Sociologist John Evans talks about his research on evangelical attitudes toward science. Writing for the LA Times, he says:
I recently conducted survey research comparing the most conservative of Protestants â those who identify with a conservative Protestant denomination, attend church regularly and take the Bible literally, or about 11% of the population in my analysis â with those who do not participate in any religion. The conservative Protestants are equally likely to understand scientific methods, to know scientific facts and to claim knowledge of science. They are as likely as the nonreligious to have majored in science or to have a scientific occupation. While other studies have shown that the elite scientists who work at the 20 top research universities are less religious than the public, it appears that the vast majority of people with workaday scientific occupations are like their neighbors, religiously speaking â¦
There are, of course, a few fact claims in which conservative Protestant theology and science differ, such as the origins of humans and the universe. Here we find that typical conservative Protestants are likely to believe the teaching of their religion on the issue and not the scientific claim.
We could complain that they are being inconsistent in believing the scientific method some of the time but not always. Yet social science research has long shown that people typically are not very consistent. The people who are more consistent are those who are punished for inconsistency: philosophers, media pundits, political activists and politicians. [Note, though, that media pundits are not punished for inconsistency. ‑JR] â¦
The greatest conflict between fundamentalists, evangelicals and science is not over facts but over values. While scientists like to say that their work is value-free, that is not how the public views it, and conservative Protestants especially have homed in on the moral message of science. William Jennings Bryan, famed defender of the creationist perspective at the Scopes “monkey trial,” was not just opposed to evolution for contradicting the Bible but also concerned that the underlying philosophy of Darwinism had ruined the morals of German youth and had caused World War I.
The situation today is not that different: Contemporary “intelligent design” advocates, for example, are deeply worried that the teaching of evolution has a negative effect on children’s values.
The same research that shows fundamentalists generally believe in science’s ability to gather facts about the world also shows that they do not want scientists to lead the public debate on issues concerning morality.
Is it still futile then? Can the two “sides” never agree?
No, it isn’t futile. Understanding what concerns the “other side” would help. â¦
To move forward, we, as a country, need to lower the political conflict. Yes, the views found in fundamentalist churches are not exactly the same as those at the National Science Foundation. But we would see less of the polarizing “we real Americans” rhetoric from the religious right if its members were not ridiculed as know-nothings. Conservative Protestants are not fundamentally opposed to all science.
These points largely echo those I’ve made on this blog for years, though there are places I’d quibble. Evangelicals value science and technology, surely, but their view of science is a cod-Baconian science, not so much 19th century as 17th, and wrong even from Bacon’s perspective. A love of technology and adherence to an outdated and restrictive inductive mode of inquiry is not love of science, and it is in that gap which one can find the “fundamental opposition to science.”
But Evans is right that this sort of research can guide us towards better ways to engage people around science. Knowing that evangelicals treat science as what we can touch and influence directly does indeed suggest that climate change communication should focus on direct measurements, not on models, and the same for evolution. (The trick, of course, is that the really interesting parts of climate science or evolutionary sciences involve taking direct measurements and making model-based, testable extrapolations.)
I’m especially intrigued by the finding that evangelicals are as likely as nonreligious folks to major in science and that both groups perform comparably on science literacy tests. Elaine Howard Ecklund’s survey of scientists at elite universities found almost no evangelicals, so clearly there’s something keeping evangelicals from continuing in science past college, and that’s worth exploring in more detail. Do they apply for grad school in equal numbers? If not, why not, and if so, why do they so rarely become professors?
It’s conceivable that the flawed concept of science which evangelicals often hold becomes an obstacle to advanced scientific study. But I’d like to think that a science major will have had to confront that issue before graduating. If not, it suggests a flaw in college-level science education.
Part of the dropoff is surely explained by the correlation of evangelical belief and conservative political ideology. For various social reasons, conservatives don’t choose to pursue advanced degrees as often as liberals do, and evangelicals are often conservatives, so the same forces will apply. But that’s not a big enough effect to explain the magnitude of this shift.