About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The scientific study of religion, part IV

[I'm in Baltimore for a meeting on the scientific study of religion. What follows are just some random notes and observations from the sessions I actually attended, and are not necessarily representative of the entire meeting, given of course that I picked the topics that tickled my curiosity.]

This is the last session from the meeting on which I will report. It had a special format, which is actually typical at this type of conference. An author, in this case Elaine Ecklund, who wrote "Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think" (Oxford Press), is exposed to a number of critics analyzing her book and then responds. I have not read the book, so what follows is entirely a reflection of what I heard during the session itself. The critics were Martin Makary (Johns Hopkins University), Nancy Nason-Clark (University of New Brunswick) and John Evans (University of California-San Diego).
The author started with a brief introduction to the book. It features ten social and natural scientists who were interviewed in depth and followed through their work, coupled with a broader survey of about 1,600 scientists at elite universities. The survey shows, for instance, that a surprising number of atheists consider themselves "spiritual." Anyway, I guess there is not much an author can say about a book in five minutes.
The first commenter was Makary, who said he grew up in a fundamentalist family where disputing the literal 7-day creation story amounted to rejecting all of Scripture. Some platitudes about science and religion "working hand in hand" followed, together with an apologia for Francis Collins as the quintessential example of a religious scientist. Maybe god worked his way through directed evolution, and after all, Galileo was not an atheist (at this point my blood started boiling, but never mind that).
Next was Nason-Clark, who actually broadly speaking addressed the book's content. After a self-promotional detour, she praised the interview approach around which the book is constructed. Clark then launched into personal anecdotes about scientists she knows personally. One of them was a strong atheist, who has become more tolerant of spirituality after a brush with cancer (though he remains an atheist). Another is a closet believer, afraid that his work will be discounted by colleagues because of his faith. Clark then continued with a long winded series of irrelevant observations about the arrogance of natural scientists and their considering the social sciences inferior and/or irrelevant.
Finally, we moved to Evans, who started out by mentioning a series of studies over decades showing that scientists are sharply less religious compared to the general public. Evans claimed that these studies are of dubious significance because they do not go in depth enough, unlike the book under consideration. Apparently the picture of the "elite" scientists emerging from the book is that most of them are not anti-religious a la Dawkins, but rather adopt one version or another of Gould's (in)famous non-overlapping magisteria. At least Evans provided a critique of the book, for instance saying that the author implicitly defines religion as non-science, and that she overestimates the degree of religiosity or spirituality of the scientists interviewed. Evans thinks that the non-religiosity of scientists does not derive from cognitive dissonance about different approaches to understand the world, but it is rather rooted in a different moral perspective, with scientists seeing religion as a social competitor. (I have no idea what he bases this on, and it certainly doesn't reflect my personal experience.)
What was interesting about this session was that - with the partial exception of Evans' remarks - it was intellectually vacuous and smelling terribly of political correctness. Scientists were chastised for being ignorant of religious diversity (though of course no data was presented to back up this sweeping claim), and for focusing too much on Protestantism, the major religion that actually does make epistemic claims about the world (apparently both author and panelists are not aware that this is a situation peculiar to the US, where Protestants are in fact a threat to public science education. This is still largely not the situation, and has not been the case historically, in Europe).
During the rebuttal, the author even went so far as to suggest that we need science "safe zones" on campus, where people feel comfortable challenging scientism, the view that science informs the entirety of one's worldview. (Readers of this blog know that I am no friend of scientism, but this discussion made me feel a little bit more sympathetic to Dawkins and co.)
One of the few interesting points raised (by the book's author) is the relationship between and perceived relative value of quantitative vs qualitative research. The social sciences are shifting toward what she called an over-quantification of their disciplines, in an effort to "play the game with the big boys" (i.e., the natural scientists). Here I do agree that there is room for both approaches, because certain questions and analyses do not lend themselves to quantitative treatment without losing much of what is interesting in the subject matter. But that's a discussion for another time, and has little to do with the question of scientists' attitude toward religion anyway.
Overall, it seems to me that the divide between the two cultures is unfortunately still very much alive and well. And while I usually criticize natural scientists for the part they play in it, in this case I didn't get much of a positive feeling from the other side either. Oh well, more work to be done.


  1. I would actually be happy if you devote one of the posts or podcast to the quantitative vs. qualitative debate. I agree with you that there is room for both approaches, but ultimately if we can't quanify something we probably can't answer any scientific question regarding this subject.

  2. How did you sit through that? Alcohol?

  3. I wonder what would be discussed in these safe zones from sciencism? Surely not philosophy :)

  4. A side point, but having more atheist theologians would be a positive step toward de-polarizing public discourse and getting rid of pragmatic niceties qua solutions to the religion "problem."

  5. In the contest of candles and darkness my money is on the darkness.

  6. Thanks for this series of reports. These "science safe zones" sound rather sinister, although perhaps places of worship already qualify as such?

    Next, reason free zones for the hard of thinking.

  7. Yes the number of apologists who actually address Dawkin's point rather than brush them aside is surprisingly few.

    And can we have a nice clear definition of what scientism is? Right now it seems to be used the same way fox news uses "socialist". I.e. anyone who is further along the spectrum than the person speaking is one.

  8. Too bad this was a somewhat lackluster panel. But you mentioned one point that I found intuitively plausible.

    You said "Evans thinks that the non-religiosity of scientists does not derive from cognitive dissonance about different approaches to understand the world, but it is rather rooted in a different moral perspective, with scientists seeing religion as a social competitor."

    I think this is probably right, at least from one perspective. It seems to me that if religion were not competing with science for social influence, there would be little motivation for scientists to engage with religion at all. Science and religion would go their own ways, and there would be little to gain by starting a conflict between them. If a few people experienced a little bit of cognitive dissonance, it would be a very small price to pay; cognitive dissonance is easy to rationalize away.

    The problem is that (in the US and many other places) religion does compete with science for political power at essentially every level of social organization--from level of national governments to the level of individual nuclear families--and the stakes of this competition are high. In the context of politics, in other words, science and religion are not nonoverlapping magisteria.

    Now it may be that you or I have been privileged enough to choose our allegiances somewhat freely, without facing pressure from our governments--or our parents, for that matter! And we may indeed have based our decisions on a desire to avoid cognitive dissonance. But the fact that we have to make a choice at all reflects a political state of affairs that existed well before either of us did.

  9. @Scott

    Nice post, though I don't fully agree with it. However, what you describe could be the political aspects bringing the issue of cognitive dissonance to the fore, rather than supplanting it.

    As I understand it, Massimo characterizes Evans as making the further claims that a) scientists don't see religion as invalid on scientific grounds (i.e. no dissonance) yet b) feel compelled to discredit it more than they think it deserves to c) promote science in its stead since d) scientists think there is substantial irreconcilability between the actions each magisterium prescribes. In which case Evans would be wrong on all counts.

  10. Brian, right, that's what I took Evans to be saying. But of course it was just a short commentary, so this needs to be taken with a grain of salt. (And no, I didn't imbibe any alcohol to get me through the panel...)

    gil, I don't think it is true that science requires quantification. That's certainly the model in physics, but quite a bit of science can be done with qualitative analyses. And of course, as you probably know if you read RS regularly, I don't think science equates to the whole of interesting or useful knowledge.

    downquark, scientism is the attitude that science provides the only kind of reliable or worthy knowledge we have, and/or an overly inflated conception of the scope and importance of science.

  11. """downquark, scientism is the attitude that science provides the only kind of reliable or worthy knowledge we have, and/or an overly inflated conception of the scope and importance of science."""

    But this is entirely dependant on the opinions of the person doing the talking. Insane British columnist Melanie Phillips accuses anyone who says science can provide answers about human origins to be indulging in "Scientism". Obviously that is nothing like what you consider scientism to be. And it sounds like John Evans' notion of scientism could differ a lot from your notion.

    If I had to make a prediction, it would be that this would be abused horribly and I could see the "scientism free zones" fast becoming havens for all sorts of nonsense.

  12. downquark,

    well, any term that doesn't admit of a small set of necessary and sufficient conditions for definition (i.e., most interesting terms outside of math and logic) is liable to abuse. That's why one needs to engage in discussions that spell out why someone is engaging in scientism, and why that's a bad thing. It is hard to deny that the attitude exists, however.

    A good book abut this that takes to task both some scientists and especially some philosophers is:


  13. Of course I agree that not everything that is interesting and useful should be done by science, but I wonder how can you do science without some sort of quantification. My perspective is that qualitative studies might be interesting and informing, i.e. can raise interesting questions, but it's hard to answer any scientific question using these methods (unless of course you define science differently than me and that get into the whole issue of demarcation)

  14. gil,

    well, a lot of research in paleontology is done qualitatively, and they answer a good number of questions.

  15. but there is also a lot of controversy. for example, the way we classify fossils as related to one species and not another is a lot of time very subjective and highly debated. However, if you can clearly put one thing in one category and another in a different category, to me is really close to quanify them even though we don't have any numbers involved.

  16. Wait a minute, if there are no number is not quantifying, not fair to count it as quantitative! Also, very often quantification leads to muddy results where numerical groupings are fuzzy and/or overlapping, depending on what sort of data one is talking about.

  17. you are of course right, but the tendency to get more muddy results is when we rely on completely subjective categories don't you agree? if there is a problem with the quanification of something, then it's probably not the best science.

  18. gil,

    I'm still thinking about this, but for one thing qualitative doesn't equate with subjective. And there simply may be some areas of reality / knowledge that do not lend themselves to quantitative analysis. That doesn't mean we can't do science, if one understand science as empirically based hypothesis testing.

  19. ok, thank you so much, this clarify some things and give me some food for thought. Are there any books or articles that deal with this issue?

  20. I'm sure there are, but I haven't looked into it yet.

  21. I suspect a lot of supposedly "qualitative" research can be seen as in fact quantitative, but the quantitative part is done by researchers' brains, in a relatively opaque manner.

    For example, suppose a paleontologist is comparing the skeletons of three dinosaurs A, B, C with an eye to cladistics (this is purely a hypothetical, I don't know anything much about paleontology). Comparing size is probably not useful since you'll get various ages, genders, life conditions etc. between the three fossils.

    So you eyeball the overall skeletal structures, and conclude that A and C are closely related and B is an outlier. That is qualitative to the extent that you didn't do any formal calculations, and yet it's hard to argue that it's not quantitative as well, in the sense that it totally depended on the specific geometry of the skeletons, which your brain opaquely processed.

    I'm having trouble thinking of any reasoning involved in science that is truly qualitative, in the sense of not reducible to measurable quantities even in principle.

    Meanwhile my inner logical positivist is screaming that everything is either trivially quantitative or else trivially meaningless... boy, he's persuasive.

  22. Ian, that exactly what I meant and you described it perfectly. Even if we seem to make qualitative distinction, it does seem that we are quanifying it in some ways in our brains. It's a fascinating subject though, that makes you think.

  23. Hard to believe that the creator-of-everything Jah has a human-like personality. But given human-social religions, what is their point if the do NOT propose Sharia?
    A church seperatd from the state is just a shed for assembling choirs and bake-sales.
    If youvegota great rligion, the obvious step is to take it on the road to Capital City. I dont much mind, Uzure and Rentiers are seated there against my will.


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