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.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Sagan beats Dawkins. In related news, education overcomes superstition

by Massimo Pigliucci
I have been doing public outreach for science since I originally moved to Tennessee in 1996. It has been a fun ride, and I’m sure it will continue to be that way for many years to come. But two of the first things I learned when debating creationists and giving talks about the nature of science were: a) nastiness doesn’t get you anywhere; and b) just because you have reason and evidence on your side doesn’t mean you are going to carry the day.
Hence, my sympathy for the mild mannered approach of Carl Sagan as evident in, say, The Demon Haunted World, or The Varieties of Scientific Experience, and my dislike of the more in-your-face take of those such as Dawkins, as fun as the latter may be for the in-crowd. Up until recently, however, I could only back up my preference with reasons of personal taste and anecdotal experience. Not any longer, now there is hard data.
A recent paper in PLoS One by Jessica Tracy, Joshua Hart, and Jason Martens explored the reasons why people prefer Intelligent Design type “explanations” to science-based ones such as evolution by natural selection. The authors carried out a series of experiments using an established technique in experimental psychology, known as “priming.” Before exposing subjects to, say, a writing by Michael Behe or Richard Dawkins, the researchers asked them to imagine and write about either their own death or some dental pain. Subjects were then given a short passage authored either by Behe or by Dawkins — neither of which was explicitly addressing religion — and were asked what they thought.
Subjects who were primed to imagine their death prior to reading the passages were inclined to like Behe better than Dawkins, and to accept ID accounts over evolutionary ones. The inference being that — as we all suspected — people are drawn to creationism out of emotional fears of personal annihilation, not by reasoned discourse.
Here is the first kicker, however: when the researchers also gave subjects an additional reading, from Carl Sagan, the results were different. In the short passage, Sagan was explicitly arguing that scientific explanations of natural phenomena do not have to detract from meaning (yes, I know that Dawkins also writes about this, but much less forcefully and convincingly, I think). The Sagan piece had the effect of countering Behe’s, even among people who had been reminded of their own mortality. Pretty neat, heh?
But there is more. An additional experiment was carried out by focusing on undergraduate and graduate students in the natural sciences, instead of the broader samples from the general population examined previously. Even after thinking about death, these subjects still favored biological explanations over Intelligent Design, and they even liked Dawkins better than Behe. It seems that education might trump people’s fear of mortality enough to make them understand that science is more sound than religion when it comes to explaining the natural world.
The bottom line is that we now have some of the first experimental evidence that: a) coupling scientific accounts of the world with more philosophical reminders of where meaning in life comes from, and b) simply teaching science, are effective ways to alter people’s perception of the evolution-creation debate.
Think about it: this means that an injection of philosophy and good science education actually makes a difference! Our efforts are not wasted, especially if we can remind ourselves of what should be obvious: people are attracted to pseudoscience not just because they don’t know enough science (though that is certainly the case), but because they find enhanced meaning in the mysterious. Paul Kurtz famously called it the transcendental temptation, and a strong temptation it is. The trick is to counter it with tools that cut deep enough into its emotional roots, not just addressing its surface appearance of rationalization.


  1. *sigh*

    Where is our modern day Carl Sagan?

  2. Your main point is probably at least partly right, but that is one helluva long chain of shaky inference we have to follow to arrive at the notion that Sagan was somehow objectively a better presenter. Mind you, I don't have time to read the full paper right now.

    Also, a memento mori is not the only priming stimulus that could have been tried, and results might then have been different. Or not. This seems to be trying to prove way too much at once, with potential confounding factors just piling up.

  3. Ian, granted that no single study should be taken to prove too much, as you say, do you actually have specific criticisms of it?

  4. Very interesting. I'm always reserved when people start talking about the best rhetorical strategy as I fear that we will just end up with people agreeing with us but for the wrong reasons (non-rational). Worse still I fear that we can never out do the tricks of the tricks of the opposition who of course are professional sophists.

    At least provides some empirical verification of why people are always asking atheists about death.

  5. >Where is our modern day Carl Sagan?<


  6. Agreed, Massimo, but I must say, for most people with a limited background in science Carl Sagan's writings would "hit harder" I think precisely because it is so philosophical (almost Buddhist like) all the time. Think of the "we are made of starstuff" and "we are a way for the cosmos to know itself" type quotes. You can imagine why that would appeal to a wider range of people.

    I think his unparalleled passion for science is also highly contagious. I agree that his mild mannered approach does work better, but his eloquence in conveying these ideas with that passion also plays a major part. I mean, often when a normal, not too academically trained, person hears an uplifting speech in say, a movie, it's most of the time about how "epic" the soundbite is and not the actual information it conveys.

    I'd expect to find the same with this study. Dawkins' writing is very much like a computer language. Structured, coherent, assumptions are clearly stated where appropriate, he's not flashy etc. Sagan does that too but he has those epic lines that no one else has and that passion that even science haters will find heartening (and that's what most normal people want, same as movies!).

    I just wonder what specific quotes were given to what people, because I can clearly see why Sagan's best would trump anyone else on many of these criteria.

  7. How does the second study restricted to science students prove that education helps? That's just a correlation that is quite likely a result of a self-selected third variable.

  8. Joanna,

    the study in itself doesn't "prove" anything, but it does suggest a connection, given that the only difference between the last study and the rest was the degree of science education. Sure, it could be the result of other variables, but like what?

  9. A less sanguine interpretation of this study might be that it merely shows WEIRD undergrads can be induced to ostensibly embrace naturalism with the help of individualistic existentialist bromides.

  10. I guess not necessarily a third variable, perhaps more likely an inversion of the first two. A lack of aversion to science-speak makes one more like to major in the sciences.

  11. Sagan's books were central to my own transition from religious skepticism of science to scientific skepticism of religion (or, more accurately, of supernaturalism).

    Dawkins' books helped, too (e.g. The Blind Watchmaker), but I don't recall their being as fun to read - not because of the confrontational content, so much as the dry style. I actually think he's improved over the years, in terms of how he writes for a popular audience, but then his anti-religious stance has also come out more.

  12. What? A particular, carefully chosen passage by Sagan works differently from one by Dawkins - and that shows that Sagan "beats" Dawkins?


    Why is it not just a matter of one passage working differently from another passage? Are you quite certain that the two authors couldn't be swapped - that one couldn't find both kinds of passage in the writings of each?

  13. Ophelia, cut me some slack, the title of the post was obviously provocative on purpose. Still, the results of the study indicate that certain styles and type of content work differently, and yes - having read quite a bit of both - I stand by my contention that Sagan and Dawkins are on different sides of that divide.

  14. See Dawkins' Unweaving the Rainbow for his argument that science need not destroy meaning and wonder.

  15. Tom, yes, that is a good example. I've read the book, and often thought it was one of Dawkins' best. Not quite Sagan-level, but good. Unfortunately, more recent writings have changed his tone considerably (and even in Unweaving, the sarcasm oozes all over...).

  16. This is no surprise. In October I blogged (in spanish) about a paper (in English) that showed that people who were primed to thinking about how they are not in control of their life had a greater tendency to prefer Intelligent Design over Evolution governed by chance (life could have been very different if we re-played the tape of life, ala Dawkins) but "increased preference for Intelligent Design over evolutionary theory disappeared when the latter was framed in terms of an orderly process with inevitable outcomes. Thus, psychological threat enhances belief in God, but only in the absence of other options that help to create order in the world". The authors conclude that
    "increases in religious belief under threat are nullified when other (even science-based) options to restore order are present"

    This also probably relates to Terror Management Teory. There have been very interesting experiments done that shows that when you are primed with the idea of your eventual demise, you bolster your ideology. That effect is reduced, however, if subjects are provided with other ways of affirming their own "immortality"

  17. So true, even though both argue the same idea, the way that it is put together makes a h*** of a difference. Luckily I caught the Sagan bug earlier in my life and he was instrumental in my development of critical thinking and appreciation of the absolute awe of science and all things 'sciencey'.
    Plus he had a nice calm voice.

  18. Daneel,

    interesting. Just a minor correction: it was Gould, not Dawkins, who argue that replaying the tape of life would result in completely different outcomes. Dawkins actually argued that we would get very similar evolutionary outcomes. Of course neither of them had any empirical ground to stand on...

  19. I just commented, but I received some error and I just don't know if it was lost or not. Here's a shorter summary.

    I agree with Ophelia Benson's comment above.

    I don't think that this study demonstrates that the softer tone of Sagan is any more effective than that of Dawkins. I think that some, like Massimo, have a bias against the more confrontational tone, and therefore this seems like it is looking for confirming evidence more than anything.

    I prefer Sagan's eloquence to Dawkins in most cases, but I think that the tone of people like Dawkins is valuable in continuing this conversation. Preferring one tone does not make another tone invaluable or ineffective.

  20. Sagan counseled us to find purpose in our lives through science rather than religion. Dawkins would have us see this as a search for pseudo purpose. Sagan in effect offers us a hope that life has meaning. Dawkins doesn't.

  21. Shaun,

    it isn't a matter of tone, it's more along the lines of Baron's comment above, as well as my recent post on atheist and Buddhism (http://goo.gl/IDvSc). It's a question of perceived sterile scientism vs. a more hopeful view of science and meaning.

  22. I think that the main question is who are you trying to convince? I think that Sagan's tone is working mostly for people who already have some doubts and are willing to study the subject. I don't think that Dawkins is really aggressive, but some people do need a more blatant "in your face" approach. It's not that this approach will convince them per se, but rather it's like a shock theraphy. Some people need to be shaken and a soft and lenghtly explanations just go over their heads.

  23. Aren't we more interested in a change of views, rather than "liking," when someone reads passages by these various authors? Are we sure these things are connected?

  24. I see,

    Well, I think that your phrasing indicates another bias on your part. I don't see what is referred to as 'scientism' (whatever that is supposed to be: I am with PZ Myers on that point) as sterile. I, like you, have a degree in philosophy and have a strong interest in science. and I do not see your point that scientism is a problem in the way you have argued in the past.

    Sagan's language was inundated with hope and meaning, but the substance of what writers such as Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, and even PZ MYers are also full of hope, meaning, and beauty. They may not be as eloquent or poetic, but I find inspiration in the thoughts of the pepople that others refer to as guilty of 'scientism.'

    I find beauty where you see sterility, so I wonder if you might just be missing something.

  25. Even cutting you some slack, because this is an interesting study with intriguing observations that you have drawn attention to, the post does come across as more gratuitous Dawkins-bashing.

    Perhaps more to the point, what would be your conclusion, if it really turns out beyond reasonable doubt that Dawkins makes a significant number of irrational people dig in their heels? Tell him and the likes of him to stop writing and speaking? You will probably say you never meant that - but if not that, then what is this all good for if not the aforementioned gratuitous bashing?

    Now I am obviously part of the "choir", but I would not want to miss his "preachings", even where they only put what I already knew into much more beautiful and clearer words than I could have produced myself. Part of the appeal may of course be that I personally also consider the best approach to resolving a discussion to be that everybody plainly states their arguments and evidence. Not all the world works like that, yes; but part of it does! We need both approaches, and implying that a pointed discussion should be avoided because it is "nasty" and "in your face" does not go down well with me.

  26. It's just a start as far as specific evidence is concerned, but I think it is a very plausible argument, and I also would argue that it is consistent with a lot of extant data in the psychology of persuasion. To counter a position someone has been prepared to defend, you don't assault it head on, a much more effective tack is to find out what needs it is meeting and find another way to meet them.

  27. This study only shows what we already know -- that people are easy to manipulate into believing or disbelieving things regardless of evidence, flattering themselves that their opinions are merit-based, when really they're shifting their opinions on the fly based on fickle feelings, social pressure and old prejudice. They're receptive to persuasion when the bringer of a message is nicely stroking their hand, head or fanny, or when they notice that peer opinion has shifted, regardless of the actual quality of arguments on offer.

    Part of the New Atheist/Skeptical message is that it's not respectable to judge important facts based on whether they make you feel fuzzy or come from a pretty source. Evolution is true no matter how you feel about it, the tone of the person telling you, or the quality of the background music and buffet food. Demanding a show of ingratiation before you listen to evidence is shabby emotional blackmail, and we won't have it. Let's condition people to examine that bad link between fact-checking and feelings, by not pandering to it ourselves. The goal is not just to get them to accept facts, but to realize that the smiling face with the seductive line often isn't the bringer of truth, but somebody who is lubing you up to receive the otherwise unacceptable.

  28. Or, as I could have said it more briefly. Facts are under no obligation to make us feel meaningful, and it is wrong for us to demand they do so before we consider them. Poetry is nice, but it doesn't make anything true.

  29. One point that I think we need to consider that Dawkins and others are not always aiming in chaning other minds but rather give the people on their side arguments for discussions.

  30. Unless Sagan is factually correct to an extent that Dawkins isn't, and thus appeals to the types of intelligence that better understand the implications.

  31. "we will just end up with people agreeing with us but for the wrong reasons (non-rational)."

    That's a start, actually. I think research in psychology has shown that making people defend, specially in writing, a position that is contrary to what they actually believe makes them more sympathetic to that position. Why is creating an opening for acceptance of the rational ideas bad? Rationality does not come easy to humans, it takes either an apparently natural inclination or a fair amount of training. And even then we keeping slipping back to irrationality anyway. Getting people to at least sympathize with our ideas is a great first step to making them more likely to be sincerely open to actually listening to said ideas and maybe, eventually, start accepting them. For every Dan Barker there must be multitudes of people who won't make that same journey just by being exposed to pure rationality (as if that existed, or were desirable). Baby steps are better than no steps at all.

    Anyway. As much as I enjoy reading Dawkins ("The Ancestor's Tale" being my favorite), it is probably pretty uncontroversial among people without sociopathies that calling someone's ideas stupid (no matter how factually true) is not the best way to influence people and make friends... But I sure think different approaches are valuable for different reasons and to different audiences, and am glad Dawkins et al. have written their books.

  32. Trying to take a Sagan quote to mean his approach is better than some Dawkins quote sound dubious to me, if not outright stupid. How utter ridiculous; they have both written good and less good stuff, but have their own very different styles that appeal to very different people, writing for different people, writing for different reasons, in different times, hoping for the reach of different people. Sagan might be better at invoking a fuzzy philosophical line, but I often prefer the no-baggage approach to Dawkins. They are two men operating in two different times and on different planes, and I find the comparison needless and unnecessary, as well as the conclusions of this paper fuzzy and flawed.

    Three of the studies were done on students, remember, two of which were psychology-student undergraduates (no bias there, no inferred dualism, nor slight immunity to priming), and the last one an online survey where the tested people were given a compound document version (so, non-comparable results). I suggest you download it, where it on the science side says things like "The observation of the evolution of life is as momentous as the observation that the earth goes around the sun or that disease is caused by bacteria." Am I the only one who finds that latter part laughable, and, you know, not quite right, and certainly not something Dawkins himself would have agreed to even if it was a hotch-potch of his quotes? And this is to invoke trust of the text, how exactly?

    Another thing that struck me was this [about naturalist students] "Given these participants' belief system, we expected them to respond to MS with greater support for ET, the theory that provides them with meaning and identity, and greater antagonism toward IDT, which they should recognize as scientifically invalid and inconsistent with their central worldview." A naturalist student finds meaning and identity in the evolutionary theory? That's one massive assumption to make; studying a thing does not equate meaning in that thing. Studying rocks and having an understanding of rocks does not provide meaning in or of rocks. (And I think anybody would be hard pressed to find a definition of 'meaning' that makes sense about rocks, unless we invoke Slartibartfast)

    Evolution might explain stuff, but give meaning? This is the biggest problem with this whole paper and debate; one side looks for explanations as a source for meaning, while the other looks for meaning in a set of old texts, and I'm sorry, but theism in the guise of deism through special theology (ie. Behe and his ilk) is a dishonest way of deferring human meaning by referral to a godly one, even if that sounds pleasingly better to people who probably haven't got the complexities of science down pat to make any meaning-like statements about it. Even I as a lay-man knows I'm severely limited in what I can (or rather, should) claim has meaning, and scientists know this even more so, and yet we are comparing it to people who does nothing but derive meaning from stuff and proclaim thunderously that it is true, unashamedly?

    What is the puzzle here again? That Sagan's pandering to the human need for meaning somehow sounds more appealing to them than Dawkins "there may be no meaning" approach? Color me unimpressed, and puzzled at why this debate has any meaning ...

  33. "Think about it: this means that an injection of philosophy and good science education actually makes a difference!"

    Actually it does not demonstrate that at all. People educated in the sciences are a self selected group... and cannot be compared/contrasted to less science educated people simply by the variable of education.

  34. ShaunPhilly wrote

    "and I do not see your point that scientism is a problem in the way you have argued in the past. "

    Shaun, agreed wholeheartedly. I'm generally perplexed by the scientism critique.

  35. Greg,

    > Aren't we more interested in a change of views, rather than "liking" <

    If humans were perfect rational agents, yes. But look where that absurd assumptions has led economics...


    > I do not see your point that scientism is a problem in the way you have argued in the past. <

    Fair enough, that doesn't mean it *isn't* a problem. At any rate, this post is not about scientism.

    > They may not be as eloquent or poetic, but I find inspiration in the thoughts of the pepople that others refer to as guilty of 'scientism.' <

    But this isn't about you, it's about reaching regular folks who would otherwise be deaf to the message of science and rationality.


    > the post does come across as more gratuitous Dawkins-bashing <

    your sense of humor is failing you here. Dawkins-bashing is never gratuitous... just kidding!

    More seriously:

    > if it really turns out beyond reasonable doubt that Dawkins makes a significant number of irrational people dig in their heels? Tell him and the likes of him to stop writing and speaking? <

    No, but if he really is a rational person he would take stock of the evidence and moderate his tone or change his tactics. If I were able to do it (my tone was a hell of a lot more "Dawkins-like" when I initially started debating creationists), surely so can he and others like him, no?

    > Part of the appeal may of course be that I personally also consider the best approach to resolving a discussion to be that everybody plainly states their arguments and evidence <

    So do I, but that requires a degree of intellectual and emotional maturity that doesn't seem to be particularly widespread, I'm sure you noticed.


    > Facts are under no obligation to make us feel meaningful, and it is wrong for us to demand they do so before we consider them. Poetry is nice, but it doesn't make anything true. <

    You are missing the point entirely. This isn't about making facts true through poetry, it is about finding a bridge to reach out to people who don't respond just to cold facts. Not sure why so many people here seem to be rejecting the simple notion that pure rational discourse can only get so many (or I should say few) people and that other things need be tried *as well*.


    > I don't think that Dawkins is really aggressive, but some people do need a more blatant "in your face" approach. <

    I hear this argument a lot, but it sounds entirely self-serving until we actually have evidence that a significant number of people are "shocked and awed" by that approach. Do you know of any?


    > People educated in the sciences are a self selected group... and cannot be compared/contrasted to less science educated people simply by the variable of education. <

    At the very least those are two equally reasonable interpretations, you are simply picking the least encouraging one. Even so, are you seriously arguing that the only difference between the two groups is prior interest in science? And where did that come from, if not previous exposure to science? And how do you explain that other studies show a marked *further* decreases in acceptance of pseudoscience when one crosses from undergraduate to graduate education? You don't think that the *education* part has anything to do with it?

  36. I see some criticisms of Sagan's (and possibly even Dawkin's) approach that I think might benefit from Kant's distinction between motivation and justification, detailed at the end of Critique of Pure Reason.

    Kant was talking about morality specifically, but I think the argument is analogous here. Kant's argument was that there is a difference between justifying what you know, and motivating what you do. His argument runs something like this:

    We should judge what is the right thing to do without consideration of anything like God, or any other speculative object (contingent things we cannot have certain knowledge of). But when it comes to sustaining an effort to do the right thing over a lifetime, we need to believe that it will all pay off in the end, that in some general sense it's all pushing in the right direction. Kant believed the ideas of God and the soul provided the necessary hopefulness to sustain us through the cultivation of moral virtue.

    So, o.k., instead of morality, imagine that we're talking about one's outlook on life and the world one inhabits. And replace the ideas of God and the Soul with Sagan's brand of hopefulness. I think Kant's formulation of morality can help show how there is a difference between saying that someone should judge science based on hopefulness (which would be ridiculous), and saying that hopefulness is necessary to sustain a scientific world view. Justification versus motivation; knowledge versus practice.

  37. You mean it's not realistic to hope there's a light at the end of the tunnel?

  38. The underlying debate here seems to be about the intended audience. If we are all meme merchants, some of us simply have more exclusive clientele. There are overlapping audiences for Dawkins and Sagan, to be sure, but we already had a Carl Sagan and it's not like his ideas (or Dawkins) are going away. I'm sure Dawkins regularly hears "why can't you be more like Carl Sagan" or something to that effect. Well, Bill Nye seems to be a more friendly advocate for science and reason!

    And yes, it would seem that rational evidence is not a premium currency for everyone, especially in times of emotional distress. As Hitchens would say, our brains bear the stamp of our lowly origin and we are subject to the desire for comfort even at the expense of reason. That's why the death of a family member is probably not the best time to talk about atheism - the Sagan kind or the Dawkins kind - amidst religious family members.

  39. I watched the three episodes documentary of Richard Dawkins about evolution, and it was pretty nice. I liked and enjoyed it a lot. He seemed to be honest, or kind of honest, without too many nice sentences.

    I guess Sagan and Dawkins are just different.

    The TED conference of Dawkins is really good to me as well. He makes some good points, specially the one at the end.

  40. I'm a long time reader of both Sagan and Dawkins and would consider them both to be compassionate and sensitive conveyors of the beauty and wonder of science.
    The world would be a lot worse off without either of them.

  41. "At the very least those are two equally reasonable interpretations, you are simply picking the least encouraging one."

    I am not picking anything. My comment was in reaction to your claim that went beyond the evidence put forth. I was just pointing out that you made an assumption based upon a evidence that has many possible explanations. People who go into the sciences for many reasons, only one of which is due to positive experiences in science education. Parental education, societal/cultural attitudes towards science, religous upbringing, other ideological influences, personal science aptitude, etc.

    "You don't think that the *education* part has anything to do with it?"

    If you are asking for my opinion (since I never said that education has nothing to do with it), then I would say that good science education does help for a subset of the population, and this can have a broader effect if the larger population has a positive attitude towards science. I also think that there is good evidence for this view, but requires the concept of 'multiple lines of evidence' as there is no definitive study to show this.

    Although a good education in science can help with the public perception, in reality most people are isolated from science education once they leave high school... so we will be waiting a while for this influence. Thats not to say education doesn't work, but the problem is more broad than that and will take time from that angle.

    Other factors related to politics and the larger problems we face on a large scale seem to matter more in the short term. The attitudes of the media are also involved (and I am not of the opinion that they simply reflect societal attitudes... they also shape them). But this is beyond the scope of this discussion I think.

  42. As for the Sagan approach versus Dawkins approach... i don't think that it is a fair question. It depends on what objective we have, and we rarely have just one goal. Not to mention that different people react to the same message in different ways. Because of this I lean towards "it takes all kinds."

    There is space for multiple approaches in communicating science (or anything for that matter). Even if you were to show me that one method is "better" than another with good evidence to support it, that doesn't mean that multiple methods are not better still. You may turn off some people with a given approach, but you may also be reaching people that you might not have otherwise reached

  43. How on earth can you say that "The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark" was soft spoken?

    He was extremely harsh to religion in it. The title alone should give you a clue there. I bet that all these people saying that Sagan was soft spoken haven't actually read the book.

  44. John,

    I can assure you that I've read both Sagan and Dawkins. My comments are, of course, to be read as a comparison of their respective tone. There are people who consider *any* criticism of religion offensive. Too bad.