Friday, August 17, 2012

Friday Journal Club: "Science, Religion, and Society"

by Salman Hameed

For our Friday Journal Club, here is a recent paper by biologist Jerry Coyne: Science Religion, and Society: The Problem of Evolution in America, published in the journal Evolution.

The paper looks at the reasons why a majority of Americans reject biological evolution. Coyne attributes the central reason reason to the "extreme religiosity of the United States". I think the Abstract does a pretty good job of laying out the basic position of the paper:
American resistance to accepting evolution is uniquely high among First World countries. This is due largely to the extreme religiosity of the United States, which is much higher than that of comparably advanced nations, and to the resistance of many religious people to the facts and supposed implications of evolution. The prevalence of religious belief in the United States suggests that outreach by scientists alone will not have a huge effect in increasing the acceptance of evolution, nor will the strategy of trying to convince the faithful that evolution is compatible with their religion. Because creationism is a symptom of religion, another strategy to promote evolution involves loosening the grip of faith on America. This is easier said than done, for recent sociological surveys show that religion is highly correlated with the dysfunctionality of a society, and various measures of societal health show that the United States is one of the most socially dysfunctional First World countries. Widespread acceptance of evolution in America, then, may have to await profound social change.
I have to say that I expected more from this paper. I think the topic is really interesting and it is, of course, worth exploring the reasons why a majority of the population in the world's most advanced nation reject evolution. The paper, instead, turns into a polemic against religion and is often sloppy with definitions. Even if religiosity (or religion) is the main correlation with the rejection of evolution, one has to look into the reasons why evolution became a controversial topic for American religions. Just saying "religion is the cause" is too simplistic and too broad. For example (from the Pew Survey), within the US, 81% of Buddhists, 80% of Hindus and 77% of Jews agree with the statement that "evolution is the best explanation of human life on Earth" (in case, you are wondering 45% of US Muslims also agree with this statement). So one has to be careful in using the term "religion" or "religiosity" for the causation.

Now it is true that much of the US resistance to evolution comes from Evangelical Christians. But that opposition has a particular context rooted in the politics and culture of early 20th century US. For example, it became part of the Evangelical opposition as a reaction to the spread of public education, as well as a legitimate complaint of having Social Darwinism (which is not biological evolution, but its application to society) and Eugenics as part of biology textbooks (plus, Eugenics-based compulsory sterilization was part of 30 US states in the early 20th century). This is not to excuse the poor reception of evolution in the 21st century, but to provide some context of why most Evangelical groups ended up rejecting evolution. I find it a bit odd that a paper focusing on the reasons for the rejection of evolution in the US does not mention - even in a cursory manner - any historical or cultural context.

Much of the remaining paper focus on showing the incompatibility of science and religion, and then arguing that the only reasonable solution to increasing the acceptance of evolution is by reducing religion in the US:
After having taught evolution for years, we have finally recognized where our real opposition lies: creationism is simply one of many symptoms of religion. A continuous stream of anti-evolution propaganda pours from the religiously motivated, distorting the public understanding of evolution. It follows that naturalistic evolution will not attract a majority of Americans until our nation becomes less religious. That, of course, is contrary to accommodationism, which takes religion as a given.
Okay - now these are huge topics to cover - bit couple of quick points. Coyne argues that "religion breeds resistance not only to evolution, but also to science itself (emphasis in the original paper). Well - it depends on what science and what religion. I know that Coyne is critiquing Gould's Non-Overlapping Magisteria (NOMA) - and indeed there are some valid critiques out there - but a blanket statement regarding religion and science is equally problematic. Most religions (and most religious beliefs) do not have much to say about most sciences. It is only a small sub-set of sciences - usually dealing with the questions of origins - where there is explicit interaction with some (or most) religions. But then we have to address the myriads of ways individuals address these questions of origins and interpret those within their own religious traditions. Wait a minute - but then this becomes a complicated mess which cannot be reduced to a simple answer: "religion did it". In fact, the blame for all this messiness goes to the long process of evolution that led to these complex bipedal species that defy simple explanations.

Towards the end of the paper, Coyne looks at socio-economic factors that may explain the high religiosity of America, which for him, explains the high rates of rejection of evolution. Josh Rosenau on his Thoughts from Kansas blog has done a thorough job addressing this part of the paper, so I will let him deal with this:

Coyne’s causal model holds that income inequality (and economic insecurity in general) -> religiosity -> creationism. To back this causal model, he works from aggregate levels of support for evolution in 34 industrialized nations, correlating those with national measures of religiosity, then correlates national religiosity with national income inequality. As we know, correlation is not causation, and this pattern of correlations could imply many other causal pathways: e.g., religiosity -> creationism -> income inequality or income inequality -> creationism -> religiosity. 
Certainly, the inequality -> religion -> creationism causal chain has an intuitive logic, but there’s an intuitive logic to other causal chains of these three items. Correlation alone doesn’t let us decide what order makes the most sense for a causal chain. For instance, Coyne and other gnu atheists have long sought to attribute all manner of social ills to the persistence of religion, so might high levels of religiosity cause both social inequality and creationism? Or might income inequality create little incentive to learn science, and then low science literacy leaves the population without a viable alternative to religious explanations? There are, naturally, ways to statistically test these different causal chains, but this would require Coyne to have tested his model by seeking to falsify alternative explanations, or even in considering potential confounding factors, and he shows no interest in rigorously testing his model. 
As with all such correlational studies, it’s also possible that the three variables at issue are connected by some fourth factor not present in Coyne’s model. The most obvious factor which Coyne ignores is education. Studies consistently show that, even after controlling for religiosity, how educated someone is has a tremendous impact on his or her views on evolution. Countries with better educational systems also tend to be more accepting of evolution, and countries with high income inequality tend to have worse education systems. The correlations Coyne uses to justify his causal model may, then, be spurious. Oddly, his paper never even mentions differences between national educational systems in discussing different nation’s attitudes towards science. Nor does the paper discuss differences in economic and social development, as measured by GDP or GNI or broader measures like the Human Development Index (which includes economic factors, life expectancy, educational statistics, and other factors to generate a more comprehensive picture of a nation’s development). 
This omission is surprising because controlling for GNI per capita is common in such international comparisons. Lots of things correlate with economic development, and factoring that out of a comparison is usually an important first step. Indeed, among the 34 countries Coyne examines, income inequality has a strong negative correlation with GNI per capita, and the median years of schooling among adults has a strong positive correlation with GNI per capita. Many measures of religiosity also correlate with GNI per capita and income inequality. These correlations make causality especially tricky to ascertain, though he could have controlled for them if he wanted to. 

You should read his full post here.

One final thought on the paper. I think it is important to understand the impact of religion on evolution acceptance,  debates over stem cells, issues related to the beginning and the end of life, etc. However, we need to do it in a way that takes into account the complex ways people interact with their beliefs. Plus, we need to appreciate the interplay of religion with culture and politics - and devise ways to distinguish them for a study on evolution acceptance.

Also see last week's Friday Journal Club: "Science Teachers' Views of Science and Religion vs the Islamic Perspective".

Coyne, J. A. (2012), SCIENCE, RELIGION, AND SOCIETY: THE PROBLEM OF EVOLUTION IN AMERICA. Evolution, 66: 2654–2663. doi: 10.1111/j.1558-5646.2012.01664.x


Don said...

A lot of frustration (some of it justified!) shines through in this paper- Coyne wants to cut through what he perceives as a obfuscating fog surrounding the roots of evolution rejection. Perhaps it's not much of a surprise that he points a finger straight at Religion.

Once someone asks the question, "what kind of religion are you talking about?", however, it isn't as though Coyne doesn't have a response. He has a particular distaste for literalism in any form. That makes his comment that "accomodationists"(which I dislike as a term because of its Cold War overtones) "endorses a particular form of religion--a liberal faith that sees scripture as almost entirely metaphorical" more puzzling.

Coyne writes that he is concerned that there is little evidence that accomodationism works, and that scientific organizations should stick to science. But, if that last point is granted, what form of engagement with believers does Coyne advocate? Coyne would have no subject if so many people did not associate some scientific subjects (which he acknowledges extend past evolution and into, at least, cosmology). It is true that science can speak to subjects of origins and other areas of religious interests without engaging religions- indeed, this happens most of the time. But within a public sphere that wants to discuss science and religion together, we need both greater complexity and more considered engagement.

Salman Hameed said...


I think this paper would have been fine as an opinion piece. The problem comes in when trying to isolate religion as the prime cause for evolution rejection.

By the way, it is interesting that he is using opinions on evolution to explore culture and values. This is something that we are doing as well with our project on evolution in the Muslim world. But we are at least trying to not straight-jacket the responses into a particular category. In fact, we are struck by the range of complex ways people think about evolution, society, science and religion.

One more point on the paper: I don't find a good reason why is there a figure showing a correlation of acceptance of human evolution with Successful Societies Scale? I can potentially see the plot about about Belief in God with Successful Societies Scale. But there is really no causal relation between the acceptance of human evolution and why some societies can be termed as successful within those indices.

Don said...

Indeed, this might have been fine as an opinion piece. A 2-pager somewhere that set out something to be aware of, or that had as its goal a highlighting of a potential cause of evolution rejection. Because, as you wrote above, Coyne's piece begins with an interesting question: why is evolution rejection in the US so high?

An opinion piece would have highlit the interesting question and covered the elements that make it interesting- in this case, many of the polls that Coyne cites in this piece. What Coyne has attempted to do in this piece, instead, is argue that Religion (capital "R") is the answer to his question. In addition to his definitional difficulties (he seems to take it not only as obvious that there are many religions, but also that no religion promotes science or evolution), it is difficult to understand why he picked the evidence that he has.

As I commented above, Coyne argues that there is little evidence that "accomodationism" works. But where is his argument to support that claim? Are we to see efforts such as the NCSE's as failures simply because we have not seen a decline in evolution rejection over the decades? I would argue that the polls from Gallup and the Pew Center show equal support for the idea that we are simply pursuing a strategy with too little understanding and support!

This runs parallel to your question about Coyne's correlation of acceptance of human evolution with the SSS. Is there supposed to be something obvious here where highly successful societies become such because of substantial evolution acceptance? Perhaps evolution acceptance follows from living in the cultures that are geared towards scoring highly on the SSS. I don't see Coyne's argument for why the causes of evolution acceptance have to run one way or the other, which I guess puts me in agreement with Rosenau.

Either way, what this paper needs is field work (and not the kind easily ripped from NORC or Gallup's servers) to test some of Coyne's claims. It's perplexing that a biologist of his caliber would make so many arguments without taking the time to gather data. I suppose that he simply would prefer to traffic in quantitative, operationalized rankings such as the SSS than with the messy, humanized data generated by qualitative research.