a member, now president, of NCSE’s board of directors—is quoted as saying, “While 99.9 percent of scientists accept evolution, 40 to 50 percent of college students do not accept evolution and believe it to be ‘just’ a theory.”

So I asked Alters about the quotation attributed to him. Seven years later, he doesn’t remember saying it, but he agrees that there was no “study” with that finding; the 99.9% figure, if he offered it, was just a rhetorical flourish, a colorful way of expressing the undoubted platitude that the vast majority of scientists accept evolution.

But then there is this:

And it is indeed a platitude; Prothero wasn’t wrong. But he would have done better to find a better source. In 2009, a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found that “[n]early all scientists (97%) say humans and other living things have evolved over time.” There. Was that so hard?

Dan, thanks. So then I did misread the graph earlier.

Funny that I got caught up in the double-negative problem even as I wrote about the double-negative problem in the question!!

But yeah, I agree that is surprising. Like I said, I would say that it is unlikely for scientists to be very religious even if it isn't unlikely for them to be religious (to some extent). I find it surprising that such a view is in the minority. I guess, perhaps, it is because so many Americans think that being very religious is quite common. So then the follow on questions useful for cross-validation might be: (1) What % of Americans do you think are very religious and, (2) Do you think that scientists very likely to differ in their religious views from most other Americans?

April 25, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua
April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua


"water is wet" unless one is science curious

But in fact the "asymmetry thesis" remains hotly debate; stay tuned...

April 26, 2017 | Registered CommenterDan Kahan

dypoon -

This touches on a few issues we "talked" about a while back (at least I think it was you):

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

"Political left, right similarly motivated to avoid rival views"

Interesting! I read the preamble about the politically motivated bias, thought my usual thought about whether this was specifically about political identity or whether it was just that people didn't like wasting time listening to views they thought were false, and why didn't they try doing the same experiment on topics that aren't the subject of cultural controversy and identity politics.

And then I read the next bit...

The UIC researchers and Jeremy A. Frimer, a corresponding author from the University of Winnipeg, indicate the divide goes beyond political topics.

Respondents also had a “greater desire to hear from like- versus unlike-minded others on questions such as preferred beverages (Coke vs. Pepsi), seasons (spring vs. autumn), airplane seats (aisle vs. window), and sports leagues (NFL vs. NBA),” they wrote.

Well done! Someone asked the question! And no, turns out it's not specific to protecting one's political identity - unless perhaps there's a "Coke-drinker" tribe out there currently engaged in outright political war against the "Pepsi-drinker" tribe over the national Cola policy...

But will anyone pay any attention?

"This touches on a few issues we "talked" about a while back (at least I think it was you)"

Another very good article! I don't know about dypoon, but *we* have discussed this stuff between us often enough! This is how it's supposed to be done.

I wonder if anyone's sent this article to Michael Mann? :-)

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterNiV

@ Joshua: IIRC it was you and NiV who were talking about that, though I was lurking.

"4. What dypoon says about personal experience sounds right-- that highly religious will find scientists amongst their ranks & overestimate population frequency. But what about nonreligious people? They presumably encounter very few religious scientists; why is the relationship between the response & religiosity effectively zero?"

Why -would- you presume that nonreligious people encounter very few religious scientists? I myself am not very religious. Because I went to school for science, I encountered fellow students who became the religious scientists, who also went to school for science. That's why I assumed something different, that religiosity wouldn't be associated with knowing a religious scientist, and so wouldn't show a response. By contrast, I'd expect that educational attainment would show a strong response; if you never did a bachelor's, why would you know people who have gone to graduate school?

April 26, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterdypoon

dypoon -

I was referring to the discussion here:

April 27, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJoshua

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